from the completed novel
or the little almanac of
Famous Black Philosophers & Great German Comedians
a novel as poem or symphony or joke
—-(download the 231-pg pdf HERE
Old Paul (in his late 50s) had a tightly-controlled, week-long affair with married Berlin Artist Claudia Chang. When Claudia’s husband Tim returned from his 2-week business trip to Montreal, the affair (as per its own ground rules) ended. Complications ramify with an angry knock on Paul’s only door one morning…
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.
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!”