"Creative Acts" by L. J. Schneiderman

L.J. Schneiderman

L.J. Schneiderman

L.J. Schneiderman was born in New York City, received a B.A. in English Literature from Yale University, an M.D. from Harvard Medical School, and moved to the West Coast in the 1960s where he now lives in the small ocean town of Del Mar, California. He has published a novel, Sea Nymphs by the Hour, (Bobbs-Merrill), and short stories in Ascent (Pushcart Prize nomination), Kansas Quarterly, Chouteau Review, Black Warrior Review, and Confrontation. He has also written over a dozen plays, which have received workshop productions and staged readings in this country and abroad. One of his plays, Screwball, was given a full production at the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California, and won a Drama-Logue award.

(A Modern Fable)

They both had heard the warnings: they were on the descending slope of their creative powers. He was 29, nearing 30. She 39, almost 40. He was a graduate student in math struggling to complete a thesis for his PhD. She was a securities analyst trainee seeking motherhood.

The warnings were discouraging, of course, so they worked hard to be supportive of each other. He pored over her temperature charts. She endured his insomnia. They saw their creative acts as requiring synchronized efforts.

The days she returned home from her cubicle in San Francisco to their apartment in the Berkeley flats and saw from his shell-shocked face that his latest hope to solve the interlinked four-dimensional sphere problem had been swept away in that day's graduate topology seminar, she would take over. She would drop her briefcase and folders, and, still dressed in her power suit of pinstripe and sheer stockings, strip his clothes off his limp body, start dinner, and return to give him a full body massage and whatever else his weary heart desired.

The nights he found her weeping over the toilet, fouled with yet another gruesome, heartbreaking clot one or two tantalizing weeks after the urine test had been positive, he would take over. He would put his arm around her, lead her back to bed and hold her while she cried, make breakfast, call in sick for her, shop, make the bed, buy her flowers.

They knew the important thing was to never stop trying, to never give up. Had they not both overcome obstacles to get where they are? She in a crowd of six brothers and sisters had migrated from Guatemala to New York, where they continued to migrate from one condemned flat to another—never more than two small dark rooms, including bathroom and sink. Even the pigs and chickens on their little patch of farm back home had more space. She was the first in her family to go to college.

His obstacles were more subtle. He was a corny blonde from Minnesota who lumbered into the Big Apple with his acoustic bass. Looks of disdain, of disbelief greeted this hulking Swede, and he was slow to catch on, but he persisted, hanging around the clubs until the early morning hours when they let him sit in. Then he would smile, crease his eyes and let his thick, velvety fingers do the talking. It turned out he had the goods. And so he made his sunny way into the dark New York jazz world as an occasional sideman.

They had met one night at Sweet Basil. Later they took a CCNY summer school calculus class together. She was determined, she told him, to find a better life by making lots of money in portfolio management. As for him he liked math and was content to wander in and out of whatever courses appealed to him. He hadn't even thought about going for a degree until she made it clear to him he had to get serious about his future. She had no intention of marrying a wandering minstrel.

And even now their creative acts followed the same trajectories. Her goal was specific and palpable, a baby. His goal was so insubstantial it could be imagined by no more than a handful of people in the entire world, a ghostly puff of two spheres that floated in four dimensions, whose intersections were or were not points.

They were determined, however, to be part of each other's efforts.

He followed the chart provided by the fertility clinic as meticulously as she. No need to remind him of the day, the hour, the position, the time required for her to remain on her back after the act to allow the last laggard sperm to find its destined path. He was her dedicated collaborator.

As for her she strained, really strained, to imagine the world of floating spheres he tried to conjure up from his yellow pad. She would get as far as the first infolding and conjunctions, even as far as the transections—he was about to illustrate how the fourth dimension created points out of surfaces—when she became lost. Vainly she stared as his penciled images bulged and twisted. Face bent over the paper, cheeks solidly anchored in her fists, she tried to imagine soap bubbles flailing in the air. She was rooting for him so badly even though she did not know what exactly she was rooting for. But the important thing is he knew, and she knew that one day the floating soap bubbles would reveal their secrets to him, she knew they would.

If they both would just keep trying and never give up.

To change his luck he tried changing his patterns. He would take different routes to the office he shared with two other grad students (three desks, one blackboard) in the math department building high up on the Berkeley campus. Sometimes he would stick to the paths, sometimes he would deliberately find ways to make his own path, stomping through bushes and redwood groves, hopping across the rocks in Strawberry creek and in and out and up and down the stairs of interloping buildings. Sometimes he would circle in from the south, sometimes from the north. Sometimes he would ride his mountain bike, sometimes he would walk.

He tried dropping quarters into the outstretched paper cups of panhandlers. He even paused to talk to them, looking for inspiring clues in their deep, elusive philosophies. Once he crouched down to help three fetid, punk-garbed kids with spiked hair and facial studs and safety pins and rings, who were sitting in the gutter bent over a New York Times crossword puzzle.

The idea, of course, was to shake up the wiring in his brain. Like electroshock therapy. He even thought of trying drugs, cigars, skinhead shaves, horror movies, suntan salons, gay bars, topless shows, new sexual positions—although he had to be careful about the last to conserve his volume and potency. In the end, all he dared to do was increase his cappuccino intake, which resulted only in severe intestinal distress and bleeding hemorrhoids. It had no effect on his creativity.

She too had her stratagems. She consulted curanderas, palmists, psychics, mystics, clairvoyants—without telling him, of course. She varied her diet, sneaking into her bag lunches items bought at little shops with beaded curtains and hand-lettered signs—gritty cakes made of buckwheat, millet and mung bean, dried mushrooms and alfalfa, blue-green algae, exotic roots and berries, herbs with names like ginseng, dong quai and fenugreek, vitamins and enzymes, bone meal, goat's milk and rabbit meat—and she too suffered from queasy intestinal rebellions, although she was spared the bleeding hemorrhoids.

She did deep breathing, chanting, imaging, meditation, prayer. She even visited a Catholic church while on a company training session in L.A—without telling him, of course—and kneeled before the garish figure of Jesus and begged him to help her. She carried with her only a dim memory of that stretched-out man—her father had wrenched them from the Church when she was barely three because it had sided with the patrones.

This shiny California version seemed less tormented—more like a movie star acting the part—even so she hoped he would be sympathetic. She whispered that it would have to be natural or not at all. They could not afford high-powered technology and frozen embryos. And even though the half-naked man staring in the air seemed preoccupied with his own thoughts, she hoped he would hear her. But period followed period, broken only by the occasional cruel clot.

As they pursued their lonely missions they never forgot about the other. Theirs was a synchronized effort, after all. Weekend afternoons when they finally took time out to relax they weren't really relaxing. Stretched out on the lawn chair in their tiny backyard she never lost her tenacity. She had finished her day's reading assignment involving Dispersion Measurement within a Size-Weighted Composite in preparation for her Chartered Financial Analysts exam. Now behind her sunglasses she surveyed the clouds, constantly on the lookout for shapes that could lead her to understand his search. While he, in shorts and straw hat, put away his reprints on low-dimensional topology and took up medical textbooks devoted to human reproductive functions and dysfunctions. Whatever they could do to help the other they would do. Because, of course, their goals were the same—motherhood and a PhD.

Not that they did not have other occupations in their life. Every working day she awoke before dawn (as her family had done back in Guatemala and still did in New York), put on her power suit and red tie over monogrammed white shirt made of luminous one hundred percent cotton, snapped on her BlackBerry, and joined the sleek, predatory traders swarming into San Francisco where she proved to be, as all her superiors agreed, an animal in the emerging market sector. She was a quick study, mastering Brady Bonds, Eurobonds, foreign debt rating, venture participation, and market capitalization, ignoring jealousies and subtle snubs by the mostly white male Ivy Leaguers manning the banks of computers around her, scaring them away by the sheer intensity of her dedication. Someday soon, her rivals had to concede, she would be handling her own portfolio.

And he kept up his jazz. Local musicians who heard about him, old friends touring from New York—all called him to join them on gigs, so that most weekends and evenings, he kept himself busy doing what he liked best, playing music and imagining math.

Except that the clock continued to tick. Spiteful gods spurned their prayers, their joyous desirings, and taunted them from an impenetrable darkness.

What did they want, these gods? What rites of propitiation were the two of them failing to perform? Time was closing in. University policy allowed him only one more year to complete his thesis and place his footnote in the history of mathematics; else all hopes of an academic life with security of tenure that would give him time for jazz were naught. His life, their life—he would have gambled and lost. And for her, nearing forty, each passing month was like the solemn drumbeat of an approaching funeral cortege.

To keep up their spirits they told each other encouraging stories. His featured the usual legends of long-barren couples who adopted finally and then were inundated with offspring of their own biological conjunctions. Was he trying to suggest they adopt, she asked. No, not really, he said. Just saying we should never stop trying, never give up. Then wondered. Was that all he was saying?

A disconcerting experience. In the worlds he inhabited, psychological self-examination was not a familiar practice.

For her part, she told him a story she remembered from high school chemistry, the only thing she remembered, she said. A scientist named Kekule, after years spent trying to figure out the structure of certain carbon molecules, finally collapsed in exhaustion and had a dream that the carbon molecules formed little dancing rings. When this Kekule awoke he realized that the dream had revealed the solution. The carbon molecules were in the shape of rings. Are you saying I should work harder, he asked. Until I collapse in exhaustion? No. But when you do manage to sleep, she answered, maybe you should check out your dreams. It was a strange notion. All day long he lived in the dream worlds of music and math. He never thought of exploring what went on at night.

These exchanges, of course, had edges. Sometimes they signaled impatience, expressed frustration. They had to be careful not to fight. Among the discouraging things they had heard was that fragile marriages came apart in the pursuit of parenthood. Which also applied to stressed-out graduate students pursuing their PhD. They reminded each other not to over-interpret offhand remarks, not to take personally explosions of temper, to accept with grace a certain waning of romantic and mathematic passion. Love in all its forms suffered from deadlines.

But truth was, the deadlines would not go away. Each new day reminded them, brought new despair. There had to be a way. Babies came. Four-dimensional spheres existed. Nature provided those certainties. They just had to remember to never stop trying, to never give up.

And then the gods struck as only gods can in that part of the world. First was an earthquake (Richter 6.1, epicenter 2.4 miles northeast) that sent pots, pans, dishes and books crashing to the floor. He was alone in the apartment at the time and just managed to clamber down the swaying, groaning stairs and into the street before the building split into huge cracks and tilted to one side. There he became nearly seasick in the spasms of aftershocks as everything around him—trees, buildings, telephone poles—underwent episodic orgies, filling the sky with dust, as from old, battered cushions.

Hours later they managed to reach each other by phone and learn they were both safe. Her office skyscraper in San Francisco had trembled but stood firm. Their old Berkeley apartment though was uninhabitable, would have to be torn down.

Then followed weeks of delicate negotiations with city officials before they got permission to enter the ruin and recover the few clothes and books that had not been looted and pack them into boxes which they carted to another house—a barely refinished garage, actually—up in the hills. They had just finished stacking their boxes around their bed and table when all this, the house, their possessions, everything was consumed in a massive inferno that swept down the Berkeley hills propelled by the Santa Ana winds.

Enough, she said. Guatemala, for all its faults, was never like this. She demanded they get away from crowded cities and overbuilt hillsides. She would find a job at a branch bank. He could pursue his PhD by e-mail. With only their car and the clothes on their backs they made their way further north up to where the Sacramento Valley spread out in rural serenity, and rented a room from a pecan farmer.

A few weeks later, however, a huge flood unleashed by melting Sierra snow glutted the flat farmland and chased them out of the house. Crossing a bridge they were hit broadside by the onrushing water, turned over and over and barely escaped with their lives. Their car was a total loss, even their clothes were useless. They spent sixteen days in Red Cross cast-offs, eating Red Cross rations, along with dozens of other families in a high school gym layered with Red Cross cots.

His nights were spent drifting in and out of insomnia and vivid dreams. As he lay there amid the smells and snores of sleeping strangers he could not get the images of their recent disasters out of his mind—the swaying buildings and trees and telephone poles, the billowing clouds of dust, the swirling fire and smoke and most terrifyingly the roaring, flashing jaws of water that had opened and engulfed their car and sent them turning over and over before disgorging them against a huge fallen tree.

It came to him suddenly that the world was full of such amorphous forces. Against them man's timid straight-line constructions, even his towering skyscrapers, were like puny toothpick toys. He knew this now. The knowledge had become embedded in his soul. He had stared into the very center of the universe and discovered its deep chaos. Who said his form of math was merely theoretical? It was nothing less than the very reality of nature itself.

And then—as though all his brain connections had been torn out and connected anew—the interlocking four-dimensional spheres suddenly sprang to light, as though herniating out of those amorphous shapes that had been terrorizing his dreams. Power was restored. Now, without cause, without effort, without rhyme or reason, bloated, shimmering bubbles burst to the surface. The solution to the problem he had been seeking simply floated before him. Now it was obvious, now he was sure.

And she, as she lay there on her cot listening to the sounds of strangers, afraid to sleep and face the nightmares that had afflicted her since their ordeals, suddenly realized that for several months—since her supply had been among her possessions looted following the earthquake—she had not required tampons. The thought had crossed her mind before, of course, only to be erased by another disaster. And what an inconvenience it would have been. She tried to remember. How long had she gone without? Four months at least.

She touched her breasts—how strange they felt to her, her nipples unexpectedly full and tender. And then lay her hand on her belly, concentrated her attention and became aware of the brief flutter. Yes, there! Who could have noticed such a delicate thing amid all the violent distractions?

And so, they achieved their desires. She gave birth to a beautiful child with two first names, Ernesto Bjorn (it would be left to him to choose between them). He published his PhD thesis ("A Unique Solution to the Intersecting Four-Dimensional Sphere Problem") to high acclaim from the select handful around the world.

They both went on to distinguished careers—he in math, she in portfolio management—and raised their beautiful child in a beautiful home overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It was, she said, because they had never stopped trying, they never gave up. And he agreed. Indeed, years later she would teach their child and he would teach his students those very lessons: You must never stop trying, you must never give up. For that is what mothers and teachers must do.

Yet each had a secret never shared. Achieved their desires? Not really. Everything had happened to them—that was all. As though at a board meeting of those spiteful gods a decision had been made that once again the world was stale, boring, needed a bit of touching up. The action taken, a jaded compromise wearily arrived at after acrimonious debate, was to accommodate all the competing proposals—earthquakes, fire, floods—what the hell, lunchtime, they were getting hungry, these would be their creative acts for the next celestial quarter until they met again.

And naturally in recording the minutes of the contentious meeting and actions agreed upon, unavoidable errors occurred, a few typos. A misplaced comma, an incomplete sentence, a slightly misquoted word, something hardly worth noticing. So that when the decisions were put into effect minor unintended externalities occurred. Freeways collapsed crushing scores of cars meanwhile opening a thrilling vista to the Ferry Building, a cherished landmark. Flames devoured all but one house on a hillside, a modest bungalow amid surrounding mansions, which, stripped clear of trees, soared in value with its multi-million-dollar panoramic view. Swirls of water from the raging flood slapped aside a whole street of houses and left a single clothesline of underwear fluttering brightly in the air.

Trivial, unavoidable side effects. A birth here, a discovery there. Beneath notice by the gods.

And everything, everything to mortals.