I pulled Lolita out of the bag and riffled through it. Graduate students pronounced "Nabokov" one way and bookstore clerks another. It is OK for "a man of 25 to court a girl of 16 but not a girl of 12." What a thought. A man of 43 could court a girl of 25 but not of 16, I imagined. Lacey was 21. Well?
I found this novel refreshing because I fancied it a bit taboo. I read Nabokov's brief sexual history of Virgil, Dante and Petrarch. The narrator seemed to insist that any man who is a true poet must have sexual tastes that lean to the extreme — or at least to the young.
Who am I to argue?
The bus rolled into a rest area. The driver was curt on the microphone saying, "Ten minutes only." I got off and found a vending machine where I bought M&Ms and a cola. I was in the midst of the tension as I stood in the green rest area with its concrete buildings on a hill overlooking the highway. The man in the canvas hat and yellow scarf was talking rapidly in French to his female companion. The driver talked to a small cluster of passengers, then abruptly walked away. The depth of all that had happened in the past several days flowed through me as if it were electricity. I trembled as I pulled the candy packet open. I reboarded the bus. I've been turned back from Canada. My brother would not speak to me. I left Cincinnati when Lacey was giving me bedroom eyes and blowing me kisses. Now, without the grandeur of my train ride through Montreal and Toronto, I was on this Greyhound with these tensions.
Once the bus was rolling again down onto the highway, I felt some of the tension ease. I tried to focus on Humbert's imagination as Nabokov prepared me for another kind of love affair. The angry passengers talked in low voices; most of their anger seemed gone. I believed that I would be able to find a place to stay and get a shower in Albany. From Albany I would cross New York State and head for Pennsylvania.
This was to be my adventure. I thought about what was next and I could imagine much possibility. Nabokov used erotic French words. Wouldn't it have been fabulous to be in Montreal about now? Humbert approached young prostitutes in Paris near the Madeleine. Ah, Monique. I was too weak-willed to take advantage of a girl in that way. And I was not near the Madeleine, nor even in Montreal. I had chosen marriage some years ago and now was divorced. Headed on a long wandering ride back to my chaste home of Cincinnati, where I must keep a certain decorum. A graduate student. That is what I must keep in mind. I wanted Lolita to leap off the page. I wanted to be in pictures. I was losing my big round belly as I became more active. Nabokov had me chuckling and thinking. The depth of his intellect was stirring. He had been born at the turn of the 20th century in St. Petersburg. My grandfather had fled Russia with his family before the Bolshevik Revolution. They were born the same year. I felt a curious kinship that melted into wonderful admiration. This crazy artist Nabokov could inspire the rest of my journey and it would get better. It must.
I gripped a pencil and circled words that I didn't know. Incarnadine, coccyx, iliac. As the bus bounced, the point of the pencil snapped. No fear. I had another pencil in my bag. I looked around and felt indifference to all the other passengers. I had no desire to converse. Nabokov played with the French language in a way that was beyond me, yet held the level of wit that I envied. Who didn't envy such talent?
My feet scraped the footrest and I considered taking off my shoes for comfort. I glanced around again. No one was that casual. The lady across the aisle wore white leatherette sandals. I had been thrown off the train at the Canadian border. An angry immigration official had threatened me. Was it possible to be rejected from Canada? Hell, it had been easier to get into Russia. This was 2001. I began to hate George W. Bush. He's got to be responsible. Did Nabokov have political trouble? Was my travel difficulty because of my writings? I could not believe that I had been singled out for some political reason. I read of Humbert's break up with his Valeria, with whom he dallied. She lied about her age even on her passport! This kind of narrative was over-the-top, yet fit the purpose so directly.
I sat back and closed my eyes. The bus disappeared, except for the roar of the engine and the gentle movements from side to side, the jostling up and down. I must have fallen asleep. We were slowing in traffic, off the highway, in a city. It must be Albany. I gathered up my gear, got off the bus as I was blinking, paused to rub my face. I had fallen asleep. Where was I going to stay? I first went to the ticket counter and bought a bus ticket to Pittsburgh by way of Binghamton. My bus left the next afternoon at 1 o'clock. I walked out of the station and scouted around the block. There was a motel. I went to the counter, registered for a room, went up the stairs and keyed the lock. Never was a shower so welcome. After cleaning up I lay back on the bed and fell asleep immediately.
In the morning I found the breakfast bar and had a decent meal. The clerk at the counter showed me a locked room where I could leave my luggage until the bus left. I walked around town. As I looked around, I had an odd idea. The buildings were of stone and mortar, very decorated architecture on sloping narrow, then wide, streets. It seemed as if Albany's buildings were the tops of New York City's buildings. I had this notion that I was in some kind of time warp again and Albany was going to be jacked up into skyscraper height after I left. I was in the city before the city. The idea was so odd, but I believed I was there to make some kind of measurement or comment that was the unique element that as a celestial architect was mine to add.
On one large street there was a man sleeping on a bench with a newspaper covering him. I walked up to him and he was not real, but a metal sculpture. He was frozen in time; the newspaper was dated 1987. I read some of the paper. The detail was incredible. I walked down the street past him and soon the area got rougher, with older, dirtier, gas guzzling cars, so I turned back. I found a huge arena for some sort of sports team. I couldn't think of any professional team from Albany. Maybe the arena was part of the construction that would be shifted to NYC. I found a copy place that had Internet access. I checked e-mail and there was nothing important. I read the latest on the Tour de France. Lance Armstrong, the Texan, was well positioned.
I walked around town. The weather was great for walking. I approached a corner, and there was an older woman with an umbrella at her side. I came up next to her, and as the light changed, she stood still. I looked again. She was a sculpture. A woman across the street was leaning over the shoulder of a woman who stood on the corner reading her wide-open newspaper. I walked toward them. The woman reading the paper waited for the other to finish. Then the woman behind stepped around the other. The woman with the newspaper was a sculpture. This was a weird city. All the walking had left me hungry. I had seen a bagel shop, so I retraced my steps, ate a bagel sandwich, then hiked down to the river.
I had to cross several highways to get to the river walkway that also served as a bike path. There was a tugboat docked right next to me. My escape route. I thought about jumping aboard while I watched the wind in the flag. The tug was ship-shape, with the dock lines in tight curls on deck. No crew or captain visible. The sky was cloudy; the wind blew down the channel. What a world.
Other stories by Steven Paul Lansky can be found at Queen City Forum (www.queencityforum.com). Lansky teaches creative writing at Miami University and lives in Clifton.