This morning, waking in the dimness of another January dawn, a scumbled, grayish light seeping into the bedroom, and there is your wife's face turned toward your face, her eyes closed, still fast asleep, the covers pulled all the way up to her neck, her head the only part of her that is visible, and you marvel at how beautiful she looks, how young she looks, even now, thirty years after you first slept with her, after thirty years of living together under the same roof and sharing the same bed.
More snow falling today, and as you climb out of bed and walk to the window, the branches of the trees in the back garden are turning white. You are sixty-three years old. It occurs to you that there has rarely been a moment during the long journey from boyhood to now when you have not been in love. Thirty years of marriage, yes, but in the thirty years before that, how many infatuations and crushes, how many ardors and pursuits, how many deliriums and mad surges of desire? From the very start of your conscious life, you have been a willing slave of Eros. The girls you loved as a boy, the women you loved as a man, each one different from the others, some round and some lean, some short and some tall, some bookish and some athletic, some moody and some outgoing, some white and some black and some Asian, nothing on the surface ever mattered to you, it was all about the inner light you would detect in her, the spark of singularity, the blaze of revealed selfhood, and that light would make her beautiful to you, even if others were blind to the beauty you saw, and then you would burn to be with her, to be near her, for feminine beauty is something you have never been able to resist. All the way back to your first days of school, the kindergarten class in which you fell for the girl with the long blonde ponytail, and how often were you punished by Miss Sandquist for sneaking off with the little girl you had fallen for, the two of you together in a corner somewhere making mischief, but those punishments meant nothing to you, for you were in love, and you were a fool for love then, just as you are a fool for love now.
The inventory of your scars, in particular the ones on your face, which are visible to you each morning when you look into the bathroom mirror to shave or comb your hair. You seldom think about them, but whenever you do, you understand that they are marks of life, that the assorted jagged lines etched into the skin of your face are letters from the secret alphabet that tells the story of who you are, for each scar is the trace of a healed wound, and each wound was caused by an unexpected collision with the worldthat is to say, an accident, or something that need not have happened, since by definition an accident is something that need not happen. Contingent facts as opposed to necessary facts, and the realization as you look into the mirror this morning that all life is contingent, except for the one necessary fact that sooner or later it will come to an end.
You are three and a half, and your twenty-five-year-old pregnant mother has taken you along with her on a shopping expedition to a department store in downtown Newark. She is accompanied by a friend of hers, the mother of a boy who is three and a half as well. At some point, you and your little comrade break away from your mothers and begin running through the store. It is an enormous open space, no doubt the largest room you have ever set foot in, and there is a palpable thrill in being able to run wild through this gargantuan indoor arena. Eventually, you and the boy begin belly-flopping onto the floor and sliding along the smooth surface, sledding without sleds, as it were, and this game proves to be so enjoyable, so ecstatic in the pleasure it produces, that you become more and more reckless, more and more daring in what you are willing to attempt. You reach a part of the store where construction work or repair work is under way, and without bothering to take notice of what obstacles might lie ahead, you belly-flop onto the floor again and sail along the glasslike surface until you find yourself speeding straight toward a wooden carpenter's bench. With a small twist of your small body, you think you can avoid crashing into the leg of the table that is looming before you, but what you do not realize in the split second you have to shift course is that a nail is jutting from the leg, a long nail low enough to be at the level of your face, and before you can stop yourself, your left cheek is pierced by the nail as you go flying past it. Half your face is torn apart. Sixty years later, you have no memories of the accident. You remember the running and the belly-flopping, but nothing about the pain, nothing about the blood, and nothing about being rushed to the hospital or the doctor who sewed up your cheek. He did a brilliant job, your mother always said, and since the trauma of seeing her firstborn with half his face ripped off never left her, she said it often: something to do with a subtle double-stitching method that kept the damage to a minimum and prevented you from being disfigured for life. You could have lost your eye, she would say to youor, even more dramatically, You could have been killed. No doubt she was right. The scar has grown fainter and fainter as the years have passed, but it is still there whenever you look for it, and you will carry that emblem of good fortune (eye intact! not dead!) until you go to your grave.
Excerpted from Winter Journal by Paul Auster. Copyright © 2012 by Paul Auster. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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