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Alta Ifland

An Excerpt from the novel Julia

     I always longed for purity. I don’t know at what point in life I began to yearn for something not of this world, and how long it took me to call it by its name, but I know that this is how I’ll die—my open palms up, empty like the sky.
     It is because of this desire that I’ve always lived through others, enjoying the hidden, secret pleasure of imagining what they lived and felt, while I on the other hand lived inside a snowball devoid of feeling, white like a page in waiting, as it were, delighting in second-degree living. The detachment of this second-degree living placed me both above and beneath feeling, letting me curl like a comma in the subtle space between being and observing. I thus became a spectator of what was never to become my own life, keeping it at a safe distance between the covers of a book. But paradoxically, not living my own life allowed me to feel more intensely than most people could in two lifetimes. I wanted raw feeling, purity, I wanted feeling that never splits itself into experiencing and watching oneself experience. Most people live with this split—quite normal lives, I should add—save for those who live fully in the moment of the experience—and these are the pure ones—and those who live fully in the moment of watching themselves or others experience—and these are the perverts and the writers. I count myself among the latter. Yet I always, always, wanted to be on the other side.
     Because purity is so rare, those who have it or, those who devote their lives to it, are always suspect. It is purity that Lewis Carroll searched for in the little girls he surrounded himself with, the same purity he found in the crystal-clear abstraction of mathematics. Yet the mob has always suspected him of something vaguely dirty, oh nothing quite precise, just the little crud under the nails that the mob is always happy to uncover.

     For me, purity has always been called Julia. From the first moment I laid eyes on her at kindergarten, she in her orange dress with white polka dots, me in my brown pants and gray T-shirt—my aunt’s favorite colors—I knew I wanted to be her. She, with her quiet, radiant beauty—even then one couldn’t call her simply “cute”—her wide open green eyes, as if everything around her was a reason for perplexity. From then on I tried to watch the world with, and through, those big, green eyes that never judged anything but simply rested on the world with a snowflake’s softness. By contrast, I judged everything and everyone. Truth be told, I still despise pretty much everyone I know (and yes, you who are my friend and read this, you should know that I despise you too, though I make considerable efforts to conceal it. Not that I have such a great opinion of myself; I don’t. But I think that, in the end, most people are idiots, cowards and selfish bastards).
     Julia never judged anyone. Not that she had no opinions or was dispassionate—greed, hatred or ignorance sometimes upset her—but the world seemed to be for her a medium in which she drifted with vegetal patience, and upon which she couldn’t cast a critical eye because her body and the world were one, and the world flew through her veins like sap through a tree. Whenever I looked at her I thought that her gift of gently letting herself be part of the world rather than acting upon it—acting with the violent pressure of subjectivity and the corrosive power of the ego—was the very definition of purity. I was happy to follow her around like an enamored chevalier de la triste figure, breathing in the liquid crumbs of what for me was the hieratic contact between her body and the world. When we reached adolescence we were inseparable, and though we confided in each other the way young girls do, we—or rather she—did it with a reserve that kept her enclosed within the unreachable territory outlined by her body, so in the end not only did I not know what her thoughts were, but it was utterly impossible to imagine her in love. This impossibility was caused, I suppose, by a strange quality emanating from her body, which made her seem impervious to any outer disruption, by the serene detachment with which she looked at everything and everyone, and which was certainly not indifference, but simply the calmness of a self-sufficient geometrical figure, like, say, a circle or an isosceles triangle. In those years when others have their first erotic fantasies, my recurrent fantasy was that of Julia in love. I tried to picture her longing for a man, and it was impossible.
     But there were plenty of boys, and even several men in their twenties, who gravitated around her, and since I was always by her side, I became the messenger by default. With a knot in my stomach and my throat dry, I carried dozens of clumsily written notes and effusive letters from trembling young men—neighbors, classmates, boys in their high-school senior year and men we had met at the ice-skating rink. At my request, she had me read out loud to her, which I did with a double sense of excitement, because I could be both the man and her. She listened intently, occasionally smiling—a vague, fluttering smile—then took the letter from my hands, folded it absent-mindedly and put it in her backpack. She never answered anyone.

    As I write this, I am watching One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich, Chris Marker’s homage to Andrei Tarkovsky. At one point, the screen shows Tarkovsky directing a scene in Sacrifice: we see his face and gestures as he looks through the camera, while far away a house is ablaze; then, we see Tarkovsky telling the actors what to do, and the screen is cut by a circle—a camera—in which the house is ablaze again.
     What I would have wanted at the time was to be a director looking through a camera, and Julia a house ablaze.
     But a house ablaze has no traits, and Julia’s traits are the central point on which my gaze has been focused all these years. I have always been fascinated with people’s traits, with the fact that, of all shapes possible, a soul has crystallized in that one form, like shapeless water suddenly frozen in an icicle. The purer the traits are, the more they make one think of their origin, of what was there before the perfection of the icicle. I looked at Julia’s face and thought of water, of what can be neither caught nor possessed.

     Certainly, our fascination with her—for I wasn’t the only one—was partly fed by the aura surrounding her family. Before the communists, her family name, Trestian, was preceded by a “von,” and they were among the few and lucky ones who somehow managed to keep their house. Their land had been, of course, taken away from them, but their enormous 18th century house was still entirely theirs, after half of it had been initially given to a family of gypsies who eventually decided that they preferred the road and their tents. A second family didn’t last long either—after about a year they left for Hungary. Maybe the Party grew tired of reallocating the house, or maybe the rumors that the house was haunted kept the villagers and the townfolk away.

     The first time I was invited to the house we were in sixth grade. I had never seen such a big house. It was probably not much bigger than the average American house, but for me and all our friends who had grown up in gray cement apartment buildings, it looked like a palace. The first thing one noticed was the smell. It smelled of old age, yet there was nothing morbid about it; it was more like a very old grandmother who still tries to keep her appearance and welcomes you with home-baked cakes and cookies. A big, heavy, dark brown armoire let out a piercing screech when Julia opened the door, and then a mixture of familiar odors came out—moth balls, lavender and starch. It was a combination present in various degrees and proportions in most Transylvanian wardrobes—the sheets were all starched, as were the shirts. Julia took out a box hidden under a pile of bed sheets, opened it and offered what was inside: chocolate. To my palate accustomed to communist asceticism, that was the best chocolate I had ever tasted. It was German and it came periodically, together with other products of daily use—coffee, soap, ham, toilet paper, powdered milk, cocoa, margarine, and clothes—from Julia’s relatives in Germany. The population in those days was of two kinds: those who had relatives abroad and received such packages; and those who didn’t.
     We placed the box on the floor between us, and lying there lazily, Julia moving and admiring her feet, me watching her move and admire her feet, we proceeded to take the morsels out, piece by piece, take a small bite, wait a few seconds before moving on to the next, and so on, until, after an hour or so, during which time an eloquent canary had entertained us with its trills, we finished the entire box.

     My very first memory is about chocolate. I can see, even now, the dark brown lacquered cabinet opened by a male hand whose owner stays mysteriously out of sight, and inside, a thin bar of chocolate wrapped in golden foil. The hand gestures, indicating an interdiction. The chocolate in golden foil is not to be touched. The hand closes the cabinet, locks it, takes the key, and leaves. The chocolate is the other world.

     For several minutes I was by myself in the dark room with rotting wood floors, while Julia was in the kitchen with her aunt. We had this in common: we were being raised by an aunt. On a tall dresser stood a big, framed photo of a man in his early fifties, a handsome man with slick sand-colored hair, brushed back, and very light green eyes, almost lime-like, a kind of green one almost never sees, and which was also Julia’s. “It was taken the year I was born,” she said, approaching with that light step of hers that made her appear near you when you expected her least. I knew that her mother had been much younger than her father, and that after her death he had never courted any other woman and had gradually retreated to his room with his memories. I was very curious to know more about the mother who disappeared when Julia was only four, and about whom our classmates and their parents talked only in mysterious whispers, but I didn’t dare ask. Julia never talked about her mother. Nor I about mine.
     We had dinner in the overly heated kitchen with taupe and black tiles, watched by the old aunt—the father’s sister, several years older than he—who had cooked for us stuffed peppers, ricotta cheese blintzes and poppy-seed cake. The father sat absent in a corner, puffing on a cigarette, while the aunt, like all the women of her generation, tended to our needs, moving diligently with her pots and pans, all the while looking at Julia as if she was a miracle that could have disappeared at any moment, and she—the aunt—had to make sure that she was still there, caressing her forehead, gently brushing her cheek with the back of her palm and asking her after every bite if she liked it. With the selfishness characteristic of young people, I thought that she was a ridiculous, pathetic old woman, and Julia herself seemed slightly embarrassed. How sad the aunt seems now, in my readjusted memories, a childless woman full of maternal love for a motherless child.
     We ended the day in Julia’s room, whose floor was covered with an orange rug so deep and soft you could sleep on it. I would never have been allowed such an eccentric color, never mind the luxury, so I savored it to the fullest. Looking at me with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, Julia opened a little whitewashed door in the wall behind the library, and extracted a bottle of red wine. Then, she opened the desk drawer and took out a pack of Marlboro Lights and a box of matches. I was, of course, speechless—we were twelve and, between the two of us, Julia was supposed to be the good child.
     It was the first time I got drunk. Luckily, there was a bathroom next to Julia’s room, and my moans of pain and the sound of vomit pouring into the toilet probably stayed within those thick 18th-century walls.

Alta Ifland
ALTA IFLAND is the author of two collections of prose poems, Voice of Ice (Les Figues Press, 2009 Louis Guillaume Prize) and The Snail’s Song (Spuyten Duyvil Press); and of two books of short stories, Elegy for a Fabulous World (Ninebark Press, 2010 finalist for the Northern California Book Award) and Death-in-a-Box (Subito Press, 2010 Subito Fiction Prize).  She has been awarded fellowships in fiction at Wesleyan, MacDowell and Millay.  The poems selected here are from her latest collection, The Snail’s Song.


Spring 2012

John Chandler
Alta Ifland

Shiloh Hellman
Thad Nodine
Patrice Vecchione
Stephen Woodhams

Dane Cervine
Eileen Eccles
Peggy Heinrich

Lauren Crux

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