They’d been watching Kinton a while: he seemed distracted but distracted in a way that suggested he was listening as well. They could tell he was alone: no one moved around behind him on the screen, no lights went on in the other room as the day drew to its close.  He was fiddling with his ring.

Kinton, an infatuate of letters, was a failed OuLiPoet, as he liked to say.  He liked the way Perec and Queneau and Mathews and Roubaud said something serious by and through the constraints they had to meet.  He liked Nabokov too, and had vainly sought to write in the spirit of Nabokov’s great story “The Vane Sisters.”  But no muse, certainly no pair of muses, presided over his creation.  They could tell that he was brooding, and that for him brooding took the form of a kind of hypnotic distraction by quotation.  But when the previous story ended, he knew immediately that it was his turn to speak.  He shared a screen with title, epigraphs, and footnotes – nothing else; he must have typed them up while he’d had his computer off  earlier that day – and then began, holding out the ring for a moment so that all could see it in distorted but ephemeral close-up, and then began: “Do you see this ring….”

Kinton Ford’s tale:

This bank and shoal of time.

frigida pugnabant calidis, umentia siccis[1]

Shimon ben Shetach used to say: be thorough in the interrogation of witnesses, and be careful with your words, lest from them they learn to lie.[2]

Do you see this ring? It’s inscribed with cutler’s poetry, after that in The Merchant of Venice: “Love me and leave me not.”  And it matches Browning’s (“Do you see this ring?”) in matching another, as his did: one whose inscription I never saw.  Perhaps it matches Shylock’s turkis (turquoise) ring as well, the ring which disappears never to return, unlike Portia’s and Nerissa’s.  The ring, therefore, that truly symbolized his marriage – the ever-fulfilled promise of his marriage – to Leah.  That ring memorializes itself, as the golden bowl does in Henry James.

Looking at this ring as the plague burgeons now I think of the ring it matches, the ring it no longer matches, and which no longer matches it.  And thinking of Shylock, I think of the holy Sabbath he swore by, and of Sabbaths of my youth, learning Talmud with Jeffrey, when no shadow of what would be the future, what is now the present, loomed over us.

“The rabbis said that in the afterlife the highest reward would be the study of Torah.”  I remember Jeffrey quoting this quotation, with great earnestness and assurance, and remember my joy in thinking that I would be able to study Torah then, would know the necessary Hebrew and Aramaic, would be able to read Rashi without vowels and Maimonides. The pure study: So there would be no God there, no personal God, anyhow, though perhaps Spinoza’s God.  But no Spinoza, nor Rashi, nor Maimonides either.  Just learning, as we used to say, learning what they used to say, learning with a friend, like Jeffrey, a future friend who would remind me of Jeffrey: when you quote a quotation you’re studying Torah too, you’re throw upon the dangerous words of the wise, words ignited by Rabbi Eliezer’s radioactive warning, spoken in words like coals of fire: “Warm thyself by the fire of the wise, but beware of their glowing coals, lest thou be burnt, for their bite is the bite of the fox, and their sting is the scorpion’s sing, and their hiss is the serpent’s hiss, and all their words are like coals of fire.” (Pirke Avot 2:10)

Rabbi Eliezer came to deny the judgment and the judge.  He violated the Sabbath but he kept teaching: the words like coals of fire burnt all the brighter, all the blacker (like coals of fire) when they became their own judgment.  In these cases we still have judgment here – upon this bank and shoal of time.

“Shoal” is Theobald’s emendation of the Folio’s “schoole.”  They come to the same thing: the shoal of time, here on earth, is the shul where we can learn and go on learning.  The life to come? The same school, the same bank, the river flowing by.  Rabbi Eliezer made the river flow backwards, but the words were not in the river but in the Torah, in the words of those who quoted Torah.  That’s the only life to come, the judgment here of what the judgment will be.

I looked forward to that time without forwardness, but slowly time eroded and there was nothing to look forward to anymore.  The start of things, cold and heat battling, dry raspiness at war with the flood that would drown its sere fragility, looked more and more like the feverish end of things.  The plague was like any other in the history of humanity: some would outlive it and others not.  The end of things would be succeeded for some by other endings, but in the end all would end.

So I sought another life, another folding of the hands before sleep, in those long ago days, just days ago, when the river was in spate as the curve of the infected climbed exponentially.  Like Macbeth, like any millenarian, I took refuge in the present, in sin, in the continuation of sin: sheltered in the place of sin.  Where once sin had taken place in a place prepared for it, now it was the place itself in which I took refuge: the voluntaristic now of its commission.  “My world was split,” says Nabokov in Lolita, and the split itself may have been the source of “an incomparably more poignant bliss” (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2010.p. 18).  Remorse and repentance are forever, but sin is now, this instant, all else that might be near or might impend now far and forgot so I stayed sweetly, for the moment, witnessing from the shore the great onrushing tide.

Witness to this time of universal lying of course I learned to lie.  Not to Claudia, though of course I lied to her, but to Judith, whom I had thought of as the one person to whom I told the truth.  After all, only we knew what we were doing on those stolen afternoons.  The truths we told each other were about the lies we were telling, lies about the risks we were taking by lying to our spouses about how careful we were being.  The coming of the plague meant that there was no living in the past.  The past had known nothing about its coming, and so it was only the most specious of specious presents that shelter seemed possible: the speciousness of sin and betrayal.  When you sin, the punishment will only come later.  When you learn to lie you can go on lying.  Living a lie intensifies fear of death, but fear of death makes living a lie attractive, because at least you’re living.  Where there are lies, there is hope.

Time of course was short since neither of us could plead anything but necessary errands: for staples or liquor or medications.  Somehow Judith was calmer about that, though, and after sex I would lie next to her, lie in both senses, starting to feel anxious to go. While she rested, a picture of tranquility, I’d force myself to take slow and even breaths, counting a hundred long inhalations, then sometimes another hundred, before letting myself seem to stir, as though reluctantly forcing myself to confront the duty to get up and out, as though doing it more for her sake, so that she’d have less explaining to do if her husband wondered where she’d been so long, than for my own. The whole problem was that lying there after sex felt too open-ended to me, too boundaryless, and counting to a hundred “with moderate haste” established a boundary, and doing it twice, when I did, was reasonable enough since counting out the first hundred breaths gave me a sense of how reasonably long, how reasonably short, the second hundred breaths would be, and then I could stir, speak, gather up my clothes, prepare to say goodbye, embrace, kiss, press foreheads together in affectionate sadness, and be on my way.

And yet it was she who broke it off – was it just yesterday, or centuries ago?  I could see it coming – maybe I wanted to see it coming because that was the imminent event that I wanted to see: that and not whatever future the plague had in store. And seeing it coming meant a change in the way I looked at her.  I wanted to look at her face, more closely than ever, to see nothing but her, to lose myself in that sight and so pause that anxious, incessant counting.  Not that I didn’t know her face, but that I did. And I knew also the time that it would be the last time — I could tell, or almost tell.[3] I wanted to see her, years older than when we’d started, see clearly how old she was, memorize her face as it was now, in the present, the face of someone with me only in the present, who’d only ever been with me in the present.  The intermittent but complete intimacy of the hours we spent together was itself a kind of standing separation between us: that’s what made it only something ever occurring now (nunc: never jam to-day: “to-day isn’t any other day, you know”).[4] We could always look closely, completely, without ulterior thoughts, and so we never did: there was no need to memorize, since it was all there. But now I knew it wouldn’t be, and the only way to try to erode that knowledge, try to erode its truth, was to look intensely, to try to communicate that intensity to Judith, not to her character but to the face I had fallen to such perusal of, to make that intensity what made her completely present to me. Still, I think if I had known for sure that this was the last time, I might not have wanted to look so closely. If I wanted to look so closely it was partly with the idea that I could look again, that the passage of time was continuous, that what I was looking at was a moment in a process that would continue, that her aging face (and mine) pointed to a future, the direction that aging takes you in, a future that made her face all the more beautiful, more beautiful than it had ever seemed to me before. It was the beauty of consciousness or meaning that I saw there, or thought I did, the beauty of seeing a face that knew just what I was seeing and how.

This may have been my only experience of seeing without hiding. Seeing for me was always a reserved, secretive experience. If I was looking at something, it was to see, for myself alone, to take in what I alone wanted to attend to. Seeing and speaking were antithetical. To see someone’s face is to see what is invisible to them, and deep down that seemed to me a shocking privilege, one that gave me a strange invulnerability since they were reduced to the empirical and could not see nor know my seeing soul. But what I saw in Judith’s face was her experience of time, I guess, something not empirical. That’s what made her features so open. I don’t mean frank or candid, but unhidden, as though she was willing to be purely on the surface, willing to see without hiding, and willing for me to see her without hiding. If I could memorize it I would memorize the future as well. The passage of time that I saw in her face, that I memorized, would have to mean the passage of time, and when time passed it would be passing for us, and I would see her face again, see it like that. Its beauty was in its open consciousness of time, which meant consciousness of the future, which meant that I could see the future there, and that future was her face.

But it was not to be.  Looking at her so intensely had the effect of invoking the ending I meant to dissolve, and that day, a day like any other, I might have thought, she ended things.  Maybe because she looked more closely at me, responding to the way I looked at her.  After that what else was there to do or so?  I think, because I’d never looked so closely at her before that she’d never looked so closely at me either.  That was sin and hope and refuge at once: what other nunc-stans could there be?  Time to jam the tomorrows together.

I’d always wondered, but didn’t quite want to ask her, why she’d never taken off her wedding ring. Was it a reminder of her own moral objections to what we were doing? Her betrayal, however discreet, of her husband, who of course would never know about it, and never did find out? It seemed to me that keeping conscious of the sense of betrayal made the betrayal seem a little less complete, gave it an ambivalence that insulated her from being wholly in the moment, and so kept her at a distance from the act of adultery even as she engaged in the act. Or maybe it was the opposite, a way of intensifying the thrill. Which might be another way of saying the same thing. But that last time, when we parted, she sitting on the bed and me leaning against the desk, feeling devastated and distant at the same time, not crying although she was, not crying because she was, and I didn’t want to join her in the sad and satisfying mood of inevitability, of one final thing we were doing together, breaking up together, she told me that the ring was always for us. It was the clearest symbol, icon and reminder of what we were doing, the symbol of adultery, not of the marriage she was betraying, but of the betrayal itself, the afternoon hour or two every month, separate from the world of marriage and from the world itself, a separation and closure the ring etched into the daylit air of the room every time she moved, pressed into my own fingers every time we clasped hands.

In the weeks that followed, in that strange reverse divorce that ended our liaison, when she went back to her husband and then to other affairs, with or without her wedding ring I never was to discover though I couldn’t help sad wistful thoughts imagining either scenario, not thoughts saturated with jealousy but with unexpected loss, the loss of what I now couldn’t help imagining or the loss, more total, of the strange, unique thing the ring meant to her, meant to us as she had once thought of us, meant to me that last time when, because it was the last time, she explained it, and I realized that somehow that’s what it had meant to me, subliminally, the whole time — in those weeks I had trouble, as I still do, working out why I was so sad. I hadn’t thought I’d loved her, but perhaps I did, or perhaps this was merely a narcissistic wound, since I had always thought I would be the one to break it off, that I was the one temporizing from month to month, or perhaps the wound was to some conception of loyalty that we’d had: loyalty just to this, to meeting this way in this place outside the world, not outside of time but indifferent to what time measured in the world outside. I’d thought there was nothing we couldn’t talk about because our loyalty was only to being able to talk about anything, our trust was in feeling that trust here was unnecessary and therefore absolute, that we trusted this moment, these hours, as hours in which we didn’t have to rely on even the most attenuated form of trust. We were present like time and light, and we both knew that that was how we were present, the air still and neutral just as we were there, just as I remember how we were there. I think that back before the pandemic those hours suggested a future just like the past: the past was an affair of these hours every month or two, and the future would be too. That would allow me to turn my attention away from some really awful other things that were happening in my life then, happening mainly to some of my friends, things that it causes me great pain to think about even now, so that I could substitute this other pain, real, manageable, limited, unreal, however real it was as well, for what I could not bear to contemplate, events that I won’t go into here. Or maybe it was all of these things, since my loyalty to her was different from love but with its contours, different from life, but with the shape of something that looked like life: there hadn’t been a month that I didn’t want to break it off, but there hadn’t been a month when I felt that I could because I felt loyal to this strange space we’d somehow drawn out of space, and so I think that my loyalty was finally to her, to making her feel that what I felt was an unflagging love, not because I ever had felt such a love — that’s why I think much of my sadness was a narcissistic wound instead — but because feeling so sad was a way to make it seem that way to her, make it seem that I had loved her as much as she had wanted me to all those iterated months, was a way to continue to fake it when there was no longer any need to do so, so that I was loyal to the way I had made loyalty substitute for a love I did not feel. Maybe all in all just that is what love means, the love she needed to think had ended and had therefore been real and complete when she broke it off, the love I needed her to feel that she was breaking off, and so maybe this was a way of falling in love with her after the fact, loyal to the last, and having achieved a sadness I didn’t think I could ever feel.

I thought of those accumulated hours, accumulated months, as a strange impersonal time, beds I could only think of as empty, abandoned every night to the oblique nights we never thought of, nights without the glare of day solarizing tenderness into some shared, fixed intensity, days that seemed abandoned now forever, become whiter and whiter with that unstoppable solarization, till all that remained to me was the frame of the empty room, its perimeter.  Just as you can only see the inscription when the ring is off, circling its circling emptiness, glowing like fire, like a coal of vain indigo, deepening nothing.  

They waited a minute but he clearly had no more to say.  And it was too dark to see the ring anyhow.

[1] See Ovid 19 [Metamorphoses]

[2] Pirke Avot 1:9

[3] The Talmud speaks of the eight prophets descended from Rahab, and how you can tell the prophets from their descendants and ancestors.  Prophecy guarantees time.  As Hartley Coleridge said of his father, I was to prove no prophet.  On Rahab vide Nabokov, id. 19.

[4] The vanishing point? Nunc’s 0?  Vide Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, and especially in these frumious times “Jabberwocky” – and what the “toves did” (p.19 of Carroll’s 1896 edition).