This Is Me In a Bell
This is me reflected in a bell on an old Underwood typewriter that I have been lugging around for eleven or twelve years. My friend L gave it to me.
L was a few years older than me and not your average cat. A few months previous to his giving me the Underwood, L was running for a small but eager political party. I convinced him to do LSD-laced garlic croutons during a folk festival and made him dance with the swans that were in a black-and-white film being projected onto the side of a building. He made a beautiful swan with his skin so white in the projector's focused light. At first he was very nervous to be a popular local political candidate running around on psychedelics through throngs of his voters, but no one seemed to recognize the huge-pupilled, wildly grinning man as their underdog, L.
After the festival, we were still high as the sky, and a group of us decided to go hang out in L's attic apartment. We lounged about on couches and the floor, traded our eyeglasses, and lied around watching the world in greater and lesser states of clarity.
When there were only a couple of us left (the others had filtered away to sober up in peace), L played blues for us on his father's old Lone Ranger guitar that had a fuzzy white stencil of a cowboy on the black body. Anything but playing slide on it sounded like an eaten cassette tape.
I remember thinking that I wanted to stay in his apartment all the time and take care of his crazy jungle of plants that blotted out the light in his kitchen and write poetry in his dormer window. I thought he would be a strange lover, what with his huge glistening eyes and that wild grin and the poster of Nadia Comaneci he kept hanging inside his closet.
I never got close to doing that, though. I was too tangled up in other relationships as it was.
We did not run into each other often, but when we did, we got along famously. The following fall after the LSD incident, he invited me over to his apartment for coca-cola so that he could show me the really weird thing he had inherited from his ancient landlady. One day, out of the blue, she pulled this toaster-sized black case out of her closet and said L, you like old things, so I thought I'd give you this. I have no idea what it is. Neither did we.
We sat on his bed, and he put the black box down in front of me. Open it, he said with his eyes so far open that they looked lidless. I undid the metal latch and lifted the lid on stiff hinges. The inside was lined with purple felt. The box itself was about half full, and the lid had empty depressions in the shapes of some of the implements inside, but the elastics to hold them in place had given way decades ago.
The box was filled with different configurations of glass tubes that could be attached to a black electrical cord. L ran to shut off the lights and whispered Plug it in while nodding. The glass tubing filled up with purple and blue light, and L grabbed my finger and touched it to the side of the tube. What looked like a miniature lightning bolt twitched and vibrated out of the cloud of light at my point of contact.
What is this thing? I asked. It's ultraviolet light, he said. It's in a glass tube. We kept our voices hushed to whispers, as though we were discovering someone's long-held secret, as though this thing we were witnessing were tabboo, illegal.
We postulated what the device could be. The only clue was a slip of paper afixed to the inside of the box that warned us against using it in the bath. Could it be for healing purposes? Was it a 1920s attempt at the first electric dildo? Was it to be looked at or felt? Was it a treatment for depression? Was this device intended for home use, or was it used by professional something-or-others?
Suddenly, the dark felt intimate and the strange implement erotic. I wanted something; I wanted nothing; I wanted to stay there staring at lit up glass mystery tubes for years and years. We both jumped to turn on the light and go to the bathroom and exclaim about how late it was getting, and I claimed to have somewhere to be. Within about five minutes, I was standing out in front of his building and lighting a cigarette, confused and wondering what the hell all that was about.
I wondered if he kissed as strangely as I thought sex with him would be.
Just as I unpaused and my foot hit the sidewalk, L ran out onto his steps and told me that he had a present for me. It was this heavy old typewriter, an Underwood, from the earliest end of the 1900s. It was dusty and rusty and didn't have a proper base; instead, the base was two bars that were meant to be used to permanently screw the typewriter to a table.
L, I can't carry this all the way home, I said. Yes, you can. You have to, he said, and he hefted the machine up and into my arms. The hard weight of it dug into the tendons at my elbows.
It took me a long time to walk home that night, because I had to keep stopping to rest my arms. Half-way home, I put the Underwood down on the sidewalk and sat on it. It was midnight, and there was just a touch of cool in the air, the kind that is only around for a week or two before autumn simultaneously dries up and drowns out the heat. The smoke from my cigarette curled around the fullness of the moon, and I thought to myself Ah, that's what's going on.
Years later, just before I married the Fiery One, I ran into L in Cosmopolis in a chinese restaurant. We hadn't seen each other in a few years. When he saw me, that damned crazy grin consumed the lower half of his face, and he said I'm eating chinese food, like it was some kind of fantastic joke.
It was good to see see that he still looked so delightfully nuts, that he still shone in his mid-1990s slightly-less-than-alarming fashion.
So, I keep this broken, old typewriter with me through every move. It is comforting to think of the smell of his grandfather's old suits that he wore to political functions, and his story of how his last girlfriend left him because she broke her leg while they were having sex in the shower, and his early twentieth century antiques, and spontaneous acts of kindness and revelation. It is both a comfort and a necessity to remember that people are surprising when the world seems set in its ways.