Measure Time by How a Body Swoons, How a Body Sways

by Carmen Mason

Louis and Loti would dress up on their special week-ends and take the #6 down to Astor Place. She’d usually have a novel by Francoise Sagan (how could someone so young be so, so experienced and already so blase about life, she’d asked Louis, and once she’d laughed, reading to him, “She lived hard and drove fast” from the blurb on the back) or a Fitzgerald short story, or a poem by Millay, cummings, or Dickinson or some scribbled Ayn Rand quotes in her purse in case the train stalled and she could share them with him. Unless, of course, they were busy talking and catching up on the weeks they’d been apart.

As much as she loved her books and her life, Louis loved her, and his dreams of marrying her on his graduation day consumed him. But Loti lived excited, ecstatic in the now, whereas Louis believed it was all a ritualistic practice for their preordained life together. We’ll travel all over the world before the kids come, he’d say. We’ll have two homes, one just for us and the other for when we have to get away from everything. We’ll never stop dancing, Loti. I love you so much.

Loti cherished Louis, but marrying him with his cap, gown and diploma festooning his broad, strong body proffered an event she couldn’t see herself actually being present for. She relished their ardency, but the perpetuation of it was difficult for her to fathom. It overwhelmed her. Just stay here now, kissing me, she thought. Just hold me while we get lost in the smoky rooms, drinking rum and cokes and eating our burgers. Don’t write and direct the rest of it. What will be will be, she thought, smiling into his adoring face. Don’t make me into a runaway bride.

The two had first met one late night when Loti was returning with her girlfriends from her Christmas youth dance. It was a cold and snowy Friday and Louis was coming along with his raucous crew, all two or three years older than the girls. Then one of her friends recognized one of his and they’d stopped and talked and Louis had sidled over to her and said, There’s going to be a dance at St. Helena’s next week, are you coming? And she’d thought how she’d never gone into a Catholic church except to load her water pistol with the holy water when she was eleven and being chased by a bunch of bullies, so she said to Louis, Maybe, I’m not sure I can yet, but she knew she would because he was so big and strong, and he looked at her as if she were not just a new girl on a dark street but as if he saw something special inside her, and no boy had ever done that before.

So she went and they’d danced together all night and they were great doing the lindy and the fish (even though the latter was a worry for her with its two slow daring hip-lifts on each side, because she did not lead boys on) and then he’d called her and taken her out, then they’d kissed outside her apartment door for almost half an hour and she was sunk after that. He invited her to his prom at McBurney Prep and she became officially his when he gave her his school ring, and later, when he went off to the University of Maine and he pinned his fraternity pin on her sweater. So it was all decided – that they were together, a couple, in love.

Every week-end he wasn’t away at college they’d go to Greenwich Village, and later on, dancing at Roseland and every New Year’s Eve, to the Roosevelt Hotel with a big-name swing band and a hefty entrance fee. Just as they would move inside and out to the jazz and the rhythmic musicians in the Village clubs, they would dance perfectly – the lindy, polka, Charleston, fox trot. They were ‘war babies’ of the forties,  now ripe and ready for the sixties.

On those Sunday afternoons, the west Village still had a celebratory feel to it because of the laid-back air of the wider avenues, Sixth and Seventh. Many of the best jazz clubs were there, just beyond the narrow café, bar and shop-cramped side streets like MacDougal and Fourth. They’d walk their way west while deciding where to go first, starting off at noon and not getting back to the Bronx ‘til near midnight, filled with their own slightly relieved lust and the remnants of the slinky syncopation of Herbie Mann, Ahmad Jamal and two remarkable singers, Clayton James, Jr. and his wife, Abby Jones, the flirting, sashaying couple that sang like dueling songbirds, laughed and teased. then embraced and whispered in each other’s ears. And between each number the singers traded teasing words of endearment, their repartee making Loti and Louis blush and squirm with vicarious excitement, for the crooning couple was mirroring what tossed and surged unevenly inside their own breasts. All four were swaddled in a particular splendor, and for the young couple on their special week-ends, their imaginings of love became a palpable spectacle on that small dark stage.

Sometimes they’d press their palms together, bend their foreheads to touch as if in desperate prayer: oh, if we could stay like them. Everything the young couple witnessed became thick with their separate and distinct longings.

If you could find them today – Louis and Loti – wherever they’ve ended up, would they recall the name of that skin and bones lady with her yellow mini dress, her shiny cap of hair and her way of curling herself around Clayton like a morning glory ‘round a pole? And if you could ask them – Louis long gone off to teach sociology at a state college, married with eight children, seven of them adopted from all over the world, Loti to write a novel almost every two or three years and to have two marriages, a love-child from each – would she or he still remember those week-ends in small, dark and cramped rooms where they’d groped each other under the wobbly table, kissing long and deeply?

Even as a little girl Loti had always been impulsive, instinctive, sentient. She loved the smell of odd or abhorrent things – babies’ diapers, her painter-mother’s  turpentine, the potent odor of gasoline on the floor of her father’s local garage, snuffed out candles, skunk emissions! She loved to smell everything- things that were there and things that weren’t, that is, things in the air and the sky, things in the night, things in her room, the part powdery, part animal scent that wafted up when she’d ducked her face inside her blouse or nightgown.

When she had met Louis and kissed his Hungarian-Irish lips, she wanted to climb through them, swoosh around in his mouth that smelled like wild flowers and cold beer. But beyond them was the scent of life unwinding, her life, her mad love for everything she saw, felt, heard, that gave her an urgent euphoria. She still recalled the musty rainy days her mother would bundle her up to go out in when she was little, because she would cry mournfully if she had to stay inside all day.

Her mother had grown to believe in spirited children, children allowed to be feral until it was no longer safe or useful, so she was much more successful with Loti than she’d been with Moira, her first.  Perhaps because like with many mothers, her first child was too much an effort, a proof of a forced and suppliant surrender and compliance to age-old habits and tradition. She yearned for an enlightened, mature competency. Her second child she knew would be her last, so Loti was allowed to be free and perhaps lead her mother to her own greater liberation as well.

But Louis’s dreams of their union consumed him. Soon after they met he’d gotten them jobs at a summer Fresh Air Camp as senior counselors. After days of swimming and making crafts and bonfires and singing “Day is done, gone the sun” and putting the exhausted campers to bed, they’d steal away to a field behind the mess hall grounds and hungrily embrace and laughingly roll down the grassy damp hills , caressing in a frenzied stupor.

Loti didn’t quite know then what stopped her from fully believing, what kept her so inaccessible inside. She would often recall the miniature pale green pepper she’d once found nestling down inside a large sweet red one, a premature twin that would never grow to fruition. It was a perfectly shaped replica curved in a fetal position, yet it had been wrapped in something all complete and ready. She carefully cut the baby pepper out and tossed it, then savored the ripe one.

Three years had passed since they’d met. Loti was now at Hunter College and Louis would graduate that May. On their third December, after months and months of week-end studying, going to off-Broadway plays and skiing in New England, they decided to celebrate and go downtown early on the slow Sunday morning train for brunch, then on to two packed and smoky jazz clubs. They inquired in each if Clayton and Abby were playing anywhere but no one had seen or heard of them in over a year. They stayed for two sets where they’d thrilled to the newly arrived Miriam Makeba who’d just gotten off the boat from Johannesburg a week or two earlier and that afternoon had sung in a plaintive, thick voice, The Lion Sleeps Tonight and Pata Pata, the songs she’d made famous in Africa. She’d warbled her amazing under-the-tongue clicking sounds she’d learned as a baby in her native Prospect Township and she’d synchopated, Gongo twangay, gongo twangay, smiling and charming everyone. I am so happy, Makeba whispered, to be finally in America. Finally.

Years later, Loti would imagine looking up Louis and asking him what he thought about Makeba’s marriage to Stokeley Carmichael, but now on this special day in the traffic-and- boot-splattering snow, they had slushed along, singing, In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight…their fingers locked tight. Everything was darkening quickly all around them.

Up ahead they made out two figures, also leaning together but slanted diagonally, swaying and colliding with a tall chain-link fence which framed an empty park covered in snow drifts. Each time the distant couple clashed into the barrier, clumps of snow flew up and away in powdery specters. As Loti and Louis got closer, one figure broke and leaped away and the other one, a thin rail of a person, stopped and leaned languidly to the side, first resting then sliding down the powdery fence, arms almost straight up in the air. The other figure – the peering couple was sure now it was a man wearing a thin worn khaki jacket – repeatedly turned and went back to pull the frail figure off the fence, then leaped away again. When Loti and Louis got closer they could see the gaunt figure had a rouged and lipsticked face, her thin green coat slapping open with each harsh windy gust, exposing her lean legs, dark and bare. Something in the man’s tortured face, in his forlorn, slurring disparagement, convinced Loti and Louis the two had once been – oh yes, they must have been – in love.

The man did not strike her. He did not menace her beyond his spewing words, but began to circle her and each time she tried to return to the fence, he lunged and pulled her away, then walked a few feet with her, anchoring her. She had on one long, shiny earring and a silver chain with colored stones swinging back and forth over her scant and hollowed breasts. He kept lifting her, trying to straighten her up like a scrawny, discarded Christmas tree, then pulled away to continue his tirade. She repeatedly crooned, Oh no, my man, oh nooo, nooo my man, in a lilting, sorrowful voice. His was throaty, scathing, yet strangely melodious.

Loti did not remember who first recognized them. Had it been Louis or she, their shock and confusion would still have been the same and so too the conviction that this should not have happened, not come so unbidden their way, not on this special day.

Perhaps it was the crazed man’s voice, sonorous and probing, and her rail-thin legs like a tripping ballerina’s, a tangled marionette’s – for  the couple could not see the figures’ faces distinctly as snowflakes splattered and splashed everywhere at once – but they knew instantly they were their week-end familiars. And her careening  and his berating,  Yeah, look at you, you, just look at you, yeah, lookat dat monkey  dancin’ on your back, you cravin’ that skrill sooo sooo bad…You can’t go on without it – yeah, I know, I know  – me too, me too – but you, you a pathetic whore, then her plaintive retort, Oh no my man, oh nooo – both moving to a dance, a dirge, a wail of death.

So who realized it first they would not remember. Who looked into the other’s eyes and said silently, It is!  Oh, God, it’s them.  It’s them!  Who grabbed the other to pull away from the wobbling figures, the snow lacing their swaying bodies?

She would never forget how madly her mind started to race, how those cummings’ lines,  ponder, darling, these busted statues, from one of her favorite poems, scuttled like frightened mice through her head … “monuments and dolls…consider well this ruined aqueduct lady, which used to lead something into somewhere.” And now these two, no, these four were together in their own “peculiarly momentary partnership” and Loti knew it was for her, her omen. As if – she realized later when they’d gone their separate ways – that on that afternoon a circle had been broken, a perfect egg had cracked before them. Yes, somewhere no longer deep inside she knew the world would not do their bidding, would not tolerate forever their innocent, illusory indulgences. Unfairness would visit and be their companion; disappointment would now become part of the beat, the pulsing of their hopeful high hearts. And the snow and the fading light and the long train trip home with the memory of Clayton and his lanky ladylove, swaying, lunging and disappearing into the thickening storm, would separate them, yet remain with them forever.



I write often as meditation and to make some sense of things. It is a way to duel and dance with love and fear, joy and how to say goodbye.