Monday, August 31, 2009
#2 – ISLAND BLONDE
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.