Monday, August 31, 2009
Sometimes we would talk on the tape of each other’s answering machines – me from my cold furnished room off 8th Avenue, her from her bountiful boudoir cum office off 5th. When we had actual phone conversations my mind would wander. One afternoon I told her I had not gotten her last message yet, though I had. It was about our setting a time to meet up that night, but also about her wanting to know how I really felt about her – which was something I did not want to face. After I told her I had not checked my messages, I let slip something about the meeting up part, and she knew I had to have heard this plea of hers that I was ignoring, and she was furious.
A few days later she asked to meet for breakfast in a diner up near her place. At the diner she said we had to end it, and it seemed plain that her therapist has told her to pull back from whatever it was she was doing with me.
He was quite right, I thought, but I was adrift again in ways all too familiar to me. Basically homeless, living in a rented room, just one step up from an SRO hotel, so it was not the worst thing. But alone. And fifty years old. And without a satisfactory literary project.
In early spring I lucked into a rent-stabilized one-bedroom that had just become available on the other side of 25th Street in Chelsea – a three-storey building, two one-bedroom apartments on each floor, with a sort of Venetian façade and, for the apartments in back, a view out over a garden and down over roof tops almost to the Battery.
At that point I decided to rally and get something moving. With the blessing of my agent Hal Dart (he was never called just Hal, always Hal Dart) I decided I'd drop this great rivers plan and instead do a series of commercial travel books about the Caribbean and the Bahamas.
They were to be quite false and wimpy books -- nothing like my big co-authored exposé of the Marcos and Reagan collaboration that had recently been published. These new little books were meant to tell travelers of romantic vestiges of the West Indies' supposedly glorious 500-year colonial history, when in fact the colonial vestiges were a few stubby forts and some decayed remains of slavers' homes. And, worse, these fraudulent books were my own idea.
The most corrupt sort of writing, this travel writing, where you get money and free air tickets and five-star accommodations in exchange for praising dull destinations, flavorless hotels and second-rate airlines. Something I had sworn to myself I would never do again, in the same way I had at one point sworn to myself that I would never again get involved with married women, and no more abortions either. This travel writing was so far beneath me – me a traveler in past years to real places, not mere tourist places, real places from Bangui to Beirut to Borneo.
But there was more. Starting at the time my marriage was ending I had carried on a flirtation, mostly by telephone, with this very blonde and ripe fortyish travel photographer Ellen, who came frequently to New York but lived most of the time in Rome. I knew her through journalists I had known in the Middle East and Far East. She was properly willowy, richly attired and permanently tanned from beach and resort life, and she had recently split from an apparently violent Southern Italian boyfriend. Just the right sort of woman. She had created herself, coming infinite distances from a drab American family in some drab American place.
She loved my island book ideas (and apparently was not the least disturbed by their inauthenticity). I already had a trip set up to what I feared would be the blandest part, the Bahamas. By mail from Rome she agreed to join me as the photographer on the project. I started exercising and dieting so I could look the part I planned to play with her at my side.
I went out to meet Ellen at Kennedy Airport. She burst upon the international arrivals section in high heels, a cape under her arm, with two cameras around her neck that were bouncing against breasts hardly contained by a wispy if expensive pastel spaghetti strap dress.
And she had brought gifts for me! A big painted plate and a block of Romano cheese. Everything was going to be all right. I had stopped therapy in the winter. Now in summer I thought even a therapist would be happy for me.
In the few days left before our departure she came over to Chelsea from her borrowed East Side apartment and cooked meals for me – monk fish with olives and mushrooms and plenty of garlic. Herbs and spices such as I had never seen when growing up in Connecticut. "You've lost weight," she said. “You look really good,” she said.
One hot August day I was at my typewriter as usual, working on an elaborate proposal on this travel plan for Hal to send to publishers, and Ellen came to sunbathe on my roof. And, by God, we were about to be in the islands together. Each moment was right, but never quite right. I wondered why we had not made love yet. Me, who knew the surprisingly fresh and syrupy night girls of Djakarta, the Bangkok girls who gave full body massage with their bodies, the slippery sweet bath house girls outside Taipei, or that girl who filled her mouth with crushed ice in Manila. Not to mention actual girlfriends, including the one I had lived with and the one I had married. Ellen did say her favorite writer was Anais Nin.
I get no sleep in the 48 hours before our departure for the Bahamas. For just then my recently appealing younger Cousin Helen -- whom I have been visiting over at Sloane Kettering -- is put on a respirator – her head black like a mummy's and swollen like a sports ball. Cousin Helen, an artist, a burden to her Scarsdale family since anti-war marching days -- not quite 30 and leaving four young children.
Dies on a respirator from leukemia right after she is told a bone marrow operation had switched the odds strongly in her favor. Leukemia -- for which her mother and husband blame her, saying she got it because she smoked. And I think of poems she'd sent to me and my wife with scenes of strangeness with her mother, and I think of hints she’s left about things her father had done with and to her before he died. I think of how she used to be in the innocent world of the White Mountains in the summers.
And I think of how even after an apparently successful bone marrow transplant they were still blaming her. And she'd told another cousin she wanted to die. She wanted to die.
She died in the week before our departure for the Bahamas. In the 48 hours between her death and our flight I had no sleep. I was working around the clock polishing up material I had been collecting on the Bahamas and the Caribbean so Hal Dart could start hitting publishers with it while I was away.
The day before our departure was Helen’s funeral in Scarsdale, in a big fake gothic Episcopal church that had a large British flag hanging down vertically to the side of the altar. My almost ex-wife, who had been friendly with Helen, was there, and it was the first time I had seen her in many months. We did not talk. After the funeral everyone went back to the house, where there was a great deal of food. Other people in the family had always made fun of Helen’s mother for being too perfect about food, her big spreads looking like something that belonged in a common women’s magazine rather than in our family. My aunt made sure to make it clear to me that this feasting had no connection with the wakes that Catholic ethnic people put on. One of the guests at this non-wake was Helen’s husband, who had been born in Sicily and bore an eerie resemblance to a Saturday Night Live character named Father Guido Sarducci.
Then, with my ex-wife thankfully declining, we piled into limousines to go to a graveyard that covered acres in Brooklyn where on my aunt’s side there was a plot with monumental grave markers from long before Brooklyn was a city of its own, markers heralding prominent people from whom she and Helen were descended.
I worked one more night at home, and then headed out to the airport to meet up with Ellen. She was pleased that the Nassau airline was passing out complementary rum drinks. I was asking myself what in the world I was doing here, setting out for such an ordinary tourist place. I thought of the time when I was 22 and had flown to Cuba to look for Fidel Castro. Because revolution was in the air, I was the only passenger in the Cubana plane, but a smiling steward and stewardess went up and down the aisle anyway with trays of frozen daiquiris, many of which I drank. In Havana there was a tank right outside the Congress building. Cuba, a real country.
In the Bahamas, the tourist part Ellen and I saw, almost everything was either nice-nice and fake rustic or high-rise hotel-chain antiseptic. And we had not made love yet. And I was thinking about better days. Even in Nassau. A Christmas at the old Royal Victoria Hotel with my then girlfriend, Eva, who was from Zurich. Was it that Ellen and I were not fucking because our high rise free hotel was so antiseptic, or was it because Helen had just died, or because I was timid, or because she did not like me as much as her words and actions implied she did?
It was not entirely chain hotels things. We did manage to spend a little time with some Rastafarians outside Nassau, and we toured a scraggly forest on Andros with an old man who knew about African-like medicinal herbs, and we went to a series of quays inhabited by pale lobster fishermen living in New England style clapboard houses, all descendants of Scotsmen, shipwrecked in the 17th century. But none of what we did seemed much fun. Ellen drank. I avoided drinking, as I had for 10 years. I gambled in the cold high rise hotel casinos. Ellen avoided gambling. (She had to loan me money.) Wherever we went in the Bahamas we always took two hotel rooms, and not entirely because they were free.
I hated that she brightened up and seemed most alive when in rich artificial tourist complexes and with a drink in her hand.
Was she a Republican?
And who was I?
It seemed just like it has been with Jacqueline, except that Jacqueline kept taking her clothes off and jumping into bath or bed.
Ellen and I never did sleep together. Nothing right, nothing working out. I came back my new Chelsea place as dread took over from frustration. I avoided Hal Dart, for I did not have the heart to write glowingly of the Bahamas.
In that family in New Hampshire they were always talking about how much better the world used to be. With my own past right now more vivid than my present, I seemed to be doing a twisted version of what those people in that family I came from constantly did.
Friday, August 28, 2009
Everything is fine now, I thought – just as everything began, once again, to change. Everything is fine now that I have this exciting new girlfriend named Jacquelyn who lives and works in this rich place. It is only one big room but the room is 30 feet across and has a two-story high ceiling and grand pillars and huge wavy curtains and 10-foot mirrors and arched windows looking out on 78th just off Fifth Avenue.
An exotic new girlfriend near the Carlyle, where with famous photographers she has working breakfasts.
She was so right for the life I wanted as I turned 50 and was living nowhere, and it had become a very cold November. So right that she was both French and Jewish and came from the same Algeria Camus knew – Jacqueline, who had risen high while very young running Magnum, and now, still at least a decade younger than me, had her own photo agency – Bastion Photos – and was often in such a hurry she had to fly on the Concorde. But her eyes had time for bold invitation and an otherwise hidden dreaminess. Everyone except a therapist thought this girlfriend solution to my life was wonderful news. I had just begun trying out therapy.
I didn't call her Jack-eh-lynn as in Jacqueline Kennedy. I called her Jacque-leen – which was how her name came out as I was going through a thankfully long ejaculation inside her. The French pronunciation, which seemed to make all the difference. Hearing it from my mouth in the course of sex, Jacqueline decided I really knew French and was too modest to speak it much.
Everything had seemed so awful just before we got together – no marriage and no place to live. No real base , not even new book contracts such as I used to cling to. But sex came easy now, as it had not in just passed years. It was good to be out of that dead marriage. At the end, my wife had been threatening to cut off my penis, which might have been hyperbole but she came from a culture in which this was thinkable. Cut off my penis so I could not cheat on her, though actually I was innocent except a one-shot B.J. on the Rocks with a smooth girl slipping out of a strapless dress in the back room of an Asian bar. It is true I had made plans in my head to be really unfaithful, actually taken some halting steps in that direction – a phone number, a meeting in another part of town. But I had wasted the chances for a real affair. And anyway now the marriage was over, and sex with Jaqueline did come easy. And for the first in years I was sleeping without pills.
Though it had been a dry period, living the live of a cliché figure just out of a marriage – going from a fleabag hotel room with a rusty hot plate to someone's kid’s bunk bed to a slick borrowed loft off Union Square, then another loft, with no bath or shower, in a dirt encrusted commercial building on Canal Street, and now a furnished room with a cold linoleum floor in Chelsea. And trying to put together a plan for a book I did not want to write about great rivers of the world. The agent for the project, Hal Dart, said he noticed the change in me – noticed how everything was all right now. Hal really liked the exotic combination – French, Jewish, Algerian – and he was high on the French way of pronouncing her name.
Through the night every night at Jacqueline’s there be faxes, telexes, voices on answering machines telling her of the movements of important people her photographers could follow – Prince Don Carlos, the daughters of Grace Kelly, Michael Jackson, whose Thriller album was still on top.
And beneath it all she was appealing enough so that it seemed important to hide my shallow American dislike of her unshaved leg hair.
She tells me about the most romantic line ever written in the history of France. Napoleon starts his retreat from Russia and sends off a runner to Paris with a note for Josephine. "Back within the month," the note says. "Don't wash."
On her VCR, the first one to which I had been a party, we watched, from bed, "Small Change," Truffaut's take on childhood and child abuse and surprising kindness. It had not been in theaters for years and was not released yet in a form the public could buy or rent. But the husband of one of her famous photographers had the tape and loaned it to Jacqueline.
While watching the scene where the schoolmaster tells the children why an abused boy is being removed from his home I start to cry, which is something I never do। Were you an abused child? Jacqueline asks, for which I have no reply. Jacqueline says I am quite right to cry. And without tears of her own she tells me about her grandmother in Algiers who used to shove her into the shower and beat her black and blue. I add nothing.
Before I leave in the morning we get into the bathtub together। I let her think that bathing together is something she is introducing this non-French person to.
On New Year's Eve we decide handle the occasion from bed – and I find myself mute. What am I supposed to do now? I lie there. She sits on a pillow right, her thigh up against my head, her nice breasts high above me, my ear against her bare thigh. She is looking down at me, and she is soft and shiny and smells as good, I think, as Josephine or some woman purely out of fiction. Beyond the moments of intercourse, I do not know how am I supposed to feel. And what about this night? What am I supposed to do at midnight? What should I say? What sort of occasion is this for us?
We are always in her big, high room off Fifth Avenue. She never sees my cold room down in Chelsea off Eighth. One day follows the next and at best, I think, this is like one of those Goddard films – but the despair is not Goddard's satisfying despair. It's empty.
Another night she is reading to me from her favorite book – Lao Tse – which sounds to me now like gibberish but, as is so usual with me, I do not voice what I think. Again I can come up with nothing at all to say, and my mind wanders. I am wondering if I could ask her to shave her legs. I am thinking we should do the bath again.
She is reading aloud the words of Lao Tsu as filtered down to a Modern Library edition:
"The foolish man is always talking. The wise man keeps his silence."
"I think of you when I read this," she says.