The City of Penetrating Light

Thomas M. Disch

It is predominantly fun. It wasn’t always that way but it is now. There seems to be no limit to it, this delight. Vistas are constantly opening up. Older generations would have a hard time understanding this, because of various psychological hang-ups, such as the Protestant Work Ethic and Freud. But we don’t think about the past, not any more.

For instance, there are games, or else creative activity of various kinds, active and passive. Not to mention, of course, sex. A well-rounded life has many facets. I like to build model boats, and I know many people who have the same avocation and enjoy it very much. Once a year there is a model boat fair, and people come from hundreds of miles around to exhibit and exchange helpful tips. That’s just one example.

Medical assistance is always available, so there is never a good reason to feel other than your best. That’s my opinion. Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, or this wouldn’t be a Democracy. We are not the servants of the state, but vice versa. There is always room for a free exchange of ideas. There are some people who wouldn’t have fun unless they could wrangle when they wanted to, though I’m not one of them.

By the same token, I prefer individual to group sport. I am a good swimmer and I love to ski. There is no sensation quite like coming down a snowy slope with the wind in your face and the flare of the snow in your eyes, but it would take a better writer than me to convey an impression of it on paper.

Just looking at certain beautiful things can sometimes afford great satisfaction when you’re in the mood for that sort of thing. Sometimes, for instance, it’s more fun just to look at a person’s body than to make love with them. Or mountains, deserts, the sea, grass, the grain of a piece of wood almost anything, in fact. It’s a question, predominantly, of being receptive.

Anyone who has ever been in love knows how hard it is to express just what it is about being in love that is so rewarding, though they will all agree, I’m sure, that it is one of life’s most rewarding experiences. I have been in love a number of times, though I’m not in love today. It isn’t a question entirely of sex, because it is possible to love someone without having sex. However, sex does add to the excitement of love there can be no question of that. Once I loved a girl named Nina. We both liked to dance, and we went dancing a lot at The Bridge, at The Metropolitan, at The City of Penetrating Light, anywhere that a really swinging band was playing. That was a wonderful time, which I will never forget. Nina had beautiful long blonde hair and made a lot of her own clothes, because she liked doing things like that. When we made love it was like being in heaven sometimes. Also, she had a terrific sense of humor, more than I do, which is why we eventually had to break up. That, anyhow, is my explanation.

But life goes on, and it’s a mistake to regard one person as “necessary,” the world being full of people. After Nina there was Carol, and after Carol, Sylvia. And for Nina, after me, there was Doug. Sometimes I think that life is like one of those games you learn in school, based on the concept of Permutations. But I’ll have to leave my theory at that, as I am not really an intellectual. I appreciate it in other people, but I’ve always been able to recognize and accept my own limitations. If I couldn’t, I’d probably be pretty unhappy, and I think everyone has an obligation to be as happy as he can be.

Right now I’m living with some friends of mine in a little old shack about a hundred yards from the beach. The weather is usually good so we manage to get in a lot of swimming and water-skiing and such, and even on those rare cloudy days there’s something to do, looking up old friends and maybe getting a little stoned, catching a good program, or just some old-fashioned promiscuity. There are also pleasures that can be enjoyed in solitude. For instance, as I mentioned before, my boats.

But there are dangers in too much solitude, especially in unstructured activity. Sometimes Nina would sit around the place for days at a time not talking and not reading, not even looking at anything, and I’m fairly certain that at times like that she was depressed. Other times, of course, she was a whirlwind and you’d have a hard time keeping up with her. Or she’d talk. She could talk hours at a time, about anything you’d care to name, I probably owe most of my own conversational abilities to those evenings of talk with Nina.

Love has to be a give-and-take, and I’ve wondered sometimes what it was that I gave to Nina in exchange for all the things she gave to me. Sex, of course, but I believe there has to be more than that. She tried to explain it once, saying she felt with me sometimes as if she were in a Japanese garden, a stillness and a sense of quiet sufficiency. Her words. It doesn’t seem like very much to me, but it must have meant something to her. Who knows? Anyhow, we had a great time together, while it lasted, and I guess that’s the important thing.

Well, we’d been living together about three, maybe four weeks, when Nina met Doug, Doug was an intellectual, a fashion programmer for one of the really big outfits. I would have thought he was too old for her, but girls like Nina often prefer older men. We went a few places together, including a smorgasbord, but usually it was a lot tamer than that. I guess when you come down to it I’m a little too wild for that sort of thing. Anyhow, we just sort of drifted apart, though we never stopped being good friends. I took up with Carol, and Nina moved in with Doug, and we agreed it was the best thing. Neither of us felt any regrets, because it had been a wonderful thing while it lasted.

It looks like this has turned out to be a story about Nina, though I didn’t think it would be when I started it. I’ve never written a story before, just letters sometimes. Maybe I’m turning into an intellectual myself in my old age.

The point I’m trying to make is this that life is so full of beautiful experiences, and we should always be ready to accept them the way they come. And beauty isn’t just some painting of it or the way things look underwater, but it’s spread around everywhere. Sometimes there can even be too much of it and it can tear you up, but usually, I think, it’s a wonderful feeling. So there’s no excuse for not being happy and having a lot of fun.