And Miss Rouelle. "I have created a special altar for her on the right-hand edge of my visual imagination. Often, as I pursue other thoughts, I will pause, steal a kiss, win a smile, accept a sustaining word of affection.
"Her overt behavior has remained essentially constant. However, one afternoon she leaned over the circulation desk, brushed her knuckles along my jaw line and said, 'Asa Zook, it's time to borrow your father's razor.' It was the first time our surfaces have made contact since she led me by the hand to Plato. I shall never again be the same."
Climate and distances forced him to ride the school bus to high school. He observed in the Journal: "Many of my classmates are undergoing metamorphosis similar to mine." And, "Concomitantly, the badinage among my male contemporaries often assumes the form of libidinous anecdotes (doubtless lies), pudendal allegories (mostly preposterous) and licentious metaphors (ingeniously mixed).
"Sex is the preoccupation of our species, especially of the male. Yet, despite unrelenting talk of, around and about sex among the boys, I have yet to witness a single incident of human copulation. Why would we hide that to which our identity seems so intrinsically bound? The relationship of shame to lust is far more complex than I had earlier surmised, and, curiously, centered on the female. I became acutely aware of the latter from a conversation I overheard on the bus one morning last week. An upperclassman referred to a pretty girl riding in a forward seat as a 'slut.' 'What is a slut?' a small, prepubescent boy asked. The older fellow laughed and said a slut is a girl who 'puts out for the boys.' What was 'puts out?' the small boy wanted to know (as did I). A third boy leaned across the aisle and into the conversation to contribute: 'She fucks.'
"The exchange made lust seem vicious and ugly and evil. Except for my research, I could easily have drawn just such a false inference from the boy's tone. Instead, my conclusion is this. Sexuality is a source of immense pride for the human male, whereas it is a potential source of ostracism for our female.
"Yet it is our female in whom Nature has vested our survival as a species. Muliebrity, the most exquisite gift of sensuality, my female contemporaries manifest in every breath, step and gesture. But if the girl shows her lust and shares her love she is held in contempt. She is the 'slut.' Our customs, of course, derive from the Scriptures; and like the latter they are both unjust and unphilosophical."
He became aware of Freud, and of "Every work I can find on the psychology of sex." He discovered erotic literature, although "Procuring work of this genre is not easy." An article in Harper's Magazine, "evoked my keen interest" in a book by Henry Miller. Inquiring at a bookstore, he was referred to a newspaper stand in Jersey City. But following the long bike ride: "What are you nuts, kid? They'd send me to Rahway for sellin' you dat," the man said, clenched his green cigar between his brown teeth and uttered not another word. "Original Sin pollutes even the statues of the land," Asa entered in the Journal.
At the university library one Saturday morning: "I came across a collection of erotic Japanese water colors in a book on Oriental art. I found the collection esthetically pleasing; occasionally funny; and vividly revealing in acrobatic ingenuity. But art shows nothing practical; nothing about preparatory phases; nothing of how one initiates courtship or progresses through the ritual; nothing of dynamics. Questions, questions, questions. And a dearth of answers from the conventional sources of knowledge. Even philosophy has let me down. And I conclude that the toxins of religion have seeped into the otherwise safe havens of free thought.
"I must become my own source of facts. Yet I deeply fear the specter of guilt and the possible harm I could evoke as a result of my ignorance. Clearly, my female contemporaries cannot serve as experimental animals. And clearly, I must remain faithful to my maxim that love must always accompany my lust."
Which meant only one thing: "Miss Rouelle.
"But where do I begin?" he whispered.
High school brought Asa Zook still another experience: mathematics. "It is the only school subject in which I learn anything fundamentally new to me." The school's mathematics teacher, Mr. Aaron: "has taken an interest in my progress, has directed me to insightful books, and has outlined an accelerated tract of study for me. I revealed to him my passion for philosophy. Delighted, he confided that he had planned to become a mathematical logician but had fallen in love, dropped out of graduate school and become a math teacher instead. Mr. Aaron assures me that once beyond 'schoolboy subjects' I will find in mathematical ideas a universe whose existence I had never even suspected. Already, I am thrilled and excited...I find mathematics more versatile than Aristotelian logic, in many ways, especially for posing questions about Nature."
Mathematics provided Asa with more than just a new trail to truth and meaningfulness. "Relief! Virtually my only release from the otherwise relentless grip of lust."
Asa recalled a conversation between his grandfather and Dr. Dicampo about the ecumenical movement, in which Grampa had become active, and about which the two friends shared strongly opposing opinions. The subject of celibacy eventually came up, once in Asa's presence. At one point Dr. Dicampo raised and answered his own rhetorical question of how the young priest endures his virility: "Handball!" he roared. Grampa took kindly unyielding exception and thought Pete's remark was cruel and "uncalled- for"; that celibacy was a solemn act of contrition worthy of profound respect, even from those who did not accept the underlying premise. Asa conceded the point to Grampa. But when the clutch of lust seemed about to strangle him, Asa would take out his slide rule and tables of trigonometric functions, sharpen a dozen pencils and announce, "Handball!"
Still, "When I set aside my calculations, there she is. Jeanette Rouelle. Ma Jeanette [He pronounced the J, zzzzhh!]. For months, my imagination's lips have explored the totality of your contours. But solipsism lacks clarity. Fantasy does not gratify my sensibilities. I need reality. I need objective realism. I need what no picture, no word, no thought can supply: textures, smells, temperature, taste, sound. And touch. "Onanism brings no lasting relief. Nor can I misuse mathematics and expect to remain true to myself, to Nature, to philosophy. Clearly, I must act."
She had once told him, "The poet tells me who I am."
To "reconnoiter inroads to the nexus of her being," Asa revisited poetry. "It is my price to know Ma Jeanette." But occasionally, and in spite of himself, he would find a passage of verse that "captures a universe of meaning in a simple utterance. Remarkable!" Then early one late May morning after a sleepless night of reading, he found just the universe of meaning in which to place Miss..."Ma Jeanette!" He went immediately to the Journal and entered: "Delay can serve no further purpose. The time is now."
"I have an important matter to discuss with you, Miss Rouelle," Asa said.
"Do you have anything to check out?" She closed and locked the card case when he shook his head. "It is closing time, Asa," she smiled. "Is it something too serious to wait?"
"Serious, yes. Very serious. But not solemn."
"How beautifully put, Asa. Serious but not solemn! But I really must close up. Why don't you walk home with me. We can have a lemonade and sit on the porch while you tell me about seriousness unencumbered by the welter solemnity."
"Do you have a copy of Shakespeare at home, Miss Rouelle?"
"Yes, I do." She sang the words, and her unbroken movement, lifting her purse, flicking the master switch and raising the counter's drop leaf, flowed as though choreographed to her speech. He held the drop leaf for her. As she glided by him, his olfaction registered the last faint traces of the day's good perfume. The night light in the reading room reflected an autumn's spectrum of browns and yellows from her hair and skin. And when her hand accidentally brushed his as they simultaneously reached for the door handle every tiny muscle on every hair shaft of his entire body went into maximal contracture.
As they walked, she spoke of the fineness of the spring dusk and how warm the air had recently become. His throat and tongue muscles failed when he attempted a response. He was surprised that he could even walk.
Elwood Zook had been adding the porch to the Rouelle house when Miss Rouelle's father collapsed and died outside the post office. Poppa completed the job but absolutely refused any payment whatsoever, period! As a device for recovering the control of his muscular system, Asa tried unsuccessfully to focus on his father's ways.
The porch light was on, but the house itself was dark. "Of course," she said. "It's Bingo Night. And my dear mother is, indeed, a devout Catholic." She emitted a throaty giggle and skipped into the house, the screen door banging in her wake.
Asa waited on the porch. Bingo! That was another item in the on going Dicampo- Overfield ecumenical debates, Grampa insisting Bingo was a harmless diversion, "Pete," ranking it "Second only to the Pope."
Bingo! Celibacy! Handball! Asa heard the clinking of ice cubes and Miss Rouelle humming. And if he didn't invoke something fast, she'd return to find her lover strangled by his own lust. Listening to the sounds from within the house, he wondered if the harmonic analysis Mr. Aaron had introduced him to in March could faithfully represent what he was hearing. Fourier or Laplace transforms? Which, Asa?
Immediately, his spastic arrector pili muscles relaxed. His genitals started into detumescence. And he almost forgot the first thing he intended to say to her when... all of a sudden, Miss Rouelle was using a hip to bump open the screen door and he was leaping to his feet to rescue the thick volume from under her elbow as she precariously balanced a top- heavy tray with both hands. And as suddenly, handball was bouncing down the levels of his consciousness, passing lust on its serge back up. At least I can speak again, he thought, after he recognized his voice saying, "Thank you," for the moisture- beaded glass of lemonade she gesticulatively proffered.
Miss Rouelle now wore sandals, had peeled off her silk stockings revealing delicate leg hairs, and she had changed into a button- down- the- front polka dot dress whose collar was only a cotton suspension line girding her neck. He would have preferred a lower décolletage. But her shoulders were bare. 'Kissy bare', he quoted to himself from a novel he'd once read.
She took the divan opposite a wicker chair he'd chosen and began to remove bobby pins from the bun behind her neck. Asa had never seen her armpits before. Unlike his mother's, they were hairless (shaven? he wondered). Her tresses fell lazily, and as she fluffed the Angora richness he regretted that the light was too dim to carry their full range of hues.
"I've been trying to guess what you want to discuss, Asa. At first I thought you might be thinking about the new program at the University of Chicago or perhaps trying for special admission to Rutgers or Princeton for the fall. But then I realized you wouldn't need to discuss that with anyone. And then I began to sense what it is. And why you wanted my Shakespeare. You've heard the muse. And you're going into literature, aren't you? And it all has to do with poetry, doesn't it?"
"I'm not...quite sure, Miss Rouelle. I mean...about going into poetry." He transferred to the doorway for better light. She fluffed her hair again. He wanted to kiss her armpits. But that might be premature. "Poetry will help me articulate what I must say," he added. He thumbed through the vellum pages of the worn volume. "Let me begin with this passage:
"Had I no eyes but ears, my ears would loveHe paused and looked at her. He could not make out her facial expression, but her mouth was open, and her lower lip protruded a bit. A nibbly bit! And she was just now leaning forward, resting her forearms on partially exposed knees. I've been far, far too conservative, he thought. But he continued:
"That inward beauty and invisible;
"Or were I deaf, thy outward parts would move
"Each part of me that were but sensible:"
"Though neither eyes nor ears, to hear nor see,"Oh Asa, that's so beautiful."
"Yet should I be in love by touching thee."
"There's another verse I especially want you to hear Miss Rou...May I call you Jeanette?" She nodded what he took to be consent.
"Say, that the sense of feeling were bereft me,He relaxed back against the door jamb. A lone firefly winked on and off in the night behind her. "Do you know why I read those words to you Miss...Jeanette?"
"And that I could not see, nor hear, nor touch,
"And nothing but the very smell were left me:
"From the stillitory of they face excelling
"Comes breath perfume, that breedeth love by smelling."
"I'm...not quite sure, Asa."
He carefully laid the precious volume on the deck and shifted to the divan, beside her. "They say precisely how I feel about you, Jeanette. How I have felt every since you shared Socrates with me. I love you, Jeanette."
"And I've loved you since then, Asa. And I've cherished our friendship. You're a most remarkable boy, Asa."
"Why didn't I approach the subject long before this," he said. "I hope you will forgive my utter insensitivity."
"Could you be a little more explicit, Asa, a little bit more to the point, please."
"I confess near- total ignorance of the practical aspects of these things. If you have any experience, I'm open to suggestions."
"Experience at what?"
"I believe the ritual calls first for kisses and fondling."
"The sexual consummation of our love, Jeanette. The mutual release of the constraints upon our lust."
"Sex?" squeaked. "Zsex!" she squealed. "Zex!" she screamed, jumping to her feet, the words beginning around her tonsils and exploding from her nostrils, "Lust! Luzdst! Oh my god. Oh mygod. Ahmagaddd. And I thought...I thought you...you were a nice boy! A nizeboy. And I trusted...I trusted YYYYOU!"
She ran toward the door of the house. But Asa was already on his feet blocking her entry. "Jean...Miss Rouelle, please..." He took her arm, but she wrenched free, turned and ran from the porch. He chased her onto the path and across the front lawn. She fell, and he toppled over her, but sprang to his feet and tried to help her up.
"Let me go! Lemmego! You nasty devious deceitful filthy perverted dirty little boy." He released her arm. She crawled several yards, jumped to her feet and bolted around him in a wide arc, toward the house. He stood motionless and hung his head. "The robin," his ears heard his voice mutter. In an instant he heard a dull thud and a squeak as though someone had stepped on the whistle of a rubber doll. Asa turned toward the house. Miss Rouelle had run into someone and lay sobbing on the path. A man was reaching down, offering Miss Rouelle his hand. Asa brushed the tears from his eyes and focused. The man was Poppa.
Copyright, 1996 by Paul Pietsch, all rights reserved.
May be copied for personal, educational or other non-commercial "fair-use" purposes, as defined by U.S. copyright law.
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