Saturday, January 17, 2009

" last!"

Over time I’ve accumulated Chekhov short story collections. They are abundant on the shelves of bookstores and libraries. The words “…short stories of Chekhov…” are akin to “…Sinatra’s Greatest Hits….”. A master turned into a commodity.
I bought the collection shown above at the Gotham Book Mart (back when it existed). Miraculously, amid the pretentious, cranky indifference of the staff, they found it within their hearts to ring up this purchase. Amazing that the place went out of business.

But among the various Chekhov collections that have graced Slimbo’s shelves, this one survived. The overarching reason for absent copies? During my dating years, I would give them to women I was trying to woo. (When my son begins to date, first and foremost on my list of advice will be: don’t give women Chekhov books, give jewelry).

Still, whatever form your favorite Chekhov collection takes, undoubtedly it will feature “The Kiss”.

When I was fourteen, my family moved from New York to Memphis. I had three years of high school ahead of me in a new school, all boys. My classmates seemed predisposed to dislike me and I perhaps did little to be liked on their occasionally reasonable terms. But through a slow and accretive process, I made a few friends.

And it was through these friends that on one summer night, I found myself alone with a young girl, Raquel. We were at a pool party. I was sixteen and she was fifteen. She sat on the hood of my car wearing nothing but a towel wrapped around her magnificent bikini-clad body. Nothing amorous happened. We talked for maybe fifteen minutes together, alone. And despite that no teenage rite of romantic passage was achieved, it did feel as though the gods were finally looking down, now forced to acknowledge my existence.

“…All I am dreaming about now which seems to me so impossible and unearthly is really quite an ordinary thing…”

But what would come next? Nothing. I was, unfortunately slow to accept this realization, as only marginal, melancholic adolescent can be. I would drive by her house, perhaps hoping to serendipitously place myself there to rescue her from an unwanted assault from a football player. I tried to conjure possible ways I could situate us once again on Cooper Street, with her sitting on the hood of my car, laughing at things I’d say. None of this would happen and I would never speak to her again. During that phase I came to terms with this, I read “The Kiss” in my English class.

* * *

Like Gatsby, Shane, Lenny and George - Ryabovich is burned in my consciousness from my early reading years. At the time I read “The Kiss”, I was Ryabovich. Small, slight and awkward, he was the misfit in his artillery brigade. Amid the unit’s travels, they arrived at a town where a local landowner, a general von Rabbeck invites the officers to his home. There, Ryabovich slips away from the main dining room due to his discomfort with people and while he skulks into a darkened parlor, an unidentifiable young woman embraces him and whispers, ‘at last!’. She kisses him but then flees realizing she has mistaken him for someone else.

Or did she? Who was she? Was Ryabovich the intended recipient of the kiss? The magic, the mystery, the sensuousness of those seconds consume Ryabovich. In as much as they beguile him, they also embolden him. Suddenly he feels himself emerging from the unpopular awkward shell that has incarcerated his spirit.

But the evening passes. The brigade must move on. Ryabovich becomes unable to contain his obsession with the kiss. He tries to explain the event to another officer. He tries to contort his future that it may include some reunion with the young woman.

Their brigade comes again to von Rabbecks town. Ryabovich’s expectations soar, but no footman comes to invite them to the von Rabbecks. There will be no reunion with the mystery girl. Quickly, quietly and devastatingly, Ryabovich retreats back to his former self, the thin delicate labyrinth of dreams he over-constructed is shattered:

“Now that he expected nothing, the incident of the kiss, his expectations, his impatience, his vague hopes and disappointment, presented themselves to him in a clear light”
Why in God's name would I give Chekhov to the women I desired?
Although I recalled "The Kiss", I would forget Chekhov's name. Later in college, I'd be reunited with Chekhov through Raymond Carver, whom I believed to be the greatest writer of all time. I feel a certain shame by this, similar in the way I had to learn who Robert Johnson was because Eric Clapton told us all to look him up.

1 comment:

  1. "the thin delicate labyrinth of dreams"

    Nice. Without it, what would a writer be? Where would his visions come from? And how much more intricate it becomes with each new vision.