How the Time Goes

By John J. Clayton

If someone had prophesied in the Sixties, the Seventies, that Saul would become an observant Jew as he grew old, he’d have laughed. Back then he saw all religious observance as a con: you’d be a sucker to play. An ideology to let you hide from death. Yet now, in 2016, he murmurs prayers, lifts a tallit over his shoulders—the prayer shawl with knotted fringes at each corner to remind him of the mitzvot—plural of mitzvah—holy commandments. Half a century further on, he imagines reaching toward a holy life. Is that so crazy? Which belief is more foolish—that there is a holy order according to which you can guide your life?—or that you can free yourself from rules, can devise your own religion of Self, become Mr. Self-Made American?

Vanitas

Now, in 2016, Saul is eighty years old—and softer. Slowly, slowly it’s come upon him, this change. The amused, cynical part of himself whispers that simple age might just have a little something to do with his softening. Is that all? No, no. It’s that vanitas—self presentation, arrogance, a quest to shine, keeping at bay the knowledge that, after all, you’re going to die—vanitas has quieted in him. In the seventeenth century, Vanitas, a sub-genre of Dutch and Flemish painting, might show a table top of flowers . . . and skulls grouped like fruit in a bowl; or a sumptuously dressed woman or elegant man holds a globe representing the world, or a beauty flirts with herself in a mirror, while scattered over a table, or revealed on the back of the mirror: skulls, skulls, often piles of skulls —sculpturally patterned: a design of death. Like those painters, he sees skulls, artfully arranged.

Politics and Sexual Love

Young women run, screaming, like maenads, bacchantes, daemonic—long hair flowing. Shanti, who read The Bacchae in Greek, made the connection.

This was in 1968. A half-century ago.

“When I make love with somebody,” Shanti said, stretching her legs, intertwining them with Saul’s, “I’m making a political statement with my body. With my sexuality. It’s a political action. I’m not just ‘having sex’ or ‘getting close’ to somebody. Fuck that. That’s like bullshit. I’m freeing myself from bourgeois conventions. I’m freeing myself from the patriarchy.”

“Am I your liberator or part of the patriarchy?”

“A little of both, baby.”

She’d reinvented herself, beginning with her name.

He mistrusted ideological abstractions—especially stirred up into a stew with love. Anyway, he was some cockeyed image of the patriarchy—a Jew from New York with a passion for literature. And really—was making love a political idea? You could turn it into one. But even in 1968 he knew better, hated living in ideological blinders. Listen: was he Shanti’s lover or a paragraph in some “political statement”? Suppose she decided that he wasn’t helping her make her “statement.” Would she dump him? She would, you bet she would.

Shanti’s parents came from old money. Her great grandfather’s ships were part of the China trade. But, she said, she’d broken free from all that. She put money from her trust fund into the Movement. Money for renting a storefront in Cambridge. For posters, for leaflets. Money to support a New Left agitprop rag. Once a month Shanti and Saul stood with a couple of others outside the draft board on Beacon and Harvard Streets handing out leaflets to young men called up for Vietnam.

What did political ideology have to do with taking her to bed? For Saul, Shanti was smart, she was tough. But mostly, simply beautiful—lean, lithe, her hair black, sleek, more than halfway down her back, eyes clear, set far apart, a strong mouth. And the touch of her: as if everywhere they touched, a new circuit of energy was formed.

“What has making love with me,” he asked her, “got to do with politics? Erotic love is bigger than politics. If making love with me is just your damn ideological statement, you better walk away right now.”

“Isn’t love, erotic love, your ideology?”

They were wrapped in silk shawls, talking, talking. They sat cross legged, facing each other, naked, his shawl over his head meeting her shawl over hers: a tent. Eyes fixed on eyes. What was playing on the stereo? Rodrigo’s Fantasia para un Gentilhombre? Judy Collins’ Wildflower? The slow movement of a Mahler symphony?

“Just look at your magical rooms,” she said, placating, sugaring him. “First time I saw your rooms, I decided to go to bed with you. You know why? Because you, you don’t own a bed, an effing bed! You don’t own a mattress. Not even a mattress. Because like me, you’ve broken free of effing bourgeois necessities. Like tables and chairs. You do more than talk about liberation. But baby, I got to tell you: you got a ways to go. I know it. I wonder, you dig, if you’re really free.”

Magical Rooms

Fall of 1968. Separated, for good this time, from Marta, he took an unfurnished two-room apartment in the South End of Boston, renovated but not refurbished, rented from a working man who’d put a lot of sweat equity into his battered brownstone on Dartmouth. The guy intended to rip the walls down and remake the inside. Couple of years, he’d “gentrify the shit out of it.” Meantime, he didn’t mind if Saul went to work with a staple gun to cover up the dreary green paint. So Saul drove to an outdoor billboard company and begged overstocked rolls of outdoor billboard sections—landscape from a Volkswagen ad, horses and clowns from a Ringling Brothers Circus billboard—and in one of the two rooms he slapped them up in mad combinations, stapled horses’ heads beside a clown’s face flowing into a brook. Color, plenty of color, the art work in circles of five dots of varied saturation: seen up close it became pointillist. Two walls of color and a window. On the whole fourth wall, above salvaged door supported on file cabinets for a desk, he glued architectural cork for a bulletin board.

So that was one room; ah, but the other, the other was its opposite: subdued, romantic—he covered the whole floor with foam rubber, covered the foam with Indian bedspreads and old rugs—so cheap! Indian bedspreads hung over the walls, too, and billowed from the ceiling, and above, tiny colored lights strung, like a starry sky above a tent. It was a tent. A stereo in the corner, an unhappy ficus in front of the window (not enough sunlight). When his eleven-year-old daughter Jenny came on Wednesdays and weekends, she watered the ficus and made her bed anywhere in the room.

The upstairs tenant sold drugs; Saul rarely saw him. All day, all evening, footsteps of junkies climbed and descended the stairs. Once, when Saul was out, one of them ripped off his stereo. The dealer, not wanting trouble, paid him for a new one.

A Deeper Life

When Jenny wasn’t there, he was a soldier in the Resistance—the resistance against racism, capitalism, the War in Vietnam. At Boston University, by day he taught literature, by night he went to meetings. Talk, talk, more talk. Before Shanti began to visit, he brought one woman or another back to his romantic room, where they made love somewhere, anywhere, on the Indian bedspread floor. He didn’t let his parents know he was getting a divorce from Marta. His father believed what he told him; his mother kept asking questions.

“Why can’t I speak to Marta, dear? Why is she always busy? Are you sure you’re happy?”

No (he didn’t say) not happy, but I am living intensely.

Until he met Shanti, categories like patriarchy, bourgeois, liberation had to do with political meetings, not love. Making love was by itself the deepest, most serious, most intense thing in the world, no matter who the woman was. Eyes met; man and woman became more than themselves, entered a deeper place, beyond words. That sweet dark place was what he was looking for when he offered young women his mojo, pumped up his charm, smiled, delicately touched, suggested taking them to his rooms.

It was harder with Shanti. She challenged him, she fought him. He couldn’t get away with warmth and charm. Couldn’t get away with erotic mystery. He was sure that if he stuck with her, if they were to marry, they’d have one miserable life of battling, battling. But beauty, combined with rage and force, were hard to resist. She was Delacroix’ Liberty Leading the People.

It was Shanti who introduced him to Rick Nielson. Nielson, a grad student at B.U., was one big guy, a fullback, six foot three, two hundred twenty pounds, blond hair down to his shoulders. And he moved like a fullback, barging through the world. Rick’s women—pretty women who shared his apartment and did his bidding—took seriously his cockamamie lectures mixing Foucault and Marcuse, Norman O. Brown and Karl Marx. They saw him as claimant of the real, the really real. They cooked for him, cleaned for him, took turns in his bed.

Rick wasn’t just a talker; he was willing to put himself out there in a demonstration, challenge the cops, get clubbed by cops, as he did after Martin Luther King was killed. Saul suspected Rick had slept with Shanti. Rick and his women lived together in a falling-apart set of rooms above a bodega in Brighton. At demonstrations they wore stockings over their faces and charged past the police and FBI photographers in a body, an offensive line.

Saul disliked the guy—especially disliked the way Shanti was suckered in by his ideology. Yet wasn’t he a model for Saul of impossible, macho manhood? Rick wasn’t afraid of spending a night in jail. He was, Saul imagined, a fiercer lover—Saul wanted to ask Shanti but she’d think he was a wimp. Well, and wasn’t he a wimp? He made it a practice to stay away, during demonstrations, from the guys who wanted trouble, who taunted the police. “Fugin’ pigs, fugin’ pigs!”  Saul didn’t believe cops were pigs. It’s the system that needed changing, he said, vaguely.

The Wilding

The night before the wilding at the draft board, at a meeting of a small spinoff group from SDS and the New England Resistance, Rick demanded we “have the balls to fugin’ obliterate records of the poor working-class kids chosen to kill and get killed in Vietnam. Okay. Who’s with me? You, Stan? Good. Saul, what about you? What about you, Saul?”

He really got it: Rick wanted him to play a role in his fantasy. No thanks! Let this Viking chief do his thing! Saul walked out, passing Shanti, who gave him a put-down look; he knew where she’d be spending the night.

Next morning on the sidewalk below the offices where the draft board met, Saul handed out mimeographed advice to help young men stay out of the draft. Which was stupid. He should have stayed home. One cop was already there, as usual, to keep order. Saul was acting legally, but he knew that even if he didn’t go upstairs with Rick, once the cops came down in force, he’d be arrested. So as soon as he saw Rick, Rick’s buddy Stan, and the women coming up the street, paint cans in hand, Saul slipped away.

He thought Shanti would want nothing more to do with him. But she came unannounced that same evening. Sitting cross-legged in his Indian bedspread room, she told him what went down. Shanti called it a “wilding.”

“We swung small brushes, we splashed red paint, like symbols of—you know—blood of war dead and war wounded, over desks, over files. I tried not to hit the women at the desks—they were scared shitless. We were like the Bacchae, running, yelling, I was, Jesus, so pumped up with adrenaline. We poured paint over everything, smashed a couple of typewriters, got out before the cops came.” She sat close to Saul to whisper, “And the lord of chaos, Dionysus—masked, but you know who I mean—running in front, roared, ‘End the fuckin’ war, down with the racist state!’”

“Do I have to tell you how stupid that was?”

“You sound like my Episcopalian father. Jesus, Saul! We got away, we wore rubber gloves. We wore aprons and dumped them, so we had no paint on us. Rick left town just in case. I gave him money. I suppose maybe it was stupid. He’s so full of himself. I know that. But it’ll take them a week to clean up everything and retype the files. And it’ll be all over the papers.”

“You know the movement’s infiltrated by the FBI. Don’t you think they’ll know about Rick?”

“Honey, I came to go to bed with you, not talk politics,” she said. He stroked her long, flowing hair. He laughed, “Oh, you brazen hussy!” She came to go to bed with him?—that pleased him no end, though it wasn’t true, she didn’t come to make love. Not really. For her, Saul was a grownup. She came to tell a story that made her uneasy, tell it to a grownup who would criticize but accept her.

Then why did they stop seeing each other? He’d begun teaching at Brandeis and had moved from the South End in Boston to a condo in Newton. And she’d taken a job teaching classics at Phillips Andover. Maybe that was all. Or maybe it was that the wilding felt shameful—he was repelled.

Rick wasn’t arrested for more than a year. At the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago Saul spied him on TV. There he was, fist upraised, bellowing. Saul wondered if maybe Rick was playing both sides of the street—a passionate revolutionary . . . working for the FBI.  

From time to time Saul would hear rumors. Did Rick hold up a bank? No, not likely. Did the police in Brattleboro, Vermont, really catch him stealing long johns—putting on winter underwear over winter underwear over winter underwear in the dressing room of a clothing store? Sordid and funny: Saul loved the rumor. And it turned out to be true. Small headline in the Globe:

Boston Radical Arrested for Stealing Underwear

And where was Shanti? She was arrested in Chicago; from jail she called Saul to wire her money to pay a fine. When she returned to Boston she paid him back, and they spent one more night together. He whispered Shanti, Shanti. They plunged into the dark. Then they lost touch again.

A Demonstration in D.C.

1970: Saul ran into Rick at a march in D.C. protesting the incursion into Cambodia and the killing by National Guardsmen of four students at Kent State. There were thousands from Massachusetts in one sector of the demonstration. There, leading a chant, was Rick. Saul waved.

“How you doing, man? Saul, right? Yeah, baby—me, I’m out on bail. I stole some shit, but that’s no big deal. My lawyer’s negotiating a reduced sentence for the draft board mess. We’re treating the action as a free-speech thing. I got a sympathetic judge. Maybe no jail time. If I can stay out, there’s a state legislator wants me for an assistant. I kid you not. Hell—you were right for chickening out that day. Whole thing was a political error. Pussy liberals felt sorry for the poor lady clerical workers.”

“A political error! It was your fantasy—and ugly. You didn’t think about those women.”

“So? Should they be working at the draft board? No! They shouldn’t be working at the draft board. Hey! Gotta break eggs to make omelets. Anyway, it was guerilla theater. Get off it, man.”

“You know—I been meaning to tell you. You’re one arrogant sonofabitch.”

Rick laughed: “Yeah. Maybe I am. Fuck you, too. But,” he added, grinning down at Saul, fingering the lapel of Saul’s coat, “Me, I didn’t chicken out. You—you fuckin’ chickened out. That’s you, man.”

“That’s me. Have you seen Shanti?”

“Shanti! She traded me to the cops in Cambridge for a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card.”

“Bullshit. She wouldn’t do that. You have her address?”

“She’s a betrayer, man. A spy. She’s the only one knew where I was living.”

Someone was speaking at the dais on the mall. Echo upon echo. He couldn’t make out a thing the speaker was saying. Did it matter? It mattered that they were there. Rick shrugged, took a page out of his pocket notebook and scribbled an address, a telephone number.

How the Time Goes

Saul folded the information away but never called. Then ten years later, he bumped into Shanti in Harvard Square by the news kiosk. How the time goes. This was in 1980, 1981. He was teaching at Brandeis. At first he didn’t recognize her—she looked so, well, ordinary. A Cambridge matron, pushing a stroller, her hair in a bun. So Shanti has a kid!

Saul bent down to say hello and stroke the little girl’s hair. It was a way of not looking at Shanti. “Your child!”

“I have two children,” she said. “This is Melody—and there’s Mike, my older, I’m on my way to pick him up at preschool.”

“A beautiful child,” Saul said, “what a beautiful little girl,” said it largely to give himself time to remember where they’d . . . left off. Then he realized it might not be cool to speak of children’s beauty—a virtue that was defined by, and belonged to, the patriarchy.

Left off? As he spoke, he became aware that they hadn’t really “left off.” Shanti came into focus for him. She was Shanti again, even pushing a stroller, even with her hair up in a bun. Gradually, within a couple of minutes, she was unchanged from the Shanti he desired. It was her beauty, not her child’s, he had to avoid.

“You have a daughter, don’t you?” Shanti said. “I met her once.”

“She’s all grown up. She’s out of college, working in New York. I’m about to have a grandson. Now it seems I’m beginning again. I’m getting married,” he said. “My fiancée, Judith, she curates photography at the MFA. I want to do it right this time.”

“Wonderful. Well. I’m glad for you.” She’s quiet for a moment. Then, in her husky voice: “We had some interesting times, didn’t we?”

Interesting. Oh, yes. Yes, we did.”

“Really. We were such crazy people back then.”

“No,” he said. “Not really. We just wanted to believe we were a little crazy. So we could get away with anything without taking responsibility. We had a false idea of freedom.”

Shanti nodded. “I know! All my talk about the patriarchy! Remember? Who did I think I was—feminist queen of the revolution? Rick used to call me Queen Shanti when I’d argue with him. You remember Rick.”

Rick! He remembered Rick—saw him in mind’s eye on the steps of one of the buildings along the mall in Washington, leading a chant. “Rick? Sure. You’ll love this: a decade ago,” Saul said, “while that terrible war was still going on, before Nixon was ousted, I ran into Rick at a demonstration. Oh, do I remember Rick Nielson. What an asshole! He claimed you told the police where to find him. Can you believe that?” He stopped, stared. “What? You look shocked, Shanti. What’s the matter? Don’t worry—I know better. I defended you. That clown!”

“It was all a mistake,” she said. “Someone misspoke. Rick made a mistake, but we kind-of got past it,” she said quickly. “We’re married now. Rick’s my husband. Married eight years. Rick is Melody’s father and Mike’s father. He’s out of all that old trouble. He’s been working in the Massachusetts Legislature. He’s a lawyer now.”

“So I guess I put my foot in it.”

They both laughed; they were both silent, smiling at each other. “Rick and I . . . well, we have our ups and downs. You remember what he was like.”

“I do.”

“So nice seeing you, Saul,” she said, looking him over. She sighed. “I’ve missed you,” she said. Would you like to meet sometime? For lunch?”

“That would be nice,” he said. But he didn’t ask for her phone number.

“Goodbye, Saul.”

He watched her walk away, away, pushing Melody in the stroller and talking, talking to her. Shanti—her swimmer’s shoulders, her long straight back. Shanti. His heart thumped in his chest. She still did that to him. He thought of calling after her. What would happen?

He knew what would happen.

Walking along Brattle, he laughed aloud thinking of his blunder, bad-mouthing Rick.

A car horn surprised him. He got out of the way. He wished he’d gotten her number. He could probably find it—but he wouldn’t.

He didn’t know it then but knows it now, as an old man: not-taking her number, so trivial you’d hardly call it a decision—turned out to be one of the most important choices in his life.

He said to himself that day in 1980, I’m such a fool about love. Sexual love. She told me once: that’s my ideology. Sucker! Time to grow up. He loved Judith, loved her more fully than he’d ever loved Shanti. He was about to be married. Judith wanted him to go to synagogue with her. He hadn’t yet, but maybe he would. The idea felt strange but very good. He and Judith might have children. Wasn’t that enough?

 

The next time they met, it must have been in the mid-nineties. Maybe 1994. Now, over twenty years later, in 2016, Saul, at eighty, rolls his eyes up in his head and computes: he must have been about to turn sixty then. He was cutting across the Harvard campus when he caught sight of her waving, waving. She had long, fine, almost white hair tied in a pony tail under a funny Robin Hood hat. For a moment, he couldn’t retrieve her name. Then, “Shanti!” he called. She smiled at him, closed her eyes, shook her head—all of it meaning, Time, time, and look, here we are again. She was wearing a business suit. Shanti in a suit? She was walking with a handsome young man with long blond hair.

“I’m back to my original name.” She laughed. “Shanti was just a bit pretentious, don’t you think? I’m Sandra. My birth name.” She laughed. “My parents were pleased, I can tell you. This,” she said, “is Mike. My son. We’re looking over colleges. Saul’s an old friend, Mike.”

“Mike, you look one hell of a lot like your father,” Saul said. “Same hair, same build.”

At this Sandra/Shanti laughed and laughed till tears came to her eyes. She stamped her foot in pleasure.

“Mother?” Mike said, embarrassed. “Mother!”

“It’s all right. Here’s why I’m laughing, Mike. The last time Saul and I met—oh, this was years ago, so many years ago. You remember, Saul? You didn’t know we were married, and you dissed Rick. Thing is, Rick and I, we’ve been divorced for almost a decade, and so now, of course—” she blurted another laugh—you tell Mike how much he looks like his father!”

“So I put my foot in it again?”

“Oh, you did, you did. It’s a long story, the divorce, which Mike knows very well. Do you teach here at Harvard?”

“I teach at Brandeis. And you?”

“I’m in real estate. And doing well, thank you. Now please don’t look so shocked. Someone has to pay for the kids to go to college. Rick makes a living and pays child support, but he has no real money. I have an inheritance, but I spent a lot of my trust funds back then.”

“I’m not putting you down. Of course not. We were so snobbish back then about being god-forbid bourgeois. No! It’s wonderful you’re doing well! I’m sorry about the divorce. I mean sorry for what you must have gone through.” Because Mike was there, Saul didn’t go further.

“I’m not at all sorry,” she said. “It’s all right. . . . Though it’s a sad story. It got ugly. You remember what Rick can be like. And you, you’re married, aren’t you? Last time we met . . .” she began, and didn’t finish her sentence.

Mike walked away from them to look up at the dorms. What politesse for a kid!

“I’m married, yes. To Judith Siegel. A very good marriage. We have a son, Danny’s eleven. I’ve begun helping him prepare for his bar mitzvah—Judith and I are learning along with him.” He added, “You see,” he smiled at her, “my life has changed.”

“It must have. You—an observant Jew! Who’d have thought! You used to talk about the danger of being trapped in an ideology.”

“Judith and I study Torah together. It’s not that our way of being is correct. It’s that it supports a true life. I used to mistake freedom for choosing from a cafeteria of values.”

“Last time we met,” she said, “I was going to find your number and call you. I almost, almost called you. But why start up again?”

“Yes,” he said. “Why start up?” He paused. “Last time we met, I almost called you.”

“Still, you know, it’s sad,” she said.

A long silence, while they look at Mike; Mike looked down at Harvard admissions material.

“Judith is co-President of our synagogue,” he said. “She’s an amazing woman, Judith.” He felt stupid saying this. He was stupid saying this, using Judith as a kind of defense. And he almost added, even more stupidly, I wish you could meet her. A really bad idea.

“Mike’s got an interview in a few minutes. It was good running into you, Saul.”

“Good luck, Mike.”

Saul and Sandra touched cheeks and parted. He turned to watch Sandra go.

 

And so now it’s 2016.

Saul and Judith are at the MFA, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It’s a Sunday, but Judith needs to collect a file from her office. Now, they wander through the American wing. At a portrait of children, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit by John Singer Sargent, they pause. In mind’s eye Saul sees for a  moment their son, his daughter, grown up now and off in other cities. Here are four girls in perfectly clean, white pinafores. Wealthy children, their wealth accrued through the China trade. Judith tells him, “The family lived six months in Boston, six months in Europe. And each time they moved, those huge vases in the painting were packed in straw and went with them and were never broken—can you imagine?”

And suddenly there’s someone beside them, looking at the painting. She looks familiar. Should he know her? Now, she transforms herself, morphs as he watches. Of course! She turns into Shanti. No—no longer Shanti, Saul remembers. But what is her name? Best to just turn and say, “Well, hello! Hello!”

“Hello,” she calls back. “Oh. You’re . . . Saul, yes? I’m no longer Shanti—“

—I know, I know. I’m afraid I’ve forgotten your real name.”

“I’m Sandra. Sandra Ainsley.”

He introduces her to Judith. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” Judith says. “All these years, all these years and Saul hasn’t forgotten you. Shall we go downstairs and have some tea?”

“Lovely! But I’m with a friend.”

And now the friend, who’d been in the next room, comes in, leaning on a cane. A tall man, almost as old as Saul, very well dressed, his hair pure white and long, in a pony tail. His face slowly becomes familiar. “You know each other,” Sandra says. “My friend Rick Nielson. Rick, you remember Saul? And this is Judith Siegel.”

My friend?

“That’s right,” Sandra says. “Once we were married. Now we’re friends.”

“Good friends,” Rick says. “Best friends.”

“Rick? Can we all have tea together?”

“Of course, Sandra,” Rick says. He puts his hand on the shoulder of Saul’s tweed jacket. “I remember,” he says to Judith, grinning, “we used to battle, this guy and me. That was before I sold out,” he laughs. “Kidding,” Rick says. “I was chief counsel to the Democratic Party in Massachusetts. I’ve retired. I still remain active in the Party.”

“But no longer,” Saul says, “are you the Lord of Chaos, Dionysus himself.” Rick looks bewildered, Sandra does not. She smiles. Saul says, “Kidding. No offense meant, counselor. Let’s go have tea and tell each other about the past fifty years.”

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John J. Clayton

John J. Clayton / About Author

John J. Clayton is author of Minyan, Many Seconds into the Future, Wrestling with Angels, and other novels and short story collections. His work has appeared in Commentary, Superstition Review, Missouri Review, AGNI, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Journal, Notre Dame Review, TriQuarterly, and Sewanee Review. Clayton’s stories have won prizes in O. Henry Prize Stories, Best American Short Stories, and the Pushcart Prize Anthology.

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