28 November 2009 | Vol. 9, No. 3
Four Aspects of Resistance
The side entrance to the library is a proper Ivy door: a solid antique, heavy, imposing. I'm used to its resistance, its demand that I show a little gumption, so I give it a proper pull. But as I grasp the big brass handle and begin to give the door its due, it lunges toward me, tossing this handsome red-haired woman into my arms.
"Ooh!" she says. "Oops!" I say, and we laugh, instantly familiar. If not for the fact that we've caught the attention of two students chatting nearby, we might let the embrace linger, prolong just a little our unexpected moment of intimacy. Instead, a bit embarrassed, we disengage. We smile, and go on about our business: I, into the library, and she, out of it.
We shouldn't be so surprised. We know the world doesn't always resist us. Still, in straining against it every day we're easily lulled by the world's resistance, even coming to depend upon it, so that when it inevitably relents—as it did when my pull and the push of the woman with the short red hair coincided—we experience something like the loss of gravity, something akin to both the exhilaration of flight and the queasiness of an elevator ride. It is as if the laws of physics (which, if I'm not mistaken, we made up, more than once) have been broken. A lapse in the world's resistance is a reminder of the unpredictability of everything, of the infinite wool of contingencies from which our lives are spun. It's the footprint of someone who left town before we arrived.
I. Natural, or Physical Resistance
Once, in the summer before I turned thirteen, I was playing with Agnes Thayer in the comb of woods that bordered our suburban plat. Aggie was a year older and had been my friend for nearly as long as I could remember.
The boys I'd grown up with, we played the usual sort of games: Cowboys and Indians; Cops and Robbers; Civil War (my favorite); both theaters of World War II. There were also games of make-believe I had occasionally played with girls: school, house, office. But Aggie dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, and make-believe with her was always about animals. Usually we played at being dogs, or horses, and for the latter she sometimes got all the neighbor kids involved. In that wood behind our homes we built ourselves a track on the soft peaty loam the hemlock and fir needles made, a steeplechase with jumps made out of deadwood. We would hold races, using the stopwatch Aggie's father had given her. The less athletic kids would act as trainers, tying ropes around us and leading us from our imaginary stables to the track.
But when Aggie and I were alone together in the woods, we played wilder animals.
Aggie was a fine partner in make-believe. You don't need much of a plot for a good game of make-believe. It's mainly improvisation, and Aggie and I needed few prompts once we had created our scenario. Our animal games could go on for hours with scarcely a word exchanged.
On this day we were big cats, two elusive mountain lions, and we were returning from a hunt to our den—a tree house that overlooked our racetrack like a grandstand. The tree house had been built by all of the neighborhood kids with our fathers' help years before, although the land didn't belong to any of us. The tree house and our track, and in fact the entire wood, existed due to the benign neglect of some twenty acres by the nearby seminary. (My mother harbored hopes of my entering that seminary one day. I knew this because I was required to attend occasional weekend retreats with the other eligible Catholic boys, where they talked about having a vocation, and they didn't mean auto mechanics.)
Aggie and I had raced hard, as we always did in our games in the woods; flying over logs and streams, our feet landing surely among stones. We were tired, in a sweat, and we could feel the heat of the summer filtering down through the canopy above us, inflating the shaded air as we climbed to our lair in the trees. We sprawled on our backs in opposite corners of the tree house and rested. It was quiet. At first the loudest sound was of our own deep breaths. A light breeze stirred the treetops, moving our house ever so slightly, causing just the whisper of a creak, and that muffled by the warm blanket of the air. A squirrel moved about below us, gathering nuts from under the dry leaves beneath the beeches; a few sounds made their faint way to us from the neighborhood's edge, which began some fifty yards downhill, as if from a distant world. After a while my mate rose and came to me, nuzzling my face. Aggie was in blue jeans and a white tee shirt with tiny roses and a neck that cut away toward her shoulders, revealing the hollows and points of her clavicles. She was on all fours above me, bending her face to mine. Her shirt hung loose, and I could see her new breasts, the dark gems of her nipples set in soft mounds that rose no higher than small jewelry boxes. I knew somehow that this sight was no accident. I said nothing when Aggie licked my cheek; I kept quiet when she licked the tip of my nose; and when she put her lips to mine I offered no resistance.
II. Political Resistance
When I was seventeen I went to a political rally with Naomi Weiss and her boyfriend Dennis. It was at the college he was attending, more or less, very near the New Jersey Turnpike. Dennis was a bit of a radical I guess. I didn't know him well. He wasn't from our town, which would have been pretty obvious to anyone who was, since Dennis was black. Naomi had met him at the college. She got away with hanging out there because both her parents worked for the college. Naomi was definitely a radical—if you could actually be a radical and still be in high school. I think she was a radical from birth. Her parents—real nice people—were the town communists. Her family lived in the same part of town as my family: an area of ranch houses mostly, with a sprinkling of colonials and a dash of those California moderns some people in the East hadn't been able to resist building. Naomi's folks lived in one of the California things—which was itself enough to raise suspicion among some people in town. Their yard always needed raking or mowing, and the house was always messy: books and magazines covering everything, glasses and plates covering the books and magazines. If something at Naomi's house broke it tended to remain broken. I liked it there.
The rally was being held to protest the war in Viet Nam. I thought getting out of Viet Nam was a good idea, but that isn't exactly why I was there. The organizers had promised a free concert, to entice the less politically committed. I went to hear the band.
The concert was held on a new concrete plaza, which was surrounded by new concrete buildings, which the students called Bah-houses in honor of their impersonality. The plaza was the center of the new campus, a green without any green. The entire place was an example of how higher education had responded to Boomer demographics and of the particular response of the state of New Jersey to the Newark riots. This was higher education as mass production. A petri dish was more conducive to culture than that place, but there were signs people were trying.
I had a hunger for the rock and roll, for the living crash and wail, but the music was constantly being interrupted by political speakers—students mostly, who sounded like they were auditioning for a part—and they talked longer than the bands played. But then one speaker got up who gripped us all, who strutted across the stage spewing hellfire and inspiration. She had a mound of dark frizzy hair that reached toward the small of her back to where it terminated with a knotted red bandana. Her voice was loud, raspy, and packed with drama, and she prowled in front of the drums and amplifiers, turning the freckled arc of her nose to a sneer every time she mentioned the establishment. She was wearing tight jeans and a tight leather vest over a guinea tee—which was all that restrained the dreamy bosom that heaved with every exhortation. Doubt it not: there is a lot of sexuality woven into the fabric of anger. I was immediately radicalized, and so was everyone else. The bands had been good, but she blew them away. I'd have killed a pig for her. I'd have blown up the whole damn farm if she'd asked me to.
When the rally broke up, Dennis took us over to a gathering of the local chapter of radicals, where they were reviewing the day over joints and beer in a dorm lounge. There she was. I was feeling brave, daring, and out of control. Atop a tornado of hormones, I found myself approaching her and trying to actually start a conversation. How I thought a kid like me was going to score with a worldly woman past the age of eighteen I don't know. Maybe it was because Dennis always treated me like an equal to please Naomi, and I'd let it go to my head. I tried talking and acting politically savvy—something I should have known I wouldn't be able to sustain for very long. Somewhere along the way she said something about mobilizing masses, large cooperative efforts. I started talking about Woodstock.
You know how it was at Woodstock? I asked. Well…
And off I went. Maybe I thought I'd seem somehow older, or cooler, by bringing it up as an example of our generation's cooperative potential, and letting it drop that I'd been there. But she felt that Woodstock was a freak of nature, not the site of emergent social formations; that the hegemony would most likely manage to co-opt whatever subversive elements might have been present by turning everything into more product: Woodstock would be sold somehow, mechanically reproduced. Real political resistance would soon be forced underground, she said, as the power structure realized the seriousness of the threat posed by it.
Yeah, well, at least the music was good anyway, I said, trying to find a funny way out of what I sensed was coming.
I think rock music sucks, she said, glancing past me at the tall, thin, scruffy guy who had been the afternoon's master of ceremonies and who was expounding to a rapt and attractive blond, a cheerleader disguised in bellbottoms and a peasant shirt. That's what I'm talking about, she said. It starts out as rebellion and ends up as pop crap, sucked right into the vortex of mindless mainstream culture. Rock and Roll is about as radical as a Tootsie Roll. Get your Rock and Roll Tootsie, she said, and she laughed. The laugh was sarcastic, and I sensed it was aimed at me—though in retrospect, I may have been wrong. But the words had a concussive force, throwing me back to the foot of her wondrous ramparts.
Someone else approached, and I melted away, certain that not one button of that sacred vest, or any other such blest place, would ever, ever open itself up to me. My heart was cleft by a few words, my manhood—such as it was at that age—stricken to its core.
But I'd learned something about resistance, how simply and easily it can be invoked, how utterly powerful it can be just the same. My guess is she wasn't at Woodstock, was sick of listening to the rhapsodies of people who were.
III. Electrical Resistance
Once, when I was in a band called the Roaring Boys, we played at a fundraiser for a group of people who wanted to keep a nuclear power plant from being completed. The gig was at a college in southern New Hampshire. The Roaring Boys certainly didn't care for nuclear power, but we were playing gratis for the exposure more than the cause, and so we ignored the irony of plugging in our instruments to help prevent the generation of more electricity. We were playing to a packed house in a cafeteria that—by setting a few kegs on some tables and turning out all the lights except the red and blue floods directed at the stage from the back of the room—had been converted into a beer hall. Midway through the night, with the dance floor a frothy surge, the band rode to a crescendo, and when it broke, as we brought the music down, I stepped up to sing the song's bridge. But when my lips touched the microphone, the thing metamorphosed into an asp, and I was nearly electrocuted.
I saw something then, as it bit into my lip. A brilliant blue light flashed past me, knocking me down in its hurry. I was propelled into the trap set behind me, sucked into its snare and kick, nearly splitting my head open on the crash cymbal before I fell to the floor.
There is something to be said for the world's resistance. For the most part it's a benevolent carapace, protecting us from our own impulses. What child, left to its own devices, would not kill itself as soon as it could walk? They seek out the most precipitous drop, the most precarious point; they are attracted to the fastest, brightest, hottest things. Show a child its first flame, and it will put a hand in every time.
It was a while before I could kiss a microphone properly again. To this day I hesitate, though I always do—a gentle peck before we begin—so that I know things are all right between us.
A few years later, on my way home from what turned out to be my last gig with the Roaring Boys, I was driving the equipment van in the morning's smaller hours on a foggy, winding New England road. A certain turn was wound a bit too tight, I came around a bit too fast, and all those amperes and watts and decibels stashed away in the back of the van, all that potential energy behind me was unleashed as I drove into the embankment. This berm was a pièce de résistance those guitars and amplifiers found irresistible. Here! Come here! it said, and they all rushed to meet it, compelling me into an embrace with the steering wheel.
At the hospital, after they had determined just how many ribs I had cracked and had stitched up my face, the night crew parked me on a Gurney in recovery while they took a break for sandwiches and coffee. They didn't know that my heart was broken once again, that the steering wheel had left a mark, a contusion. And suddenly my heart took off for parts unknown, racing so fast I could barely whisper the word help. I was still trying to say it aloud when a nurse sitting on a table on the other side of a large window noticed the fingers of my right hand rising off the sheet, no higher than a ring box. My eyes caught hers, she saw my parted lips, and she sprang into action, calling to the others. Trouble! Here! We've got trouble.
By the time they reached me my heart had stopped running. There was quite a lot of commotion, but in fact I was feeling much better. My ribs weren't bothering me quite so much, and the tightness along the stitches began to subside. But when I saw them wheel out the defibrillator, I grew apprehensive. I wasn't sure I was interested. But who would pay attention to me? I had, after all, asked for help while still conscious, a state I was about to leave behind as my whatever-it-is headed for wherever-it-goes. I was checking out, skipping town, and all these people were creditors in noisy protest, grabbing at my shirttail and pants cuff as I clambered out the window. I only had a moment as the doctor held the paddles above me, and then hundreds of joules snaked through me, wrapped themselves around my heart and squeezed. It was a too-tight, too-big hug, like my uncle used to give my at family reunions, the one who liked to pull my ears and snap his finger against my temple. I hugged back this time, hard.
Then it was over, and there I was, my ribs hurting worse than before.
But I was ready that time, and I saw the jouled flame as it approached me. I greeted that blue light like an old friend.
Ho! I said. There you are! You old scoundrel, you anarchist, you.
IV. Polar, or Magnetic Resistance
I once drove three hundred miles to New York City, on impulse, to see a woman who had wounded my heart, who had told me she wouldn't be able to get away that weekend. When I got there I found out she had changed her mind and taken a plane less than an hour before, intending to surprise me. This struck me at the time as the most tragic thing that I could ever remember happening. Her roommate, the unfortunate bearer of this sad news, agreed with me. We were both in such complete agreement over what a tragedy it was that the two of us ended up having tragic, guilty sex all night long. It remains the most memorable night of sex in my life, the one that will console me most in my declining years. In the morning, stunned and exhausted and in awe of each other, we both swore never to reveal what had passed between us. No sense in making things any more tragic than they already were, right?
As if we knew. The woman I had sought so desperately was herself so distressed upon finding me gone when she arrived late that night that she sought refuge at the nearby home of my friend. The two were married the following June and had a reception that beggared description in the great hall of an old New England college with great islands of shrimp on ice, which I ate piggishly and washed down with a great deal of free Jameson on ice.
The roommate, Susan, and I made love one more time, in a motel after the reception, but with nothing like the heat we had experienced on that first night. Oh, there was still enough of tragedy in the world to raise the blood, but maybe not enough of it belonged to us just then. Afterwards, we drank warm beer and watched Orson Welles' Touch of Evil on cable, trading dirt on the newlyweds.
It's been years, and I don't know what's become of the happy couple, but Susan and I are still in touch.
Tie two magnets to strings and suspend them from your fingers just so, and they will dance away from each other in confusion like epileptic marionettes until a certain apparently random turn, then suddenly rush to lock themselves together. Resistance or attraction—a train flying above its rails out of Osaka, approaching and fleeing each point on the rail with stunning speed, propelled by resistance, bearing two adulterers who sit in separate cars toward a country rendezvous; or an almost forgotten phone number held on your refrigerator by a magnetic cow—it's all the same heedless force. Whether we come together or fall apart depends on the location of attractive bodies at a particular moment, our relative inclinations, our angle of coincidence.
It's getting late. The library is closing, and I haven't accomplished much this evening. I feel drugged somehow. All of this has made me woozy: the smell of old books, their leaves like pressed flowers, the frowzy scent of their decay, the oddly fragrant thoughts and feelings of the dead, leaking like gas from the spiny rows here in the basement; the silent passion between the fading lines, passion you had to strain to hear even when the ink was fresh, (for here are only scholarly works, and these born in a more decorous era) passion that spoke in a whisper even then, and by now has dwindled into a shadow of sound, a dusky exhalation; the soft inaudible hiss of them all, of the yellowed lights, of the encroaching cold and imminent darkness, already poised behind me in the unlit stacks, in this last bastion of Melvil Dewey's decimals.
On my way out I ask about the air. The librarian, scarcely looking up, shrugs politely. There are fans in the summer.
Outside, beyond the heavy door, the stars seem impossibly close, as if the universe has contracted in the frigid, moonless air, the constellations huddling together for warmth. Looking up, I see love-struck Perseus and Andromeda, the dragon slain and family resistance overcome, holding hands at last.
If I see that red-haired woman again, I wonder, shall I kiss her?
About the author:
Scott Sciortino's short stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in ink and online in numerous places, including the Missouri Review and the Subway Chronicles. He has just completed a memoir, Busker: A Year of Dangerous Living, about moving from Vermont to Manhattan to work as an underground (not a metaphor) musician.