“You don’t look a day over fifty. ”
He had a genuinely dreamy look on his face. Delighted to have discovered that his sense of her flavor (smoked salmon with a chocolate top note), the first time he saw her, was accurate.
I met her on a Tuesday, he wanted to sing.
Her body was soft and youthfully hot at his side, burning his arm at the point of contact, the lull before starting. She climbed on top with her palms pressed flat on his chest until she shifted her weight into a locked position back around his hips, an alignment of their bones, rocking with a concerned smile. Her hair flowed down and spread as a frozen waterfall , mingling straight white lines with the curved black hairs on his broad black chest. This is Art, he was thinking. If I die now I’ll die happy. Also, if I come. She was a talker and they conversed for the duration.
“I just wanted to make sure…”
“That I’m adequately warned? I assumed you were a young-looking forty-something.”
Which was a little bit of a lie. A gallant lie. He considered himself a gallant liar. He’d assumed she was fifty. He cupped her tiny breasts and supported her torso as she lifted her arms behind her head and doubled-down where they connected in the equestrienne rhythm of a trot. He felt the lines and swirls and adjustments and inversions of her selfishly sucking interior; he felt her write and erase and re-write those epigrams along the length of his dick. He felt she was inscribing Kahlil Gibran on the shaft of his dick like devotional script on a gleaming onyx pillar in a Moslem temple. “Every time I look at you I spontaneously generate a mental thirty-page list of all the things I think we should do together. For example a crime spree.”
“A crime spree, yes. Shoplifting Bibles. My God, I have to say it, I love a big cock, it’s not politically correct but it’s true. Little cocks are such a disappointment. You train yourself to have a neutral facial expression at the moment of the unveiling, just in case. So when I saw yours I wanted to cheer. I wanted to high-five you.”
“I have a theory. Unlike breast size, penis size is a functional matter. A penis is a kind of plug and the size of the plug in regard to the size of the socket is definitely relevant to the effectiveness of the plug. Does that sound too technical?”
“Do you love my tiny tits?”
“I love your tiny tits. Do you love your tiny tits?”
“I love my tiny tits.”
“I love your tiny tits. I usually don’t talk while I’m fucking. It feels like singing and eating soup at the same time. This talking while fucking thing is very new to me.”
“Do you love it? Be honest.”
“Because it’s you, yes. I love it. Normally, I prefer to disengage my brain and just…”
“Go to it. Just fuck, yes. Which works if the male is in charge of the fucking. If the woman gives herself over to the male’s lead, which is traditional in dance. But why?”
“Yes, why? Of course you’re right. Obviously. I never thought of it that way before. So talking during fucking is your way of leading?”
“Maybe not my way of leading but my way of making sure you’re not leading, yes. Maybe. Does it feel as good, fucking with your mind turned on, as fucking your old way, like an animal, feels? Without thinking?”
“Yes. Better. But maybe because it’s you.”
“You don’t miss your grunts?”
“My grunts and my moans and my sighs. No, I don’t miss my repertoire of barnyard noises, but don’t ask me to discuss Nietzsche’s theory of eternal return while I’m fucking you. That’s an erection killer.”
“And we don’t want to kill this erection. Not yet.”
“No we don’t. Not yet. It will die in the end, though. As it always does.”
“Poor phoenix. But this poor phoenix dies in an explosion of liquid instead of fire. Would you like me to swallow your semen? Be honest.”
“No, I prefer it this way, with your mouth free to speak.”
“I want your mouth to speak while your lower body swallows my semen.”
“We forgot to discuss STDs.”
“There’s still time.”
“You go first.”
“I usually wear a condom.”
“I usually demand one.”
While they were fucking, they were also dying.
“This is what I wanted. Your mouth speaking and your lower body swallowing my semen. My semen will live longer in your uterus than it would in your stomach. I want my semen to have a fighting chance. And I like looking up at your face. I like the way your hair flows down and I like the way you bounce. Don’t go back to your husband. Stay with me forever. We can live here together. We can make it work.”
“Grow old with me.”
“I’m already old. Sixty-two isn’t old?”
“You’re in great shape. You have the body of a twenty-year-old. Grow old with me. Grow older.”
“I will in any case.”
“With me. I’m serious.”
“Yes, I know you think you are. But you don’t want me, you want what my husband has. You want a family. You’re that age now. A man becomes a certain age. You regret not having children. Old enough to regret never having kids but young enough to correct the error: the magic of being a man. Find a younger woman and get her pregnant. Forty? Fifty would be the limit. Get her while her tits are ripe. And bring this new trick that I’ve taught you to your love life. Encourage the lucky girl to talk her head off in bed. She’ll want to fuck all the time if you let her talk in bed. Trust me. You’ll be happy with her forever and she’ll be happy with your nice big talking cock.” Paul came on the word cock. Attempting to enunciate the word “but” in a gasping voice.
An hour later, he was trying to paint a picture of Claudia and Claudia was trying to write a story about him. Paul couldn’t remember whose idea the empathy-building exercise had been but it was fun. He’d never realized, before, how difficult her simple-seeming paintings were to do. He painted her with a word balloon coming out of her mouth and his penis like a bulbous microphone and her disposable bike in the air like a Chagall painting and showed it to her. Just a crude cartoon. He was embarrassed.
“Stop making me laugh. I’m trying to write something moving and real and serious about you! I need it to be a masterpiece so I can feel I really gave you something today.”
She stared at her laptop. The blue light on her face was eerie. He could easily see the beautiful ghost she would make one day.
“I have a confession to make,” she said. She folded her laptop shut. “It wasn’t QBit’s idea to have us interview each other. It was mine. I contacted QBit and suggested it and they liked the idea. I’d read two of your books in a row and became slightly, what’s the word? Obsessed.”
His phone rang… doo de doo… but he ignored it.
“Awful, I know. And here’s confession number two.”
“You were surprised to discover that I’m not white.”
“Disoriented. But then…”
“But then you were intrigued.”
“Will you at least consider a crime spree?”
“The truth is,” he said, “I wrote those books to enchant you. Though how could I have known at the time? How much time do we have left, by the way?”
“Tim returns from Montreal in a week.”
“A week it is.”
He went to take a piss and saw that her vagina had left a pale sheath drying on his dick, a flaking coating of crystalline snake-skin and he was careful to preserve it if possible, to not shake it all off when he stuffed himself back in his pants. He’d touched a finger to a flake on the head and lifted the flake to his tongue and closed his eyes as though it were a tab of acid, the LSD called Love. She was right there, Claudia Chang, still, in the other room, lifting her hair in a utilitarian top knot and then lacing up her faux-Victorian boots and he was already dreaming of her. He couldn’t imagine falling any harder.
The capacity to fall in love this hard, this foolishly, over and over again, despite experience, he was thinking.
It’s a gift.
Joel had told him, over his calamari at The Kitchen, that they were very, very interested in Shalah’s Nights. They.
By “They” Joel meant his “friends”. Paul could only guess. The Committee for Institutional Accuracy? The Christian Investments Association?
How they’d read the unbound manuscript of the second rough draft he shoved in the back of a drawer, he had no clue. It was a long book (yet a fetal book) and it was fraught with the energy-sapping struggle between the duty of memory-based banalities and the longing for the thrill of invention. And also the parts that had been told to him by Shalah with her nude whispers, in Shalah‘s actual bedroom, on her big red silk pillowcases, the cold month he’d first arrived in Berlin, after each and every time he’d fucked her, standing (her legs around his waist) with Shalah’s autumn-brown back against her winter-white wall and hiking her higher as he came: these whispered facts needed shaping still.
Shalah’s whispers damning the regime in Iran. His agent Martin Crohn said Paul it needs work.
Paul’s German agent Martin Crohn with psoriasis.
Paul assumed Martin meant it needed more explicit sex (and only because Paul had made the mistake of bragging about the sex to Martin before Martin knew there was a book involved). Martin said,
-There’s a good story in there (if you can sort out the boring stuff that really happened) but it needs work, maybe. Also, is it maybe a little anti-Muslim, Paul? I don’t mean consciously. You know. What do you think? Be honest.
-The stuff about Khomeini and the Iranian secret police and her murdered uncles and all that? All that’s just exactly what she told me. The uncle electrocuted while fishing? I can take it all out but it’s true. You think it’s anti-Muslim? She was seventeen. We’d have to change her name.
-No, simply call her Shalah A. Her real name is a big part of the story.
Martin remembered with a tingle how Paul had told him of the inverted rhyme of Shalah’s big black shiny aureoles on the same body as the shiny black funnelling flower of her anus. Shalah’s anus would suck Paul’s dick in with a tactile pop. It was always as wet as her vagina. When she came it was like seizures and then she would weep and calm down and loll about with one leg up, hands clasping that one knee, sort of smiling. Then wash her hands with admirable thoroughness and make a big dinner at midnight with her Matisse-print bathrobe open and her black-tipped tits sticking out and her voluminous oil-well-fire billows of hair in a chopsticked-pile on the top of her exquisite head. Her eyebrows immobile as calligraphic strokes. She’d talk about her assassinated uncles. How one was targeted in Berlin and all the blonde girlfriends he’d had in such a short time, like a man at a closing buffet.
Paul and Claudia had what they called their Week of Miracles, then Tim came back from Montreal.
Claudia made Paul promise to never email her first; she would email him eventually and he could then respond and please restrict his responses to one. Highly structured post-affair rules. Claudia was a little bit of a control freak. Or simply logical. Maybe they could meet for tea or something in a while; in a few months. Tim must never suspect. Tim had a lot of friends in Berlin. It was best to lie low and cherish their memories of the Week of Miracles.
Paul found Claudia’s rules painful initially but he was grateful to her for being strong and wise and poetic enough to have elevated the affair to the operatic level of swooning tragedy, of Loss. Preserved forever in the amber of longing. Or for a while, at least. She seemed to know what she was doing.
A month after Tim returned from Montreal, a month shaped precisely like the silhouette of Claudia Chang’s supine absence, there was a banging on the front door of Paul’s riverside apartment.
His apartment had only one entrance and exit, an idiosyncrasy of the architectural prejudices of that city; perhaps the problem was Europe; how many times, in the past, in other cities, had he slyly ducked out the back door while someone he was keen to avoid was banging on the front? A delicious sensation now lost. In America you always need an escape route. Euphemistically labelled as a “Fire Exit” in public buildings. Here in Europe he kept his doorbell turned off so even the postman had to knock because Europeans won’t stop ringing until you answer the fucking door. Answering the door seemed mandatory in Europe. Or maybe it was Germans. This particular knocking, right now, was loud and authoritarian and not to be ignored. It frightened him. It sounded like the police. No sane postman (not even a German one) knocked like that. Paul scanned his memory. What had he done?
“Ein moment, bitte!” he shouted, hopping on one leg to get into a shoe.
He’d only been awake a little while before the knocking came. He’d dreamed a roaring sound that woke him like a flock of low-flying motorized geese. He assumed it was his own snoring that woke him. It had happened before. Once he’d dreamed of wandering the strange dark promenades of an abandoned zoo and he’d heard an ominously guttural growling come from deep within a misted cage and woke to realize it was him. It was still so early. There was one oblong patch of blue in the sky visible through his river-facing window, a patch of blue the shape of an ironing board. The clouds surrounding the ironing board of sky were gold-rimmed and that was the Berlin morning for him. It was roughly one in the afternoon. The War(s) were making everyone tired on some level. It was becoming decreasingly possible to get out of bed.
It wasn’t the police at the door. Paul’s first confused thought was that Claudia was playing a prank on him. She’d made herself look younger. Her waist-long hair was suddenly black. Her unlined face was more tan and her eyes were incredibly clear. Her breasts were too big to be herself. She shivered in his doorway.
“Are you fucking my mother?” she said, impulsively.
“I read the flirty interview in QBit,” she explained, over a cracked mug full of his lazy effort at tea-making, “Twice. And then I read your short story Re: Greta, which is linked to the interview . You don’t do a very good job of hiding the fact that you’ve seen my mother naked. You know? Details about her body! What if my father reads that? What if Greta reads it?”
Her name was Charlotte Chang.
Paul said, “Really? Charlotte? That’s an amazing coincidence.”
She was 35 and agitated. She only looked half-Asian, at all, when she laughed. Otherwise she could have passed for a tiny Costa Rican, Israeli, Roma. He considered it a major achievement to have made her laugh so soon after she’d marched into his flat with clenched fists declaring the fact that she wanted to kill him. Not literally, of course, but these days you had to make sure. A joke about the sightseeing boat just then gliding across his picture-window view of the river; the ridiculous name of the boat. She tried her best not to but laughed anyway, gusts between her fingers, and said fuck. Probable flavor: chicken noodle soup.
Paul had to wonder where this Charlotte was hiding her I’M VOTING 4 BABBITZ button. Cressida Babbitz wasn’t even German: she was running for President in the United States of America; she was running for Queen of the World.
“Greta has read it. She loved it. Germans see these things differently. The pragmatism of the Yurt. Would you care for a tea?”
“My father isn’t German,” said Charlotte. “Yes, thank you.”
“I thought your mother was the love of my life. Then I realized that I was just her holiday, her vacation from being a devoted wife. I guess it’s hard work being so devoted. She scheduled our affair weeks before I even met her, apparently. She had a two-week opportunity she hated to waste and she slotted me in. I guess I should be flattered. I’m still waiting to hear from her. I had a sleepless night or two. To be honest it tore me in half.”
“She hasn’t written a word since she kissed me goodbye.”
A look strangely similar to disappointment passed over Charlotte’s face like a plot twist. She recovered and said,
“Well I hope you know you aren’t the fucking first? Okay? And, not to alarm you, but there’s even kind of a curse associated with sleeping with her. Four or five of her lovers were dead within a year of doing it with her. Haven’t you heard the rumors? Oh, and have you read her diary? It’s rather unbelievable.”
She put down her tea and began pacing the room, hands on her cheeks, like a refugee.
“When Iris Farahani was ten years old, she wrote, in her leather-bound diary, in her little-miss-perfect handwriting, that she intended to change her name to Claudia when she turned eighteen. And have a half-Chinese daughter named Charlotte when she was thirty. Well, she was ahead of schedule on that last prediction by six months. Oh and daughter Charlotte was going to be a tri-lingual dancer, by the way, specializing in Jazz dancing. Claudia worked out the details of half my future life when she was ten! Ten!”
“Right? My name, sure. But the rest? All the rest? That insane level of detail? Seriously? It really bothered me. I wish I’d never read it. I was depressed for months after. Suicidal. I wanted to give up dancing and study architecture just to spite her. I didn’t end up becoming an architect but I signed up for language classes at the Volkshochschul in Schöneberg the day after reading that diary. Then I fled to Brooklyn. I can now say the Arabic alphabet in Arabic. And ask you for another tea, please.”
“Anything to alter your predestined trilingualarity.”
“Yes, anything. Exactly.”
“You’re a character in a book.” Paul was not making an inside joke.
His phone rang… doo de doo… but he ignored it.
He got up and fetched the old blue tea-kettle from the kitchen and poured more into her cup, embarrassed somehow about the dark particles, swimming in the gold water, that had escaped the shiny cage of the tea ball to swirl around in the kettle. And from there to the bottom of her cup like leaves down a murky well. So many ways to be judged in this world.
The top of her head, her vinyl-black hair and the cookie-colored lane of the part over her left ear, was astonishingly beautiful and he couldn’t help imagining the sniffing of it. Maybe he would dare a furtive sniff. He was exactly the right height to sniff the top of her head furtively. He’d forgotten how much he loved the word furtive. He took the kettle back to the kitchen and grabbed a circular blue metal tin of cheap biscuits off the kitchen countertop and said, from that safe distance, with no one to see the vulnerable expression on his face, from behind a curtain of vintage orange and red and brown beads that cost him what he called 50 Euro-bucks,
“And, so, how many… you know… uh…”
“Men?” She called, triumphantly, from the living room. “Oh, at least a dozen! Sorry! Singers, writers, photographers! I think you may be the only Black! I’m sure that must have pleased her! The novelty, I mean! My mother’s a collector of talented men! Because my father has no talents, he’s just this great person! Considerate, wise! Boring, right? My poor father and his boring virtues like fidelity!”
He walked back into the living room with the blue tin of biscuits and set it quietly on the worktable but didn’t sit down at the work table with her. The table he’d fucked her mother on, in fact. Right there, where daughter Charlotte was holding that large mug with one hand and ready to aim biscuits at her mouth with another, her mother’s striking, snow-white arrowhead of a bush had dressed his dick in wintry finery as bright as the sky.
He stood near the window, arms crossed over his chest, feeling lots less on the moral defensive than he’d felt when Charlotte first barged in. So many men? He’d inadvertently joined a club so big? Feeling devastated but also very nearly and very pleasantly self-righteous, suddenly (not THE wronged party but a wronged party) he posed by the window and watched a rusty barge that was the un-shiny version of the color of the biscuit tin (his first thought: owned by the same corporation) creep into view on the wrinkled mirror of the river while he picked over his possible word-choices with great care.
“Your father has literally no idea?”
“Zero. You know what Claudia calls him?” She sipped her tea. “Mom calls Dad ‘Jesus’.”
Who was this woman that this woman’s agitated daughter was describing to him? She was Claudia-with-the-charmingly-fucked-up-bicycles, obviously, but who else was she? He’d thought, at the time, in the revitalizing haze of romantic delusion, that he’d known Claudia, his “soul mate”, to her core. The older you get, the better you are at fooling yourself. He’d simply projected his idea of his idealized female self on his fantasy perception of the moments of their lyrically self-conscious time together. The inner movie he always returned to, for maximum pleasure in total familiarity, whenever he fell in love.
“Wait. Where did you get my address?”
Claudia’s daughter laughed again, finally, showing, again, delightfully, the subtly Chinese geometry built into the structure of her temples. She laughed the head-down, hand-over-her-mouth laughter of a clever child enjoying the intensely forbidden. It would be ridiculous, and embarrassingly obvious, and probably futile, to fall in love with her (right after her mother!), he felt. But, again: life. Life is so short it barely happens. Tiny mesmerizing Charlotte Chang.
“Greta says ‘hi’,” she winked.
The following week, he made dinner for Charlotte and Charlotte’s new girlfriend Greta. The situation was funny and they all knew this and acknowledged it. He found it liberating. And his improvised Vegan, Gluten-free rice dish with raisins and tofu was an apparent success. He literally Googled “healthy lesbian meal”. Greta walked in wearing her I’M VOTING 4 BABBITZ button, pulling in Charlotte behind her.
They were all very soon having second helpings and indulging in frank conversation, the kind he always imagined the adults were having after his bedtime, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when intimations of Sex and War and Black Power were sailing over his head on an hourly basis. His model of the world, at that age, didn’t include a concept for a “model of the world” but he always sensed there were lots of Secrets, never suspecting that pretty much everyone older than fifteen knew these secrets and didn’t care. Who cared? Only people paid to care seemed to care. Only paid intellectuals ever properly discussed these things, even back then. And now he was older than fifteen, too, but he cared, for free. They could talk openly and frankly about Sex even if it was decades too late to talk about Bobby Seale.
Sounds were coming over the water. The Radikal Arts Kollectiv (KRK) across the river was having their weekly Dionysian-cum-Caligulan blowout on their littered bank of the river and Paul, Greta and Charlotte could see, through his picture window, on the pigeon-dark enamel of the descended night, against the martial throb of techno, the giant quivering molten-bright wedding rings of torches being juggled by furiously-tattooed dandies above the martial beat. What fun they must all be having.
A man’s erection is the spitting effigy of man.
Greta said, gesturing at Paul deferentially with her mug of tea, “Of course, you have a big black penis and it’s very nice and you know this. And you are such a beautiful Moroccan brown and you know this, too. And you are pretty good with your tongue, ja? But I always felt like, does he want a reward, or a pat on his head, every time after he has gone down on me? Yes, it is like this, Paul. But with her…” Greta put her mug down and reached across the kitchen table and took Charlotte’s left hand and squeezed it while Charlotte, who squeezed back, continued forking food into her mouth, “With her it is very different.”
“I did my best,” he said. “You can’t say you never came, Greta. Be honest.”
“No I can’t,” agreed Greta, toasting him.
“Well, then, what’s the difference?”
“Something about my orgasm being contextualized as your achievement, I think it diminishes it, somehow. Do you know?”
“Oh, God, you Feminists and your French Structuralism! When I come, I come!”
They all laughed.
His phone rang… doo de doo… but he ignored it. He made a point of ignoring his phone about twenty five per cent of the time to resist the tyranny of the mandatory connectedness of the era.
“And therein lies the difference,” said Charlotte. “This rice is so fucking great, by the way.”
He said, “Thank you, the secret is the cinnamon. What do you mean, ‘the difference’, Charlotte?”
Charlotte (who had never come in a man’s arms) said, with pedantic clarity, staring him down, “When we come, Paul, it can be an affectionate come or a nervous come or a grudging come or a soul-shattering come or an ambiguous come or a guilty come or a vaguely-distracted come or an enriching come or a sneaky come or a triumphant come or a territorial come or a selfish come or a self-pitying come or selfish come we pretend is a caring come or an athletic come or a heartless come or a sick come or a revenge come or a self-righteous come or a religious come or a mind-expanding come or a glamorous come or a trashy come or an obsessive compulsive come or a purely technical come or a nostalgic come or a grief-stricken come or a giggly come or a frightened come or an assertive come or a fuck-it-all come or a highly responsible come or a delusional come or a weary come or a come of rebirth …”
Greta was laughing the laugh in which she tucks her chin into her collarbone, one hand on her forehead, the laughter of admiration and disbelief. Paul was tapping his nose. “Bravo!” he said. “Bravo, Charlotte! Bravo!”
“And all that, you know,” added Charlotte, “In one good fuck.”
Paul high-fived Charlotte and looked over his shoulder and said, “Greta, were you ever with a woman before?”
Greta was carrying her folded paper plate toward the kitchen. She was wearing tight sort of semi-shining rubbery purple trousers and her posterior looked very pleasingly like a Brobdingnabian plum.
“No, but I thought of it many times.”
He had to admit to himself that Greta was looking much more attractive to him, again, now that she belonged to someone else. Her coin-blonde hair and big round blue-veined breasts and sharp little nose in profile and long thin legs wrapped around his waist struck him as wonderful memories he longed to renew as current experiences. When had he ever stopped thinking of her? Why had he ever started regretting their intimacies? For the literary pleasure of naming her ReGreta?
He remembered liking the way she looked whenever she smoked on her balcony in the evening, staring off into the tiny clouds of her own making as her private clouds died up toward the public clouds, the mother clouds, the masses’ clouds, in the sky, oblivious and temporarily innocent in the throes of a perfectly meaningless pleasure after the slightly-greater meaningless pleasure of their sweaty, grunting, race-traitor sex. Paul’s sweaty, grunting, race-traitor sex.
Greta neither sweated nor grunted. And her flavor was bland, yes, but quite palatable. Cardamon.
Paul remembered a fierce little argument that broke out between them once when Greta was driving them a relatively short distance to some play or avant garde dance performance in her car (she always bought her father’s big old intimidating luxury cars at a discount and treated them like shit) and Paul had quipped, “Intellectuals go on foot” and Greta sort of exploded and took a half-serious swat at him that made the car swerve. She had an extremely explosive temper, Paul remembered, for someone who was usually so… passive. Extremely.
Greta the perfectly passive dance partner who came, when she came, with tight-lipped squinting gasps that reminded Paul, sort of comically, of pothead paupers “Bogarting” nibs of joints with alligator clips in the 1970s. Paul suddenly remembered that Greta’s tendency to lay there like a perfect sex doll and only kiss when being kissed or suck when asked to (“Would you like me to swallow, also?”) had been one of the aspects of her that had turned him off back then (when he was ten percent younger and proportionally pickier) but now he thought it wouldn’t be so bad. Lighten up. Utilitarian subservience can be so sexy.
Greta knew after the first ten trysts that Paul liked having his nipples lightly bitten but still he had to ask Greta every single time to bite his nipples, not too hard, not too soft. But so what. So Greta wasn’t the world’s greatest lover. So what? Paul thought of flamboyantly banal culture-producers such as Queen, Norman Mailer, Prince, Phil Collins, Chagall, Larkin, Spielberg. Unchallengingly pleasurable as they all were and how gratefully you might turn to the cultural production of any of them during a transatlantic flight, you know? Which is a metaphor for the comforts we turn to to pacify and distract us during the cross-continental flight called consciousness. Greta was of the opinion that the song 99 Luftballons (by the German New Wave group Nena) was a better song than anything by Bob Dylan but, still, Paul found her extremely attractive.
Greta was twenty eight or twenty nine, a perpetual Uni student. Either Paul’s libido was much more primitive (competitive) than he cared to admit or love (being loved) really did have a way of making people glow because Greta (in those purple pants) was glowing for him now. Because Charlotte had licked Greta’s clitoris better than Paul ever could? With some kind of high-tech Wiccan spin on her tongue? Paul wondered if he’d ever glowed. He tried to picture Charlotte’s face between Greta’s legs but in his image of it, Charlotte looked less passionately amorous than unusually nosy. Or like a cat with too much cream to deal with or, no, a refugee in front of a huge bowl of after-dinner mints.
Greta said, apropos of nothing, “I really hate those men who say they ‘love women’. What does that mean?”
Paul’s phone rang… doo de doo… but he ignored it.
Charlotte was no longer an object of desire; Charlotte was now his (friendly) rival for Greta’s attention. And Charlotte’s mother Claudia had left his mind entirely. He hadn’t thought of Claudia in weeks. That wasn’t true.
Claudia and their Week of Miracles was still too painful to contemplate. They had been so happy, hadn’t they? But it was Greta who was glowing tonight. Claudia had forsaken Paul exactly as she’d warned him she would. What had he expected? When Greta was 50, Paul would be 78. Claudia would be 83.
Paul said, “Claudia, have you ever been with a man? Charlotte, I mean. Sorry. That was embarrassing. Have you ever been with a man?”
Charlotte (who ignored the gaffe) chewed, swallowed, held up a finger while following that swallow with a swig of tea, dabbed at her smile with a napkin and said, triumphantly, after a deep breath, “Absolutely not. Never. Have you? Be honest.”
“Come on, you can tell us,” goaded Greta, with her comically heavy accent. Her throaty voice. Her lips protruding on tell ussssss.
“Who wants dessert?” he said, with comedic blandness. They all laughed. Greta slapped her purpled rubber thighs.
“Come on now, Mr Writer,” said Greta. “Tell us your saddest story!”
In college I met the love of my life, the prototype for all of the loves of my life, a woman I never touched. Maybe we hugged a few times. We never kissed. Actually, we kissed once, technically speaking and it changed my life. I worshipped her from afar from a sacred spot right beside her. I was sewed to her side like a Siamese twin. I can still, more than thirty years later, recall the smell of her hair, the throaty music of her sarcastic catch-phrases (she was the first person I ever heard use the catch phrase “give me a break”) and the look of her laughter, which was much more of a facial expression than a sound. A wheezy sound. I remember the first time ever I saw her face.
It wasn’t just that she was very tall (5′ 11″) and very pretty (with shiny cheeks and green eyes and hair in a curly blonde mop with bangs cut straight across her eyes as the longer broth-toned loops bounced on her not very narrow shoulders) but the heroic insolence of her slouching walk, that bored shuffle, lazy and knowing and unimpressed. I couldn’t believe that she and her moon-shaped cat face were real. The first woman I ever saw in real life who looked like a hero. Now they’re common, but back in 1977? She was the first.
I was watching from the level above, leaning out of the window of the second floor lounge of our dormitory on the day we all gathered, all these young people, from around the world . Lured there to live there and become adults, intellectually. To be honest many of the girls were there to marry rich husbands young (and many did) and many of the boys were there as a formality, a concession to parents who would have preferred them in law school but finger-drummingly tolerated a liberal arts college rather than no college at all. It was very expensive liberal arts college and I had no idea what I was doing there. I just didn’t want to stay “home”.
It was the 1970s and we lived in a unisex dormitory, boys and girls sharing the big community bathrooms situated on every level of the building. I watched Mary, in her madras shirt and khaki painter’s pants and sandals, shuffling into the front entrance with another girl, it must have been very late afternoon, their shadows preceding them straight through the door and I remember how much longer Mary’s shadow was than her friend’s and how she looked straight up right before entering the building and how we made eye contact and she smiled and waved, an astronaut’s wife’s cheesy wave from the metaphorical back seat of a Cadillac in a parade in Texas in the 1960s but of course Mary’s cheesy wave was knowingly ironic; she was so cool and smart-assed and relaxed about being “far from home” and I was terrified. But thrilled. But shit-your-pants nervous. It was my first night away from any kind of natural “home”. But I had no “home”.
I was thousands of miles from anyone related by blood or who might know me by name or on sight. I had arranged this deliberately, I had wanted to escape, I’d had this long-standing plan to be free. I had turned down scholarships to Harvard, Princeton, Yale (all the usuals) because these famous institutions were all on or near the East Coast and therefore not far enough away from blood relatives and others who knew me. I had instead accepted a generous scholarship to a private college in the upper Midwest because it was so relatively remote that it was far too inconvenient for family to simply drop in on me. The very thought of being dropped-in-on, after I’d started my New Real Life, filled me with adolescent dread and hypothetical nausea.
Like a lot of too-smart kids, kids with unwieldy IQs who were used to dazzling and confusing their parents, I had little use for my actual family by the time I hit ten. If I ever have a kid she’s bound to be too intelligent and I’ll sit her down on her tenth birthday and tell her: Don’t feel guilty if you find me boring, irrelevant and ridiculous. I wish my parents had said this to me. Given me their blessing. It wasn’t that I thought I knew everything; far from it. I knew that I needed to know infinitely more than the little I knew, on almost any topic I found interesting (I had very wide interests) but I also knew that no one in my family knew anything worth knowing and they couldn’t help me. What they had to teach was about a world I had no interest in. A world I found repellent. Their “love” for me was really just ignorant pride in my “accomplishments” and in my test-taking scores and my apparent potential as a bona fide “success”. They would have been just as proud of some basketball star with a room-temp IQ. Perhaps more proud. A dribbling success is what they probably wished I’d been all along.
I knew their “love” was conditional; if I’d have become a drug addict or a gang member they’d have disowned me immediately (unless, perhaps, if I’d been a success at these things). I knew that they had no idea why they did the things they did, day in and day out and even less idea why I did what I did and their smug obliviousness about it all made me angry. Philosophical vestiges of the 1960s were still lingering in cracks and corners wherever you looked. At ten I had subscriptions to Evergreen magazine and Saturday Review. I read these magazines from cover-to-cover as they came in every week or month… at ten. Safe to say ours was the only address, in that ghetto we lived in, that was taking deliveries of the Saturday Review. Young people were still capable, back then (even poor ones) of looking down on Materialism, questioning Reality and struggling to improvise some Meaning, often communally. And my Family were people, I felt, with a curling lip, for whom acquiring a sectional, cream-colored Naugahyde sofa on credit was a Life Goal. A worthy cause. They’d get these sofas and the zippered, protective vinyl covers would never come off and they were uncomfortable as hell to sit on, as a kid, in the 1960s summer. Despite all the petit bourgeois air conditioning.
Up until a certain financial level (where the familiar falls far behind and nightmares of an entirely Other Realm commence), the greatest luxury money can buy is the freedom to ignore money; to disdain it (less so, perhaps, for the Patriarchs in charge of printing and harvesting it). This is what Mary’s upbringing seemed to give her. That glorious, well-travelled fuckitness.
And so Mary had real knowledge, she had esoteric knowledge because she was from a dysfunctional, upper-middle-class family. Her father was a doctor and her mother, despite being much younger than the father, was an aging “society” beauty who held Mary’s flawlessly sexy youth against her. Mary’s mother’s last name was La Framboise and the fact that she had close family in France meant that Mary had been outside of the US, she’d been out there a lot, out on the Planet, something which seemed incredible to me at that age: she knew Paris, she knew London and Rome, she smoked clove cigarettes and doodled, on everything, a cartoon sheep she called Pascal. She would quote Rimbaud. Which, I know, sure I know, are the touchingly goofy pretentions of beautiful and spotty youth, the pretentions that hid her real knowledge, much deeper than anything I knew, which is that everything, in the end, is bullshit. But not in a Nihilistic way. Not like the Punks which were just then emerging as a pseudo-political, post-suburban movement in Pop.
To know that everything is utter bullshit but to brush and floss after every meal anyway, to be passionate despite the pointlessness… how many know this? It’s one thing to read Camus and pretend to agree or to go “punk” and lazily devolve into convenient destructiveness and filthy finger-sex but to live well in the Knowledge, to bathe daily and cook skilfully and read John Berryman over spaghetti before going out to dance yet not take money seriously and not take authority figures seriously and not worry about status or Christ or “our troops” not just in youth and college but all through Life, to keep it up like a bravura performance of a death-defying stunt without once giving in… that’s what Mary inspired me to feel that the Knowledge I needed meant.
The first night we spent hanging out in her dorm room was my third night away from home and at the end of all that talk (and twice as much listening) I was standing in a shaky way from a lotus position on her carpet (the front edge of her little dorm room bed having served as our back-rest and the bed’s surface as a table for the Canadian bacon and pineapple pizza I ordered with a gold flake from the first precious installment of my student loan ) having been too embarrassed to admit that my legs were falling asleep (first numb, then, as I stood, pins and needles of fire) and before I could hobble, wincing, down the hall, Mary pressed a book in my hand (you HAVE to read this!), a book with a lurid orange dust jacket emblazoned with yellow and white lettering, a hardback: Harold Brodkey’s First Love and Other Sorrows. And she was right: I had to read it. Brodkey, who became, by the time I was fully grown and writing with near-professional seriousness, the most reviled writer in North American Letters. My hero. My biggest influence. Public Enemy (who wrote for the Silver Age New Yorker) Number One. The hero I had to learn to keep hidden in a secret room in my intellectual attic before I could earn a cent as a writer but without whom I couldn’t have developed the ability to think one way while writing another in order to earn that cent. For that I thank Mary.
But Mary read to me passages from the vile books of that super-creep Robbe-Grillet and I wanted to protect her from it. In my perfect naiveté, I didn’t understand what she was getting from those books or where they were leading her. Brodkey was a Midwestern naïf like me, in a way. Though I was a convert: I wasn’t born in the Midwest. Mary was the coastal sophisticate. Harold and I the country mice.
Mary and I were inseparable. She spent hours in my dormitory room, every day, and I spent hours in hers. I’d read in her room, at the end of her bed, while she slept. She cut my hair every three months and I tried, once, to cut hers. She told me her Secrets and made me swear to keep them to myself and I was so true to my word, I took the oath so seriously that I forgot her secrets one by one. Even the big one. Was she a victim of incest? I can’t remember. I can’t remember if she told me that. For whatever reason I seem to think that she did. She filled my thoughts. Even as she was speaking to me, I was thinking of her.
I had no idea how physically beautifully I was back then; I seemed to have a little fan club of stunning, sexy, plain and “homely” girls wherever I went on campus (one of a handful of dark-skinned males in a Great Lake of pink and ivory and bisque) and many nights I found myself in bed with some busty debutante or musky foreign exchange student with hair like a palace arras or racy squinting poetess that half the males on campus would have killed the other males on campus in order to slime over territorially. I was innocent in a way and could take sex or leave it but no one could replace Mary and often I preferred to masturbate (although I could never bring myself to touch myself while thinking of Mary) . It wasn’t as though I was undersexed. I used to fellate myself every day (my Yogi trick). But sex seemed irrelevant to my Love Life. And no one came close to talking the way Mary talked and filling my heart with inspiration and filling, also, the deep and cold holes that a lonely childhood and my uncomprehending family-members had gouged in me. But maybe I wasn’t complicated enough in those days for that to have been much of an accomplishment on Mary’s part?
Mary took my instinctual feminism and polished it into a workably militant practise; she taught me that true Equality could only mean the right to be Superior. If Superior you were or became. She had no patience for the arrogant noblesse oblige of the average “sensitive” male willing to “lower” himself to concede that Mary was “human, too” (reminiscent of the Oedipal reject, the bourgeois prodigal son, who offers to the peasants to share in a dumb dream of revolutionary poverty ) . This was as true of Race as it was of Gender. Mary taught me how to walk. And where to walk. And why.
The awesome pinnacle of this romance occurred near the beginning of the second year of school, only a few months before I walked, bored and cocky, off the campus and into “Life”, forever.
On a Tuesday.
A Tuesday evening.
I haven’t mentioned that we gave each other nicknames, or nickname, Mary and I: we used the same nickname between us: Baba. As in “baa baa, black sheep” because we were each the black sheep of her/his family. I’d rap lightly on her dorm room door in the morning and singsong “Baba” to wake her or she’d call out to me, with zero self-consciousness, from across the cafeteria, in a room of three hundred upper class students (and a handful of scholarship cases) who considered the two of us insane: “Baba!”
Or we’d whisper, comically, in adjoining sleeping bags in a dark room on the floor of some upper- classman’s superior and spacious dorm room, after a wild party, in a haze of beer and cigarettes and the animalistic noises of gross and dumb and gratuitous fuckings, “‘Night, Baba,” and “‘Night Baba! Good night!”
And one night it came to pass that I was seated cross-legged on the edge of Mary’s warm bed while she slept, I was reading from John Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs (Berryman had jumped out of life from the Washington Avenue bridge, a few years prior, just a few miles from where I sat that night), the only light in the room a fat scented candle, jasmine, on a stool that was close enough to where I sat to cast the shadow of my knuckles across the page and also cinematic flickers on her wise-child face, I think I was reading Dream Song #4, the poem in which Berryman has his character Henry lust, in the funniest way, parodying an Elizabethan, after some slob’s pretty wife in an Italian (it has to be an Italian) restaurant… when it happened. The perfect fulfilment of my own longing: Mary was talking in her sleep. I put the book very carefully down and listened and watched her by candle light as she said, quite clearly, in some wonderful dream, “Oh my Baba, my Baba!” and made of her lips a tender kiss.
And suddenly I knew we were married and had always been married and always would be. And I teared up a little and couldn’t read the poem anymore because the room, with the candle in one corner and Mary’s kissy-face lips in the other, was swimming. I was twenty and floating in the voluptuous pain of mortality, the pain of limits and the irrevocable knowledge of the End of All Things, all bodies, all souls, all Love, defending my heart with the same heroic futility of Berryman and Shakespeare (Marlowe) and Picasso and everybody else in possession of the flaming sword of The Eternal Feminine’s blessing: my chivalric soul was in flight: I was immortal and I was understood and way fucking Loved beyond ordinary human proportion. You can live with the notion of ceasing to exist one day if you have been loved.
A few months later I was off campus, I quit school, I shared an apartment with a bunch of poetry-writing, guitar-stroking freaks. I was the leader of the freaks but we couldn’t play our instruments well enough to be a band. Not even in Punk. But it was all very exciting, even the shitty jobs (mine was on a loading dock) we took to pay for all the face paint and guitar strings and summer abortions.
Mary quit school and we stayed in touch, hung out a few times a month. Then she left the country, reverting to her birthright-state of Cool beyond me, living in Paris for nearly a year, and she arranged through mutual friends to see me the very day she returned to the campus area, trying to make a go of it with a French boyfriend, a colonial, part Moroccan, a musician in a lacy skull cap who looked like a scrawny caricature of me. Which flattered me to no end. I still loved her too much to want to fuck her, of course. I had been tip-toeing around the enigma of our relationship with infinite tact since the night she soul-kissed me in her dreams, afraid to dispel the magic of my memory of that. The boyfriend’s name was Blaise. I liked Blaise but I avoided the painful thought of his dick in her.
Then they broke up, Blaise flew in a huff back to the pissoires and gargoyles of Paris and Mary returned to the interminable rain and over-sugared teas of her ancestral home in Portland. We corresponded sporadically, her letters became increasingly cryptic and Berryman-like in their wry and sometimes dark allusions. I called her once at the number she gave as her work number and the sounds in the background were strange. One night very soon after that call I had a suffocating dream that instructed me to go to immediately to wherever Mary was and save her.
The next morning I found an index card stapled to a cork board at the entrance of an organic food co-op, a card that claimed that one more passenger was still required to participate in a communal Kerouac-like drive in a Volkswagen van to Portland, Oregon, land of the overcast lumberjack, a 36-hour odyssey. The cost of food and gasoline was to be divided five ways. Leaving at 3pm or 3:30 or 4pm sharp that very day. A wink from the Goddess.
Giving no notice at my loading dock job I ran home and stuffed a laundry bag with books and other provisions and a change of clothing and climbed into a van full of bearded men. There was nowhere to sit properly and after experimenting with hunching or squatting or kneeling I ended up laying face-down on the van’s butt-littered carpet, listening to Dire Straits, paying twice as much gas money as I’d originally been assured that I was expected to pay, barely able to walk when I climbed out of the slave ship and into the rainy dark headwinds of a highly gothic Portland two nights and half a day later. I called Mary from a payphone, she gave me her startled directions. And there I was, shortly after lunch time, a lunch time dark as an eclipse, walking into a strip club called The Velvet Pinkie.
So this, I thought, is where Mary’s radical feminist journey has landed her.
We hugged at the bar.
I was facing the angled mirror above and behind the derby-wearing bartender and in the mirror I watched a woman who was a dead-ringer for a 19-year-old (but bleached) Marilyn Monroe squirm suggestively on a spot-lit bar stool onstage with her legs spread wide to the tune of Spandau Ballet’s True. Her flesh was whipped cream and the cherries were red. To look, I felt, compromised my integrity. But not looking would, worse, I felt, insult Mary. Was I, after all, suddenly, her moral superior merely because she was dancing naked (not just then, thank god) for dollars, and possibly selling blow jobs on the side, for reasons I was not about to ask her to go into? No. We were still in it together, I felt, whatever it was. We were still and always had been and always would be married. Were we not soul mates? We were. I embraced her reality tremulously. Her reality was this public room full of exposed tits and unreadable facial expressions and synchronized periods. The room was a Weegee photo. It seemed to belong to a bygone era of the self-deprecating, one-word pseudonym. I sat in a corner of the Weegee photo for five hours until Mary’s shift was over and walked her protectively home.
I was too tired to think of what exactly to say or how to say it. We threaded through the liquor-store-neon maze of the glistening night and walked up two flights of grubbily-upholstered stairs and down a very long, dingy-green carpet with old souls ground into it. It smelled like an old hat. Mary unlocked her front door and tossed her purse across the living room and it hit the hardwood floor (not yet de rigueur, in those days: pictorial rugs and shag carpets were still the hoi polloi choice: Mary always had style) with the muffled impact of a faux-leather bag lumpy-full of dollars. There was no phone, I eventually noticed, in her apartment.
Mary fired up a frozen pizza for our late supper. I washed an accumulated week’s worth of dishes and I remember feeling intensely relieved that I hadn’t, in my bruise-eyed state of Volkswagoned (and emotional) exhaustion, dropped and smashed a plate or a wine glass (no coffee mugs or water cups, just wine glasses on every flat surface) and the night ripened into the crispy, shrunken sacrament of the overbaked pizza and the traffic sounds beyond the open window subsided whereas the rain remained constant and then rose in sound and before I knew it the post-pizza dishes were done and Mary was admonishing me to come to bed. Come to bed, Baba. Early day tomorrow at the strip club.
Baba! I’d forgotten about Baba!
Come to bed…
And ten years later I wished I had. Twenty years later, as well. I wished I’d loved Mary enough to have crawled into that bed and kissed Mary’s hair and chin and knees and feet like Mary kissed Jesus’ feet, or washed his feet with her hair, I guess, is how the story goes (or did he wash her feet with his hair in this tale? or have I imagined the entire episode?); I wished, looking back after ten years of maturing somewhat, that I’d washed Mary’s feet with my hair and the unguent salts of my snotty tears. I wished I’d touched her fluttering eyelids with a thousand feathery kisses each of pure, unselfish, unbridled devotion. All these years later, I wished I’d whispered, unwaveringly, with a zealot’s conviction, as I nuzzled Mary’s cheek with my forehead: wife wife wife wife wife wife wife wife…
Instead, in one of the most unfathomably regrettable (bonehead) moves of my life, I went to sleep in her fucking bathtub. I actually slept in it. I wasn’t being symbolic. I was being cripplingly strange with the horrific purity of longingly innocent intentions. I was, in my idiotic way, confirming the love for her. The admiration and respect. I woke up to the repercussions of my jaw-dropping folly and spent one uncomfortable day in Portland, Oregon and blew most of my savings on the two-day train ride back home. After which Mary stopped answering my letters.
It was perhaps three months later that prostitutes began disappearing in Portland.
The missing girls and ladies tended to be on the tall side and blonde, thinner, small-breasted (“student types” paying for college the hard way) and rarely older than thirty. A serial killer, it was suspected, was working its way through the “Old Town” district of the city. Not far from where Mary lived and precisely where she worked. I tried calling her “old” work number and the number was no longer connected. I sent her a few “jokey” (then gradually more hysterical) postcards with my phone number, begging her to call me collect. No response. Eleven of the missing girls and ladies had turned up as discreetly-mutilated bodies, hair cut short posthumously, and seven remained missing. Half of the remains that turned up remained unclaimed. The “Red Tape Killer” story lingered like a wound in the news for a few weeks until it faded forever from the media’s memory (everywhere other than Portland, or the Pacific Northwest, probably). This was in the summer of 1983.
Not quite twenty years later, I was a writer, doing okay (meaning: I could pay rent alone, eat in a nice restaurant once a month and expect to receive two-to-three hundred free books in the mail every year) and Google existed. Picture it. I’m having a nostalgic evening. Thinking strongly of Mary, my long-dead beloved. Desperately curious, again, suddenly, about the Red Tape Killer. Was it ever caught (was it Robbe-Grillet? But he liked them tiny)? Were the seven missing women ever accounted for? Was Mary one of them? Were there others?
I start Googling at midnight and I’m still leaning into the screen (back then a hot and heavy little CRT) on my worktable at dawn, yeah? Just revisiting the emotional territory of this story has worn me the fuck out. Not to mention the lack of sleep. Hard to keep my eyes open. Mary, I whisper, in tears. Mary… I can still remember exactly how it felt to remember exactly how it felt, ten years after it all happened, that night I aimed the Google gun at the tenderest niche of my memories . Probably because I’d never found a love-of-my-life to replace Mary. Would I suffer over it, all over again, cyclically, forever, on an endless and mindless emotional loop, until the day I died?
Then a miracle.
As the sun was rising, breaking through the morning clouds and blinding me in that very spot at the table… quite by accident (as all great miracles and inventions come to us): Google turned up a Mary, with the same last name as Mary but hidden in a hyphenated form. The same approximate age as Mary, with a tiny avatar that was not, without a doubt, NOT Mary, the older Mary, who’d commented in a comment thread that was no more than a week or two old. She’d commented knowledgably in a thread about a Dog Show. Well, as they say, to make a long story short…
It was Mary.
She was not dead. She was married. Working in a bank. Three grown children. Posting tons of mediocre user- book-reviews on Amazon dot com. Attending Dog Shows. A big Russell Crowe fan, apparently.
I contacted her via email.
I send her a surprisingly (you’d be proud of me) cautious and dignified “remember me?” message. I don’t go into details. I don’t mention the famous sleep-talking kiss that changed my life in her dorm room that night or my ill-fated trip to Portland face-down in a van or Marilyn Monroe in the strip club or my counter-intuitive bathtub maneuver and I certainly avoid mentioning the fact that for nearly twenty years I’ve been assuming she’s a murdered prostitute. And, of course (of course) The Love of My Life: this I don’t mention, either. I leave all of that out. Hoping I can get to it (the good stuff) later.
It takes her three days to see the message and answer it (or: three days to decide how to answer it). For three days I stare at my anxious In Box. I can’t leave the room. I’m pissing in coffee cans and subsisting on crackers and water. I’m sleeping, in thirty-minute increments, under the work table. Hoping. Waiting.
And on the third day she answers.
“OMG! Of COURSE I remember you! The CRAZY Black kid I went to college with!!!! HOW THE HELL ARE YOU?????? “
And that’s my saddest story.
Tiny Charlotte (seated upright) applauded and long Greta (on her back) joined in. Greta’s head was in Charlotte’s lap. They were all on the couch.
There was no such bar as The Velvet Pinkie.
Greta yawned and said, “Oh, my, pardon my yawn. But that story was devastating. Poor you! I mean this sincerely. So, but, Paul, is Mary still the love of your life?”
” I don’t know. How can she be? All I know is that I lost something, a feeling or an image, that I treasured for thirty years. Something that kept me going. You’re in love with someone and you always think the worst thing that can happen is Death. But if Mary Dillingham had died, I’d still have my picture of her, unspoiled. The worst thing that can happen is finding out who your obsession really is. Your obsession is merely a person. Death is better. From a certain perspective, I mean. Okay, I just mean all that intellectually. Of course it’s better that she’s alive and everything. But…”
“I’m thinking of Michael Furey,” said Greta.
“Yes! Thank God Michael Furey died young in The Dead. From the wife’s perspective, I mean. Her poetisch nostalgia, ja? What a gift to her.”
“And her name was Greta, too, of course. The wife. With two ‘t’s,” said Paul.
Greta clapped her hands. “Yes! That’s right! I forgot! Gretta Conroy! Oh, that is wonderful. Good old Joyce!”
“So, are you sorry I didn’t die of pneumonia like Michael Furey in The Dead when we were still young and in wildly in love, Greta?”
“You’re so funny, Paul,” said Charlotte.
“Don’t worry, Charlotte, I’m not flirting.”
“Don’t worry, Paul, I’m secure enough in our love to not worry much about it, thanks,” said Charlotte.
Paul laughed and said “Mary could have been my Michael Furey but the Internet ruined it for me. I thought finding her again was a miracle but it was a negative miracle. What’s the word for a negative miracle?”
“Like spontaneous human combustion,” said Charlotte.
“There must be a Greek word for it.”
Greta said, “The Internet is evil.”
“Internet sounds like a Greek word, doesn’t it?”
“The Internet. Welcome to the death of Romance. ”
“What really matters in your story of Mary was the purity of your love, Paul,” said Greta. “You never slept with her and it didn’t matter. You loved her and it was pure. Too much of what we all call love is really a transaction… even the supposedly sacred bond of mother and child! Be honest! Isn’t it really that the child gets food from the mother and, in exchange, the child gives the mother something to cuddle and control for a few years? Is that true love or a mutually-beneficial arrangement?”
“True. Bleak? I don’t know,” said Paul. “What I do know is how unusual this is, our little gathering tonight, three intelligent people who aren’t together because of school.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re still under thirty and you’re still at Uni so you probably haven’t noticed yet.”
Charlotte laughed. It was so great to be alive, actually. She could feel this awareness like bees buzzing in her breasts. Old enough to know she would definitely die one day but young enough still to shrug at the notion.
Greta looked up at Charlotte, who appeared to be right-side-up in the green little upside-down mirrors of Greta’s eyes as Greta lay in Charlotte’s lap, and said, “Noticed what?”
Charlotte said, “The fucking world is full of stupid fucking people, Dear.”
“The masses and their gods, The Celebrities.”
“Once you leave Uni, you’ll realize, maybe after a couple of years, that you can’t remember the last time you had an interesting conversation, or talked seriously about a book or a movie. Before you talk about a single fresh idea you’ll discuss the weather a thousand times in a row, and politics, which is exactly like the weather, and illness, and the rising cost of things and that’s it. It’ll hit you that you’ve been making do with small talk all this time. And when you happen to meet an intelligent person who’s also a bit educated, the recognition is instant, isn’t it, Charlotte? Tell her.”
“It is. You find yourselves exchanging a subliminal wink. You belong to a secret fucking club, the secret club the rest of the world is suspicious of.”
“They hate it. The secret club of intelligence. The world hates it. They’d like to burn us all at the stake. Or have us branded with a scarlet ‘i’.”
“Or hate-fuck us to dust.”
“You accidentally meet another member and you find yourself coming up with a flimsy fucking excuse for spending a little more time together… to stretch that rare, intelligent conversation out just a little more. It’s like an oasis in the desert. I remember, once, finding a Godard movie in the videothek at the corner… it was all by itself in a moronic fucking row of action films. Listen, I’m the first to admit that Godard’s ideas are better than his films. But, you know? Someone had put it there as a joke, maybe. And I wanted to rent this Godard film and the guy working there said, hey, you like Godard? And we ended up talking for a fucking hour. That videothek guy, well, he said things that changed my life. In small ways, I mean, just by making me think again. It was the first serious conversation I’d had in a year. I’d just gotten back from America, where I lived entirely on small talk, and I wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t realize how fucking desperate I was to have a conversation like that until I had it.”
“Because stupid people are really stupid. It’s a forbidden topic.”
“So they came up with that ridiculous phrase… emo...”
Paul laughed. “Emotional intelligence!”
Charlotte clapped. “Oh god, yes. Emotional intelligence. To make stupid fucking people feel smarter using a fucking oxymoron!”
Greta said, “Listen to you two!”
Charlotte said, “Oh, just wait, baby. Paul, you know that book, by a famous philosopher, forget his fucking name, the book is called Bullshit or On Bullshit? By a serious philosopher, I mean.”
“Sure, I know that book. On Bullshit. I know that.”
“They should have one called On Stupidity.”
“I’d buy it.”
“There’d be riots in the streets. If the rioters could fucking read, I mean. Do rioters ever riot over things they read, anymore? They just riot over pictures now, right?”
Paul said, “And it goes deeper than the issue of small talk, dumb talk, dumb movies like The Godfather and all. Because intelligence is everything. The smarter you are, the more the world means, even if it is Existentially pointless… the more it means and the more detailed the picture becomes. It’s like the issue of resolution in computer graphics. A few years back, remember, late 1990s, when storage capacity was an issue, almost all the graphic files you saw were low-resolution so they wouldn’t take up too much precious space. Now that hard drives have gone from 50-megabytes to a thousand gigs, generally, high-resolution is what everyone wants. Who wants to see a low-resolution film? That’s how I see the lives of the Stupid. I’m storing several folders of 2-gigabyte films and think nothing of it. The films are beautiful in their high resolution. Intelligence means seeing the world in a higher resolution. It’s not just a luxury… it becomes a necessity. But if you have a high-res mind and you spend your time among low-res people…”
“It affects you.”
“It does. Now think about Sex.”
“Okay,” smiled Charlotte, and she stroked Greta’s fucking cheeks.
“Sex, when it’s just Sex… what is it? It’s absurd. It’s trivial. It’s sucking bits and poking bits and goo. It feels good, yes, but without the framework of the history of culture to connect Sex to Gaudi’s cathedral or the Watts Towers and, I don’t know, Joyce’s Dubliners and Debussy’s Girl with the Flaxen Hair and Coltrane and Kara Walker and Benin bronzes and Eskimo scrimshaw and Chinese calligraphy and Alice Neel and… and… Nina Simone and Persian miniatures plus whatever other great cultural works of the not-West are out there…”
Charlotte said, “Okay…”
“You know? Be honest.”
“I think so.”
“Look at porn. I looked at porn. When I was a kid this was strictly forbidden stuff. You could only find it in a box under your uncle’s bed while the grownups were arguing in the next room every Thanksgiving. Or, wow, I remember now walking across the mouth of an alley near my grandmother’s house in 1968 or ’69 and finding a pornographic coloring book of Popeye with a huge penis, Batman being blown by Robin, Little Orphan Annie with little pink tits and a sketchy red bush. I was thrilled and horrified and threw it in the nearest garbage can and ran in the opposite direction. I came creeping back the next day but it was gone. The only thing missing from the garbage. The eggshells and coffee grinds were all accounted for. You only got porn, back then, in small but very intense and threatening doses, in those days, like visitations from the Hebrew deity, so the allure was preserved almost indefinitely and so this was the golden age of porn. It was legendary.”
“The Internet changed all that. Porn became ubiquitous. I looked at it every day for a week, the first week I went online in a serious way, at home, on my own computer… then it lost its appeal. Lost its value. I stopped watching. Real porn was destroying all my fantasies of what porn had been. Because the point is what? Professionals are so much better at it, in the most brainless way, and that’s why you watch. And for the unintelligent, that’s more than enough. That’s the point. Sex or sports… a game will never need to be a metaphor for these people. Uniformed idiots kicking a ball at a net is the meaning and the goal, no pun intended, and that’s enough. For them. Is it enough for you? Can you even think of attending a soccer match un-ironically? Be honest.”
Paul continued, “Do you know what I mean? Intelligence gives Sex the meaning it wouldn’t otherwise have. It becomes more than a sneeze or an avalanche. It comes closer to a poem. Stupid people fucking each other can only talk or think about fucking each other more or about cars to fuck each other in or parties to meet other stupid people to fuck at. Without the meaning granted by at least a glancing awareness of not only the interconnecting bio-networks of the planetary eco-system but also so many works of human genius which connect to Sex and are connected by Sex… it would just be a cruel trick being played on us by DNA, to enforce the propagation of DNA. Without intelligence, Sex is sort of… not entirely unpleasantly grotesque, like a stroll through a gallery of velvet black-light clown paintings on cocaine. In ankle-deep, lukewarm water.”
“But if I suddenly said ‘let’s all fuck,’ you wouldn’t say ‘no,’ ” said Charlotte.
“I might,” said Paul. “I might not. But it wouldn’t be an orgy of Stupids, in any case, and that’s the point.”
“If only other people could hear this conversation,” joked Greta. “You two sound like a couple of… I don’t know whats!”
“Okay, so what if an intelligent person fucks a stupid person?” asked Charlotte. “What happens then?”
Paul thought and said, “The intelligent person is locked in a desperate struggle, in that case… to make the Sex mean something, despite the best unconscious efforts of his or her partner. Whether or not…”
“He or she knows it.”
“Yes. For example… ”
“So intelligent people should fuck their own kind.”
“They should but they don’t. They almost never do. Listen, if I’d known all this when I was young, I wouldn’t have been so quick to quit school. School is the last chance to meet and fuck other intelligent people on a regular basis. That’s how Mary and I met, after all, right? Although we didn’t fuck, I guess. We really should have. My own fault. And now look at her… with her dog shows and her Amazon book reviews and her fucking Russell Crowe movies…”
“So that’s what a soul-mate does,” concluded Charlotte.
“What?” asked Paul, with a liar’s slight grin.
“It’s easy, silly. Your soul-mate fucking saves you from Sex.”
Then, stroking long Greta’s head as though it were a little blonde cat in her lap, she said, slyly:
“But, Paul, the original question really wasn’t about telling us your saddest story, the one about Mary, was it? Or about intelligence and smart-fucking. The question, if I still recall correctly (after an hour of showing off our intelligence) was… drum roll… have you ever been with man? Be honest.”
Paul laughed and got up and stretched his legs for a trip to the kitchen.
They’d all migrated to the long warm leather couch (like a remixed cow) along the wall across from the picture window facing the river, which was a shiny black to the sky’s woolly gray which was here and there festooned with lame fizzles of fireworks as the Radikal Arts Kollectiv (KRK) party ran out of steam. It was Sunday night and many of the cultural outliers at the party had day jobs to resume on Monday morning.
Paul had been perched at one end of the massive old couch, the end nearest the front door, straddling the couch’s arm and C and G were at the other end, closer to the arched entrance to his kitchen, where the ’70s-tinted glass-bead curtains were still swinging after Paul’s parting them. Long, tall Greta’s head was in Charlotte’s tiny lap, Greta’s feet not far from where Paul’s dangling right hand had been for hours. How easy it would have been to play with Greta’s long toes the way he knew she liked them to be played with (like piano keys). How could it be forbidden now when it had been her favorite thing then?
Charlotte was a sleepy Sphinx or a bored cat (a cat with a cat in her lap), he couldn’t tell which. She’d pulled her rich oil spill of hair into a laddish top knot as the night stretched on and wore a lazy, half-drunk smile as she waited for Paul to return from the kitchen and answer her question.