This life is inconceivably beautiful. It is a life of the mind. It is always late summer, the blacks are inky-rich, the whites are milky singularities, the grayscale between is perfectly-judged. Satchmo, an immolated saint, has burned clear, finally, of all kitsch and his rehabilitation proves that we are capable of anything.
T. and I are standing as far apart as two Bohemians can, while still holding hands, looking at different paintings, grunting or sighing our assessments, our cool contentments or stern critiques, protected by the gallerist’s approving leer. The gallerist is a friend; she lowers the volume of the background music to afford us whispers. The city lowers its volume to afford us whispers. The ability to whisper is a function of IQ., or so I have read. T.’s whispers are suggestive and wet as little berries hung ripe on the air. She is taller than I. For her, the world will always be new.
-This is going to be great, tonight, at Bleecker Street, I say, pulling her close. She smells of everything fresh and healthy and young. Bertolucci’s first major statement in years, when it came out. A scandal. We have to get there early.
-What’s it about again?
-Existentialism. Brando. X-rated.
-X-rated? How will I get in? If they card me I’m dead.
-Think of it like Nick and Nora, I say, it’ll be an adventure and squeeze a muscular handful of her incredible ass through denim as soft as old money. She can’t understand why I prefer her to dress this way and she never will, because she’ll always be seventeen, just as I’ll always be forty two, older but not old, wise to life but not a fossil of cynicism and vigorously sex-possessed but not scary. I light a cigarette and touch it to my lips and sip it like ghostly grey wine through a straw, knowing it will never hurt me. Her bluejeans and sneakers and white dress shirt, tail out. And that striped t-shirt she sometimes wears, Seberg to my American Belmondo. I confess we own berets. I will teach her to smoke my cigars.
We gaze on a minor Warhol with affectionate contempt.
What is that melody?
It seems like days since last we’ve made love, but it’s only been minutes. An hour. She rode me in a corner of my loft beneath an Arbus. We heard a distant gunshot through an open window so like the sound effect from a radio drama of the ‘forties that we laughed and took a break and switched positions. A joke about Bridge. But the second position was more intense. No laughing. Just gunshots.
What is that melody?
Even crime transcends its dictionary definition to function as a compositional element, a narrative texture, in the masterpiece of this island. Rape and murder are the black that contrasts the white of witty banter; they are not foregrounded, they are anecdotal; no one we know has been touched or threatened by this kind of pain or grief or life-altering inconvenience. They merely tell stories about it. Something you watch out for, distracted by main events, like hornets in autumn on the Cape. It’s the colorful nonsense of the uneducated poor, as distant as whatever music they listen to (neither Gershwin nor Schubert).
We both suddenly remember and hum the rest of the tune together, accompanying the scratchy, fifty-year-old recording the gallerist has turned up again as we nod our smiled goodbyes and back through the glass into the vibrant sheen of the Sunday-dappled sidewalk. Looks like rain, later. An aesthetically-perfect thunderstorm.
Body and Soul.
Over dinner at our favorite bistro, Y. and I wallow in the almost obscene luxury of complaining about our copious lives. It’s an old script. A litany. A call-and-response in which we take our tacit comfort. Y.’s job is too good (he wishes he were a starving artist) and I worry out loud about having a seventeen-year-old lover who looks like a model, is obsequious to the point of being a fuckable housepet and boasts a lineage that intimidates every doorman in this impossible-to-intimidate town. My brow is knitted as I enumerate, again, every relevant superlative over the down-to-earth pizza we can share without needing to eye its last slice awkwardly with angst or regret. We usually simply leave the last slice untouched; a sacrifice to our casual Gods. The background chatter is reassuringly lively. Yet not too.
–She’s seventeen, I say, with a gesture more French than Rabbinical, though there is something vaguely and indefinably Jewish about the depth and pessimism of even my most light-hearted banter and there is something cozy in that; the ethnic weft; the white-but-not-too-ness. Also: it’s a devastatingly sexy contrast to the über-Wasp (Malevitch?) whiteness of my to-die-for lover, who’s so tomboyish, when I think about it, that she verges on being my catamite. I often fantasize about sodomy; the other kind. I touch the cool crook of Y.’s short-sleeved arm conversationally and say, with a Groucho Marks cadence, have I mentioned already she was a virgin when I first had Biblical knowledge of her? At the age of sixteen? In a hansom cab on Thanksgiving?
Y. counters with a story. I’m reminded of Borges but don’t say so and don’t know why. Story as follows.
A well-known director, otherwise associated with audience-pleasing romantic comedies, and known to write his own scripts, has an idea for a science fiction film, something dystopian, very dark, Owellian in the sense that a perpetual foreign war is described and slogans are everywhere and uniformed agents with unspecified powers keep the people in check. Dissent is not tolerated. Intellectuals sell-out, civilians disappear, the technology has reached a black-box level of godly near-magic that renders the regime invincible. A literal thousand-year-Reich is implied but never stated. The technology is both a giant’s oppressive fist and a drug-like distraction capable of soul-raping wonders. This is the scenario described. As I say: very dark. Bleak. Almost too dark to contemplate, but the well-known director, tired of being known for light fare, believes that this film will establish him as an artist of the first rank, up there with Welles. He throws himself into the project, despite his other commitments (the post-production of one romantic comedy and the pre-production of its follow-up), giving every extra moment; every gap of breathing-space in the continuum of his success-hijacked existence; to the conceptualization of this dark, depressing script.
But these prior commitments are endless; money has to be made. Time passes. Months become years, then decades, as the dystopian project (working title: 2002) fades in the intensity of its claim on his actual working time, but never frees his mind. Not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about it, until the day he suddenly realizes that thirty years have gone by and the scenario of the film he was never able to realize has come horribly true. That is, the hellish dystopia is Now and no one can escape it by simply walking out of a movie theater.
The cab ride home from the movie is wordless. That’s the difference between great art and mere entertainment: great art shuts you up. It’s a short ride but a long silence. I can read T.’s thoughts. Easy as perusing a book in a rack near the cashier in a shop at the Airport.
I had forgotten, of course, that the movie is more than existentialist sex in lower-strata Paris. E.g., I’d remembered the butter scene but not the scene with the open casket; I’d remembered the shaving sequence but not the eponymous tango. T. and I were kissing passionately, already, through the opening credits, and then we weren’t and then we weren’t even holding hands. Agnès Varda’s Camus cribs.
I’m thinking all this, and about Y.’s dinner story, while T. thinks only of the Jean-Pierre Léaud character, the single (hapless) innocent in the film. The hack is a regular Joe who can’t take his eyes off of T. in the rearview and I can read his little thoughts, too. In his mind, there’s nothing wrong with this morose little girl that his blue collar expertise in bed couldn’t cure by bringing her down a peg. By opening her to the smell of her own prejudices. The musk of her own prejudices. Barbieri’s sepiatone soundtrack invades the grayscale of my beautiful Gershwin thoughts; Barbieri’s soundtrack and Schneider’s bosomy tits. Should we have seen the Fellini instead?
Was Brando cheated, ironically, out of that phallic Oscar that so looks like a self he once was?
A pothole jolts me back to the actual. This borough after hours is a reflection of pearls in a flute of black water from the Lethe. Or the Styx? Anyway, every morning, all is forgiven as the slate is wiped clean; memories are chalk dust. I lean close to T. and whisper, Do you trust me?
I say to the driver, She’s something, isn’t she?
–Pardon? You talking to me?
-My date. I can see that you like her.
He laughs and says nothing. I press further.
-Don’t think I have a problem with that, because I don’t.
-Yes. Are you married?
-Not any more. What about you two? He winks in the mirror at T.
-You love your wife?
-How would you like to spend the night with my date here?
The quality of his attention is instantly altered. His eyes are off T. and dead on me, half-hidden and wary in the mirror’s black shine.
-Funny, you don’t look like a pimp.
-We’re not talking about a sum of money.
-What are we talking about?
–An experiment. A game.
-You get my date and I get your wife. Six hours. Hotel of your choice. Tonight.
-And what does she think of all this?
-She thinks what I tell her to think.
-You look like a college professor but you talk like a what. I don’t know.
-Are you interested or not?
-I’m interested in everything. Oil crisis. The Knicks. That silly prick Carter, what he’s doing to this country, people say bring back Nixon. Nixon was a crook you could trust. Rich Arabs and uppity blacks. That Patty Hearst twat. I read the papers, I watch the evening news when I’m home. You think I’m uninformed?
I squeeze T.’s hand and lean in close again and say, You see? It’s all just talk. It was just a movie. This is what real guys are like, afraid of their sexual shadows. Safe as milk. Never ever forget that Jean-Pierre Lèaud and Marlon Brando are just actors, but this is real life and it’s without consequences. Cinema is the art of the worst-case scenario and I can feel her relax into the revelation; the literal muscles involved. I congratulate myself on saving the evening. I tip the cabbie so big, in the end, it probably insults him. I want him to be insulted: to admit that is liberating.
There is no sex tonight. We only murmur and spoon.
Just to be safe.
Y. and I stroll to the squash courts on a brilliant-yet-sunless Monday morning. A warm silver sky; the inhumanly reflective retina of a deity too close to distinguish. We both know what we will say before we say it, Y. and I. And so we say it, as we have and ever shall, without pleasure, but with the blank serenity that taunts free will with the brilliance of a nova-hot projector bulb, melting through time like a sign.
2. ZARAH FRAYN
If you asked Zarah Frayn about the scariest thing that had ever happened to her she could tell you without thinking but wouldn’t. It had happened the month after marrying Jack. She hadn’t thought of it in all these years. As though the divorce had suddenly opened her to thoughts like that again, or to people who would ask that kind of question. It’s true she wouldn’t have thought of it otherwise. Not now. If it’s a flirtation it’s a funny way to flirt, she thought. Was he trying to scare her? His English was weakly accented, but she didn’t think he was foreign. He’d just been here too long.
She saw the answer to his question without answering it. It’s amazing how many thoughts you can have while putting a glass to your lips. How many pictures you can see. She had been married to Jack for a month, living happily in the rented house in Minneapolis, near the lake.
In the summer you could hear the people on the sailboats talking loudly over music through the screen door to the back porch that Jack had converted into what he’d called his study. Three sides of the porch were windows they hadn’t found screens for in the cellar or attic or in the garage and they hadn’t had the time or money to get new ones from the hardware store. You could only angle the windows slightly open and the problem was that mosquitoes came in.
Being newlyweds was their excuse, at first, for not getting screens but they still didn’t have time or much money, eleven years later, when they finally called it quits. It could get pretty hot on the porch but the air conditioning from the kitchen helped to keep it pleasant during the day, with the shade from all the trees an additional help. They usually wouldn’t use the air conditioning in the evening, which is when you could sometimes hear the people on the sailboats drifting by on the dark lake chatting around their mild and orderly music. If the music was jazz, which it was sometimes, it reminded her to wonder why Jack refused to listen to jazz while they were having sex.
She was on the couch on the porch, not really reclining and not really sitting up, with a magazine, it must have been a Vogue, the bare light in the slanted ceiling of the porch kind of hurting her eyes. Sometimes it hurt her eyes and sometimes it didn’t. It depended on where she sat in relation to the bulb but she felt too lazy, she remembers, to get up and simply cross the porch to the overstuffed chair in the corner that it was better for her eyes, in the evening, to read in. Also, the chair smelled slightly old. She looked up from the magazine at the chair, several times, as though to go to it by thought alone or as if someone was sitting in it. She looked up at least half a dozen times while flipping the pages of the Vogue.
Behind all the windows was darkness complicated with leaves of the trees and bushes. The windows were patterned with porch reflections and glare from the naked bulb and then the dark padding, under that, of the evening and the toothy dark mesh of the leaves that sounded like cooking or old time radio applause when the wind was blowing. Because of the tilt of the pane of glass behind the overstuffed chair she could see some of herself reflected in it, not really reclining and not really sitting up.
The top of her head in the reflection was bright and distinct with flaring hairs under the bare bulb but the rest of her blended in the reflection with shingled wood behind her and the leaves outside the reflecting window and it was like a bad composite photograph of a big dark face wearing a little cap of angelic hair and forehead. It looked like a very strange face was staring at her while tearing itself slowly in half. That’s why she kept looking up from the magazine. When she shifted her position and looked more closely it dawned on her that the face she was seeing wasn’t a complex optical illusion. It was a face at the window staring right into her eyes.
“Have you ever been truly frightened?” asked the stranger. Was he good looking? Is youth ever not?
Zarah couldn’t get over how people shared tables with you here. Simply paying for your coffee or cake wasn’t considered proof of your temporary ownership of the whole table. They would just sit down. Sometimes they would ask and sometimes they wouldn’t. Like some kind of traditional wartime thing like seating space in bars and cafés must have been desperately rationed. She imagined the ersatz parmesan of concussed plaster sifting over inedible plates of spaghetti. And she imagined each isolated candle-lit Aryan face accepting a cold justice long delayed while desultorily chewing. Though obviously her imagination was Minneapolizing them. Dramatic strangers jammed together at banquet tables in makeshift cellar restaurants just waiting for that last definitive thing.
He was young, younger than she; scratching his chin in a way that meant he was scratching his chin to make fun of the gesture as a thing that older people did without thinking about it and she realized he was from the Midwest, too, because the gesture was nice, somehow. She wouldn’t say loving because she was trying to learn not to exaggerate. She could tell he’d had a happy childhood. She usually got along with people like that, although he’d sat at her table without asking.
She thought: whatever. Had an affair with the boy (she thought of him as a boy now) for a week without ever seeing where he was staying. He dismissed his hypothetical flat as a dump and evaded her smalltalky queries with deft references to cultural touchstones of the upper Midwest. Namely Lutefisk. Taconite.
He looked around her room in the big shared flat on Eisenacher Strasse and said it was nice. Liking the fact that she shared the flat with flight attendants, he looked through her CDs and it seemed to her that it took a very long time for him to find something he made an approving sound at. She ached to be able to stick a tongue out at Jack, in fact, because it was a jazz compilation the boy approved of.
The boy pulled the jazz compilation out of the stack and the disk up out of its jewel case and handled the disk properly, as only males seemed in her experience to bother doing, while slowly circling the room in search of something to put it in. He looked confused when he couldn’t find anything. She hadn’t decided on one yet. Do they think that fingertips squirt acid?
His wispy crushed hairs down there looked exactly the way Zarah had expected them to. She’d expected the defiant indignance of the inadequate exposed to scrutiny and that’s what she got. Like lifting a big rock with a wooden lever in her garden in the rented house in Minneapolis and confronting a self-sufficient life form resentfully frightened of change. His name was Michael Pappell, rhyming with “repel”.
Six months later she met Mike Pappell by chance at a tram stop while he was climbing off the modern yellow tram and she was waiting to climb on. By then she could speak a bit more German and felt a little less like she was open to criticism from people she came near wherever she went in public. She felt like the native compared to Mike, who maintained the aura of a hitchhiker who hitchhikes to make a statement about those who don’t hitchhike.
She said, you know, I was thinking about it the other day. How I never told you?
Told me what, he said.
Those scars on my back.