The women of my life stand in a full circle around me, waiting for me to choose among them. The clothes and expression and posture of each woman recall a particularly intense moment in our lives together. I look into their eyes and see them pleading. This is my dream and my nightmare. They are all available to me and they all want me. My guilt is enormous; I must reject all but one of them. And that is only a small part of it. There is also a basic, ineffable, haunting guilt that I have been unable to escape in my relationship with any woman. It all comes back to me, with great force, here at the center of a circle of love and sex.
I have always avoided choice, and now it is being demanded of me. The women who surround me are the women pursued by a young man. They look like they did then, years ago, not like they do now. For decades the question of choice frightened me because it seemed too important. I felt that I might lose the world if I made the wrong choice. Now it terrifies me because I know that it doesn’t make the slightest difference.
Another fear passes through me. The women may stop wanting me. Suppose they all change their minds. Don’t choose, they will say to me. Never mind. It doesn’t matter any longer. What will I do then? I will remind myself that I agree, that choosing each other has turned out to be insignificant. I know that I will not believe this. I will feel rejected, worthless. I will be forced to confront the fact that my sense of myself has depended on being desired, admired, by women, especially attractive women.
I look around the circle slowly, concentrating first on the face of each woman and then on her body. As I have done many times before, I try to bring to mind the most intimate, passionate moment I have had with each one. As I do so, it seems to me that each of the women has the same memories. I consider it very likely that they all can read my mind. Certainly it is with these women that I have the least right to expect privacy or solitude. There are no secrets here. They know everything that anyone in the world knows about me.
Three of them are the mothers of my children, and before them I am humble. If I ever had a soul, I know that it swept through the bodies of these women into their children, our sweet children. All of the other things, our things, seem trivial: classical music, sex, money, horse racing, food, drugs, television, swimming, ballet, houses, photographs, jazz, bullfights, writing, films, paintings. Cute little notes. Torrid love letters. Long distance telephone calls. Bedrooms. Museums. Motels. Gardens. Parks. The deaths of parents and lovers. High hopes. Disappointments in life. Only the children seem important.
I am not entirely persuaded of this. I gaze at each woman and remember what she looks like naked. I remember her expression when she has an orgasm, her eyes as she first feels my penis enter her. I remember feeling lost in her body.
There is a space around each woman, a space in which I have lived and breathed. With some of the women, sometimes, in that space, I have felt comforted, consoled, deeply at home. With other women I have felt foreign, a visitor, a tourist in their worlds. I can close my eyes and remember the space of a woman, the space in which we lived together, perhaps only briefly. I remember by the smells of her skin and hair, the smells of the kitchen in which we ate and talked, the smells of the cat or dog or plants with which we shared the air. Or the smell of the wind from the sky under which we lay. There was laughter in the space in which some of these women lived. Sometimes there was fear and distrust.
How am I to choose among them? Do I choose the one who is most attractive to me? The one who loves me most? The one whom I love most? Who is she? Perhaps I should leave this circle and dilemma and encourage them to love one another in my absence.
One of these women has tried to kill me. Should I choose her? How many others have had the same impulse but not the courage?
I am no longer surrounded only by the women. The women are there, but now I see myself, in my various ages and aspects, among them, and I see the children and even some friends and strangers, people who were in my world but whom I don’t recognize. I look out at the circle around me, and I study my selves among the women and the children.
In a couple of instances, I don’t know whether I am looking at myself or a stranger. Can that be me at nineteen, at twenty-seven?
We are in an infinitely large flat open space. I, my current self, am still at the center. The people surround me and spread out in every direction to the horizon. There is a stirring, a movement, among them. It is because hungry and sick people are becoming part of the concentric circles that surround me. I try to focus on them, and they all seem vaguely familiar. I have seen them before, but I don’t know where.
I look straight ahead, and I see myself in a family group with a woman and two daughters. The girls are pretty, about five and seven years old. The woman and I look well. We are sort of leaning against each other, and the curves of her body fit neatly into the curves of mine. It is the happiest moment of our lives together. An urchin stands next to the happy family. I stand on my toes to look over their heads, and I see the same group of us in a different pose and scene, perhaps not quite so happy. I somehow know that this same group of people, at various stages in our lives, is repeated on and on, one scene behind the other. Those at a greater distance from me are the moments of our unhappiness. I am grateful for this arrangement, relieved that the unhappiness is remote.
There is . . . a basic, ineffable, haunting guilt that I have been unable to escape in my relationship with any woman. It all comes back to me, with great force, here at the center of a circle of love and sex.
I am back within the circle of women. The women are naked, and they are all calling in whispers, offering themselves to me in our favorite embraces and entanglements. I can see how I might have felt almost bewitched by each of them. It could all happen to me again if I remained here.
Back in the circle of life I look around. I see myself behind a campfire with one of my wives and our child. We are singing. “Let the midnight special shine its everlovin’ light on me.” We are giving ourselves to that song we could sing forever. Next to them I see myself sitting in a restaurant with a beautiful woman. Next to them I stand at a Bar Mitzvah with a lovely, glowing, thirteen-year-old Jewish son. Next to them I see a barefoot black child running in fear into a tenement at midnight. I stop the child and give her a five dollar bill, and I feel stupid.
I go back to the circle of passion and sex. I do not feel that I belong there.
I go back to the circle of life. The center is empty. I am standing at one of the horizons, a tiny figure who cannot see most of the crowd, even though it is my life. At least I think of it as my life. The crowd is dense. I could not penetrate it even if I tried with all my might to move forward toward the center. I feel as I have in febrile nightmares from which I had the sense that I could not escape, though it was only by escaping that I could save the world from a catastrophe. At this remote corner of my history I have that same feeling of helplessness, and I know that, unlike the dreams, here it is permanent.
The hungry and sick people move through the crowd a little more quickly. The children begin to grow. I vaguely recognize each of my own children in his or her many forms — infant, toddler, child, adolescent. They are getting larger and larger, becoming giants.
The people in the crowd open slightly, making room for me, and I walk in among them. They touch my arms and shoulders, welcoming me with moderate affection. They like me, but there is no fuss. No big welcome. I find myself among them, though I know I will never get back to the center of the circle. I have no wish to do so. I understand that circles are illusions.