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James Was Here

July 18, 1993|ELIZABETH TALLENT | Elizabeth Tallent wrote "James Was Here," she says, because she was "really interested in that sense of American maleness connected to the West and with the prerogatives of maleness that are no longer right. It matters that 'James' takes place in Santa Fe; it's not New York City." Tallent, who teaches English and writing at UC Davis, moved to Northern California four years ago and now lives in Little River near Mendocino. Her third collection of stories, "Honey," which includes "James," will be out in November from Knopf. "It's very much New Mexico, about the nature of intrusion," she says. "I was thinking a lot about boundaries and metaphors for that. It's about relationships, about people who were immigrants and about really adult compromises."

This corner scarcely qualifies as private, but at least Felipe's not in James' face, and James out of Felipe's force field is a lighter-hearted James who might even be good at this. They sit, and Gwen says, "How am I? Fine. That's what ex-lovers start with, the kind of f---ed-up small talk nobody can bear, really. If we ran into each other on the street, I could understand it, maybe, but you're making me talk like this here. How are you? Don't answer that. I won't tell you how you look." Then she can't resist. "Like hell." Angry at him.

He says, "No small talk? I miss you like an arm. A leg. I can't look good or be good, sleep or eat very well, make sense of our being apart."

She leans back. Her couple of inches' new distance figures in her voice, too. "You made nonsense of our being together. Is how I see it."

"I can change that." He tries to wait longer than he can actually stand to. "I've been working on myself. I can be different with you." He waits, but she's handling this with silence. "I know it can't seem true," he says. "Hearing it like this, of course you're skeptical."

"Skeptical," she says. "I passed skeptical so long ago. Skeptical was one of the pleasanter emotions."

"There isn't anybody else, is there?"

"The rights you assume you have, you amaze me." But answering the question at all, she has answered, No, nobody. He knows her that well, and she knows he knows.

He says, "I can't live without you. I'm not good at it."

"I could have told you you'd get to that. I could have written it down and kept the piece of paper with me and unfolded it for you when you showed up and let you read it and you'd see: 'I can't live without you,' when you know that's a lie, you can, and you have to. Saying that, can you feel what blackmail it is?" She veers away from him without leaving her chair, by uncrossing and recrossing her long legs.

He says, "I mean live like understand why I'm getting out of bed in the morning, live like knowing why I'm here, like there's this great reason, you, for dealing with how very f---ed up the world is, being able to deal with it, a motive for getting through the day, you , and you know that, you know telling you this isn't blackmail, it's love."

"Love." She runs a forefinger around the neck of her T-shirt so the mole under her collarbone shows. Seeing him following her gesture she turns it into a yank, the T-shirt's neck a noose. She says, "Know what I read in the paper? They did this study of men and women to see whether lovers can recognize each other. Blindfolded, whether they can find their lovers in a same-sex lineup, by touch."

"You're telling me this because?"

"Because a blindfolded woman can find her lover, but a blindfolded man can't."

"Look, Gwen, blindfolded, I'd have a hundred ways of knowing you. You're wrong. You couldn't find me. You're so wrong it hurts."

Felipe's pen pauses so he can examine them, or not them, Gwen, her profile to James, the long, slightly upturned nose, the eye intelligently bracketed by crow's feet, the ear unevenly hidden by her short hair. Felipe perceives some signal James can't and resumes his scratching, radiating irritation and, as if in response to that irritation, Gwen smoothes and smoothes a table napkin.

James tries a more neutral topic. "How's Carlos?" Carlos is Dwight's lover, HIV-positive and, the last James heard, in the hospital.

"Home, but hurting. They even say this could be the week. James, it's awful. Dwight's with him a lot."

James, it's awful --her resistance rubbed away to show plaintive old affection and dependence. He says, "That's good. He has to be. Hard on you, though."

"Dwight found a new guy, a friend of a friend, to help for now."

"Is he any good?"

"Only all right. It gets awkward, because so much of how I work needs Dwight for its other half. It's having to discuss what Dwight would automatically know. This is selfish, sick of me, but I can't help wondering if--, if--, how long before Dwight can come back?"

"Not sick, natural. You know it's natural." James says, "Can I come for you after work?"

"James, one five-minute conversation, and it's filled with trouble, and you, only you, could think we're seeing each other again. We're not. We can't. I can't. You know what this was, James? This was you getting what you wanted."

At the door he says, "See you," and she says, with beautiful weariness, "No," and waits while Felipe locks up, Felipe glad James is gone, and James is gone, he's almost to the street before he turns to run back up the stairs. As Felipe unlocks the door, his expression is grounded like an actor's in powerful, recollected wonder, not genuine, dramatic. "What?"

James writes on a receipt with a stub of carpenter's pencil. "I'll come back. We're not finished talking. J."

Felipe reads. "She said the N-word, James. About time."

"None of your business, Felipe. You're not even close enough to be a bystander to Gwen and me. I gave you a message, you give the message to her."

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