My brother could never be called a wistful man, but there was more than a whisper of nostalgia in him when he spoke about their first days in America. They were glorious, he said, he could taste it, the feeling of those days, as though it were a piece of fruit he’d just bitten into and the juice was still wet on his lips. Everything they saw and did seemed to amplify the outrageous joy they had in each other, a pair of bold young painters flushed with the flame of their new romance and shaking the dust of old Europe off their boots. They had gotten away with it!—this was the feeling. Down Fifth they’d stride at night, he said, the collars of their overcoats turned up against the wind, the city throbbing around them like a living heart and warm light spilling out of bars and restaurants on every block. They would push through the doors of some smoky saloon with gleaming brass rails and dark wood paneling, the jukebox in back and large mirrors behind the counter such that every bottle had its double, and find people who remembered Vera from her first visit, and with affection too, how could you not? With her ceaseless talk and her wild, gap-toothed laughter, how could you not want to draw close, said Jack, and share the light of that abundant spirit?
Abundant spirit was certainly the theme of their first nights in New York, he would then say wryly, and of the many that followed, for whatever the company, Vera assumed she had more to offer it than anyone else, and she did not hold back. Instead she held forth, and when propped up at a bar with a glass in her hand she could dominate any group. How she loved to tell the story of dumping Gordon and leaving England, all for the love of this beautiful boy who had carried her off with such purpose, such gallantry!—and how the crowd applauded when she lifted her glass and declared Jack Rathbone the last of the great lovers, the last true romantic, and Jack, poor Jack, clutching her close to him, bewildered and intoxicated by it all. The talking and drinking would run on into the small hours before he could at last go home with his genius, and if no one was able to recall much of the conversation the next morning, what did survive was the feeling of being privileged to be experiencing pleasure of such a rare and elevated kind, to be out carousing, I mean, among artists at play with their wits at full stretch, their tongues unfettered and winged—
But as the days flew by, each much like the last—an endless round, it seems, of bars and parties among people he later came to regard as phonies and losers—Jack said he became aware of the first flush dying, and it was dying because he was beginning to feel a deep unease that they had not yet made any work. I understood his impatience, of course I did, and his frustration too, because I knew how intensely ambitious he was, and it never occurred to me to doubt his account, I suppose because it confirmed what I already suspected about Vera, that she was a slut and a lush and lazy. In time I came to regard her differently and even grew to like her; and I leaned on her heavily after Jack’s death, when for a while she was the sole pillar of strength in a house of shattered women. But in those early days I felt only disdain, which was simply the mask of my jealousy. A studio with a bed in it had been promised by a guy called Herb who was about to leave for the Cape. He would let them have it for nothing, he said, and given their limited resources this was important, but they saw him in the Village night after night, in one bar or another, and he always had a reason why he needed to be in the city a few days more.
Jack became convinced that he was Vera’s lover from her previous visit, and that he didn’t leave the city precisely because she was there, but it meant that they had to stay on at the Madison, where they could not work. So as they tramped the city streets by day it became clear to my brother that while he grew increasingly anxious, Vera was untroubled by their idleness. Every morning he woke early with a hangover and lay in bed seething with impatience as it grew ever more clear to him that if they carried on this way they would one day be without any money, and worse, that Vera did not care—that she was content to let that day dawn and would not worry about the prospect until that day dawned. Which meant that it was up to him to make sure they didn’t go broke, but without involving her at all. That seemed to be the deal. He had thought the deal was that they were going to set up a studio together and work side by side. Vera was certainly looking at art, and talking about art, but she wasn’t making any art. She said she needed to charge her battery.
He asked her how long this took, and I imagine from what he told me that they were in bed for this conversation, that it was late morning, and that they had had a late night. Another late night.
—It takes, she said, as long as it takes.
I see her sitting up on her elbow, licking her dry lips, groaning, pushing her hair off her face, reaching for a cigarette. Jack was unsure whether such behavior was to be expected of an artist like Vera Savage, and therefore accepted, or to be resisted, to be challenged. All his instincts told him he was watching not creative gestation but waste. He said this. She turned to him, squinting; then her face changed, she stretched out a hand and took his jaw in her fingers and angled it toward the light, what little they had of it in that poky room with its one small window, his pale hair flopping over his forehead.
—Just look at you, she whispered, and with so much tenderness, the tears standing out in her eyes!
How then to berate her for her shiftlessness? But he tried.
—Darling, we’ve got to work!
Still she held his jaw. Then she was astride him.
—You’ve got to work. Go on, work.
Then she sank onto him, closed her eyes, lifted her chin.
—Not just me, he said, or murmured, rather, as he lost control of the conversation.
Or so I imagined it. He thought he might try again later, when they were out on the street. There was the chance of a more serious conversation when they had their clothes on, but there were so many distractions. Here was the new Guggenheim Museum, extraordinary spiral going up on Fifth Avenue, here was Central Park, the park, yes, all that wildness and water and silence at the heart of so much congestion and din—! He would talk to her seriously when they were in the park.
So they talked seriously when they were in the park. They went in at 86th and tramped south in their overcoats, hands plunged deep in their pockets and Vera’s head sunk low as she frowned, and he poured out the thoughts that woke him each day at dawn and cast an ever-lengthening shadow on his happiness. And she nodded and agreed that yes, it was time they made some work, and she understood, yes, that he was eager to get on, and so yes, tonight they would decide one way or another about this studio of Herb’s, and if it wasn’t going to work out, why then they would look for something else—and then all at once a large shaggy hound was padding toward them and she cried out with pleasure and sank to her knees to make friends with it—and he saw it meant nothing to her, what she was saying. She was trying to make it mean something, she was trying to share his compulsion to work, but it simply was not in her.
This rocked him. He had to stop and sit down on a bench. They sat under a tree, the dead leaves drifting down around them. The day was cool and misty, the park empty. They sat smoking by the Bethesda Fountain and he could not explain how rocked he was by what he’d just seen in her. He didn’t know her anymore. How she worked, this was a mystery to him now. Whatever it was, her working process, it bore no resemblance to his own. He did not know what this would mean for them.
Jack said he saw then that the idea of them properly living and working together would become a reality only if he made it so. He knew he had it in him to settle in to long sustained bouts of work, but he wanted to have her working beside him, in an adjoining studio, and for them to come together at the end of the day, to talk of what they had done, to criticize, to learn, to encourage, to develop—this had been the idea, but he now saw he had been deceived. She was a stranger to the long sustained bout of work. How she had become the painter she was he didn’t know, but he now suspected, and it was awesome to him, that hard work had not been the key—rather, some kind of innate talent: it had come easy to her. But what evidently did not come easy to her was the will to exercise that talent, and Jack didn’t know how to ignite it in her.
Facing this, facing the ruin of the dream that had driven him to abandon England, had landed him in a city where he was a stranger, with a woman he now felt he didn’t know, he sank, for a day or two, into something approaching despair. A black cloud attended him, and this I know well from my own experience, that when my brother had a black cloud attending him no joy was possible for anybody else. Apparently Vera did not understand what had happened. She assumed he was anxious about money. She attempted to reassure him. She told him she could always get money from London if she had to. He asked her how. From Gordon, she said, and Jack lifted his head and laughed a bleak hollow laugh.
That night they were in a bar as usual and Jack was still deeply absorbed in his predicament. What could he tell her, when she asked him what was the matter—that she was the matter, that the future she had seemed to promise him was an illusion? She would have denied it vehemently. She would have passionately reasserted her commitment to the idea of a partnership of artists—the American Studio—an idea first formulated late one night in the back of a SoHo pub and embellished in the weeks since. But now Jack feared that the American Studio would never materialize, not in the form he had imagined it, and this fear left him adrift, uncertain where to go next, what to do—dear God, he was only 17 years old!
It was a strange, violent night in New York. As though a spirit were abroad, or a posse of demons. There were jangling discordant energies wherever they went. Shouting cops, restive crowds, snarled traffic. Saturday night, a full moon, madness in the city: in one bar an enraged man picked a fight with a stranger and when they tried to throw him out he tore the washroom door off its hinges and hurled it across the counter, bottles, glasses and mirrors shattering, and they all had to run for the exit.
An hour later, in another bar, Vera’s friend Herb turned on Jack, irritated by his silence.
—What are you doing here, man? he shouted, over the hubbub of talk and jukebox, and in a tone of sufficient hostility that the rest of the table fell silent and looked on with interest. They all knew Herb’s history with Vera. Jack shrugged. He was burning, he told me, with rage and embarrassment, but all he did was lift his glass, lift his cigarette, as if to say, Nothing, drinking and smoking like you.
—Yeah, but what are you doing? I mean, taking up space, that it? You give me nothing, man, you’re like a plant.
—Shut up, Herb, shouted Vera.
Herb turned grinning to the table.
—Better a plant than a Herb, shouted Vera, but it was too late for Jack. It hadn’t occurred to him that anything was expected of him here. These people were older than he was, they were Americans, they knew Vera from before, their talk gave him no openings. He was not an artist, not yet, he was not an American, he had nothing to contribute. He bought drinks, he assumed that his position was understood. Now this. The rage all at once boiled over and he lunged at Herb, swinging wildly with both fists. His mood was brutal to begin with. For several weeks his existence had had meaning only in relation to Vera. He was baffled by her friends, he hated bloody Herb—he was sure there was something between them still, and it preyed on him—he felt there was no solid ground under his feet, nothing familiar to cling to. He needed me, but me he’d of course left far behind. Now this. Herb scuttled away and stood panting and growling and shouting at him to settle down, man, be cool, man, and Jack slumped back onto his chair, wiping his face where he’d spilled beer in his brief assault. Then he pushed his chair back and in the sudden silence the legs scraped loudly across the boards of the tavern floor. Without a word he walked out into the night.
For several hours he walked the streets, thinking of nothing but how good the cold air felt on his skin, and seething still with jealous rage. He didn’t know that Vera had rushed out after him, but that he’d walked away so fast she didn’t see where he’d gone, nor in the loud, mad city did he hear her shouting for him. He tramped the city streets, his thoughts in utter turmoil, alone in this alien place, and Vera a part of a world that offered no place for him, that rejected him. He tramped the streets and allowed the anger and misery to boil up and rage unchecked.
Midnight, and he found himself down at the Battery, sitting on a bench, smoking a cigarette, gazing out at the harbor where just a few weeks before he’d stood on the deck of a liner and felt the limitless promise of the city. The night was cold and clear. The crisis was on him, and he must make a decision, to go back or go on. To go back was unthinkable. But how to go on? He had to get out of New York. But he had to get out of New York with Vera—and that simple thought shed all the light he needed. It was a decision not to abandon her.
I believe that he made other decisions that night, or rather that certain ideas crystallized in his mind. He told me he waited for sunrise, for the first light of dawn to touch the Statue of Liberty and burn off the mist on the water. He said there had been other times in his life when the early-morning hours seemed to open new avenues in his mind, something to do with the edginess, the febrility that comes of not having slept, something to do with the sense of an empty world out there, a sleeping world, the space for one’s thoughts not contested but free, rather, for expansive movement, for the sweeping perspective. Gazing out at the harbor Jack at last found some clarity. He said he understood that years of obscurity lay ahead of him while he became a painter. He would suffer humiliation and neglect, but this he could endure: he would grow the hide of a rhino and become impervious to the opinions of others. Better by far, he thought, to spend those years elsewhere. He would come back to New York but only when he had something to offer New York: he would return a mature painter with a body of work. The city was no place for an aspirant, for a beginner. New York was full of aspirants and beginners, and they all seemed to be Vera’s drinking buddies. He would stagnate if he stayed, he would grow sodden and lazy and delude himself into believing he was an artist when he was nothing of the sort. He needed rigor, he needed routine, he needed somewhere he could live cheap and work without distraction. Above all he needed Vera beside him.
And then, as yet another stray beam of enlightenment came shafting in with the sunrise, all at once he felt with a sense of rising wonder—and he was still young enough that such sudden dramatic shifts of mood were possible—that the paranoia was lifting, that the knot of sexual suspicion he had been worrying at, obsessively, was dissolving—it was all in his imagination, of course it was, and he had to communicate this to Vera without delay, sweep away all the bad feeling, sit down and talk to her, consider their options, make a plan—
When he got back to the hotel she was waiting for him in a state of great distress. They clung to each other and she told him how she had scoured the Village for hours, and so had Herb, but it didn’t matter now, none of that mattered, and they fell onto the bed, she wrapped her legs around him, and responded with joy to the love newly started from some secret spring inside him during the hours he’d been alone by the harbor. Afterward they didn’t sleep, they sat up talking, and this he called the Rising. Later he made a painting inspired by that long dark night of the soul, as he thought of it: The Rising, probably the rawest of what I regard as his phallic paintings.
They talked about the future, and he told her that he had to get out of New York, that he could no longer live the life they were living. He was moving on, and she could come with him if she wanted or she could stay where she was and drown her talent in whiskey. She did not argue. She was languid with sex.
—Where do you want to go?
He told her he wanted to go south.
—How far south?
As far as he had to, until he found a place where he could work. He told her that more than anything in the world he wanted her to come with him. He begged her to come with him.
Later they sat in a coffee shop down the block. It was almost noon. She was wearing dark glasses. Beyond the plate-glass window the rain was gently falling. She was more awake now, and worrying at this ultimatum of his, delivered earlier when she was still soft and tender from the sex. She cranked up her engines of dissent. Rusty and sputtering at first, she soon had her theme and Jack allowed her to run it out. The general drift was, he was asking her to turn her back on her friends, all that was familiar to her. First London, now here—what was wrong with New York?
Nothing was wrong with New York, he told her, it was how they lived in New York that was wrong: they stayed in bed all morning, he said, then they wandered the city for three or four hours, then it was time for cocktails.
She took off her sunglasses and rubbed her eyes. She spoke about being dragged far from civilization. She said he was leading her deep into a jungle she would never find her way out of. But Jack knew, so he said later, that as she grumbled and rambled she was at the same time coolly examining his proposal, and that even as she argued, the idea of going south began to rouse her, for she was always susceptible to the prospect of flight: she was far more the drifter than he was.
—Where is it you want to go, Jack? She was properly awake now; she had drunk enough coffee, the hook was in. He shrugged. He was cool, offhand.
She had her sunglasses on again; he couldn’t see her eyes. But she ran her tongue around the inside of her mouth as she reached for the cigarettes and murmured the names: Mexico, Cuba, Honduras, poetry!
—Go by water, he said.
—By boat, yes.
—Look for a town on the coast.
—A river town.
Is this how the conversation went? A river town may or may not have been suggested, and Vera may or may not have been so easily persuaded. But she knew that without Jack she was sunk. She had no plans, no money, nothing. And she was still very much in love with him. And so, in this fashion, or in a fashion similar to this, the decision was made. They would pack up and go south. She grew excited later, this Jack did remember clearly, she decided that here was one of the moments of grand pathos in an artist’s life—a moment of heroic self-sacrifice—a moment when a woman lifted her eyes and glimpsed her destiny, understanding, yes, what must be done, no matter the cost, for Art to be served. She called it “The Leaving of Manhattan.” She described, over drinks, to the usual crowd, the epic canvas she intended to paint, a vast thing of color and movement, allegorical figures in the sea and in the sky, with Manhattan a kind of radiant heart in the center of the composition, and pulling away from it a great white ship with four slanting funnels and Jack and herself at the rail with their eyes on a future where Art and Art Alone would rule, and their friends on the dock weeping and dancing—
How they laughed. Let her mock herself, thought Jack, let her set herself up as a ridiculous figure, the woman who left Manhattan so she could paint in peace.
But just let me get her to that quiet river town and she will be painting pictures of real importance. More to the point, so will I. No, she wouldn’t let him go without her, he knew this, she wouldn’t miss this adventure, and besides, there was real spirit in Vera Savage, an old deep spark of the unquenchable stuff. And Manhattan—Manhattan could wait. Manhattan wouldn’t go away.
For much of the next year they drifted. They didn’t leave New York in a great white ship with four red funnels; they took the train to Miami. I believe there was a sexual crisis of some kind—Vera told me about it years later—the first infidelity, if you don’t count Gordon, which she didn’t. They weathered the storm through my good offices: the money arrived the next day, and it came as a shaft of grace, for it allowed them to move on and, more important, to buy clothes more appropriate to the climate.
I next glimpse them in Havana—this was before the revolution—living in an apartment at the top of a crumbling pale blue building with a balcony from which they could see the Caribbean tossing over the seawall if they craned out far enough. There was a covered courtyard, a place of cool shade dappled with sunlight before you hit the glare of the street, a riot of bougainvillea crawling over the peeling walls, the whole a study in texture and tone that Jack was soon attempting to paint, this with the active encouragement of the neighbors, who had at once taken to the young pintor grande, him and his pirata both.
They slept on a huge bed beneath a headboard of carved dark hardwood and kept the shutters open to gather up any breeze that found its way down their narrow street, Calle de Placencia. Jack remembered the vast shining moon that bathed their bed in silver, and always, he said, somewhere nearby, a loud, rapid conversation punctuated by shouts and laughter, or weeping, or screams, or a radio playing dance music, or a streetcar clanking by below, and for a while they were happy. They would lie propped up on pillows, smoking cigars, listening to the night, then fall asleep and dream about painting. They rose early and by 8:00 they were at work.
For several months they lived in the apartment near the seawall. He said he worked hard and came on rapidly. Vera too was working, and Jack watched her closely. At first she painted without interruption, at all hours, for days and nights on end. She painted what she saw on the streets of Havana with a free, loose hand on remnants of cotton duck they picked up cheap in the fabric houses of Havana Viejo, using large brushes and powdered pigment in primary colors they mixed themselves in buckets. Decayed colonial buildings baking in the sunlight, their roofs eaten away by grass. Towering palms with massive finned automobiles gliding by. Plazas and fountains and statues, grand boulevards, gaily dressed habañeros gathered on street corners to pass a bottle and dance. Shouting women hanging out of windows to haul up groceries in a basket. Wretched campesinos asleep on benches. Parrots, skulls, fields of sugarcane swaying in the moonlight, sun gods, rusting tankers and baroque movie theaters featuring American film stars, all found their way onto Vera’s big canvases.
So he learned from her even if she did not teach him, and just as well, because she could not articulate what it was she did. It’s a mystery, Jack, she said, art’s a mystery, okay?—and laid one finger on her breast and another on her eye. This gnomic gesture was followed by a solemn silence, then a gust of chesty laughter. They got out a few weeks before Batista fled the country, and missed the spectacle of Fidel Castro entering the city after a triumphal journey the length of the island and his rousing oration to a crowd of half a million in front of the Presidential Palace. Apparently it turned cynics into romantics and romantics into fanatics, and I almost wish I had been there myself. Was that why they moved on? Because of the deteriorating political situation, the escalating violence, the hardening antagonism of the people of Cuba toward the brutal oppression they had so long endured—was that it?
But no, it was all much more banal than that. Jack told me it was because Vera couldn’t handle it any more. After the productive month or so there came a period of inactivity, when she lay on the couch in her studio all day, smoking cigars and gazing at the ceiling. Then she started going out. Soon she came to prefer the street to the studio, the nights to the days, it was all just as sadly predictable as that. They were subject to much stress at the time, partly to do with money, partly to do with the irritability that came of sustained daily drinking, and partly to do with the mischief that came of Vera’s idleness.
—Mischief? I said, catching a whiff of something in his tone.
He nodded. He labored at his canvas every day, and in the empty apartment her absence would work its mischief at the back of his mind. He would push the thought down, he would employ the full resources of his will to remain concentrated on the work at hand. At noon he stuck his brushes into a jar of turpentine and wiped his hands on a rag, put on his cotton jacket and straw hat and descended the echoing stone staircase to the arcade below to buy cigarettes, knowing that he was really going down to see if Vera was about, assure himself that she was not in some room with a man. If he didn’t find her it would not be a happy afternoon in the studio, and he would rage in his mind until he heard her footfall on the staircase. Then they would fight.
But he would not be drawn, he would not tell me if their fights were merely verbal, the same shouting and screaming they heard every night coming from other apartments in the building, or if it went further, if there was actual physical violence.
Then came the night they heard gunfire close by. Jack had for some weeks been finding it more and more difficult to control his suspicions of Vera, and his work was suffering as a result. She refused to talk about what she did in the hours she spent away from the apartment. She told him it was no way to live, this trying to account for each other’s movements at all hours of the day or night. Her line was: Why can’t you trust me? He tried to banish the jealous thoughts, but no sooner did his head clear than the small voice started up again. He thought he might be going mad.
But he was not mad! These thoughts came for a reason! He was picking up signs without being aware of what they were, he must have been, there was some subtle way she was telling him what she was doing, only he couldn’t identify it, but the message was coming through all the same, and he thought it was probably as simple a thing as how she touched him, or perhaps how she didn’t touch him, a telling but almost imperceptible falling off in her physical behavior toward him that could only be the effect of a divided sexual attention.
He asked himself why it mattered so much, but that got him nowhere, it mattered because it mattered, and he was far from complacent in this regard, far too fiercely committed to this union to be indifferent to the casual diversions of the body. But it also occurred to him that if she was indeed innocent then his constant suspicion would soon drive her into some man’s arms and create the very situation he was so desperately trying to avoid. Who could he talk to about this? Nobody. Me he had left behind. And I remember thinking that it might have been just this—I mean his isolation in the midst of people for whom Vera was the main attraction, and his dogged insistence on long hours alone each day in his studio—that aroused such jealousy and suspicion in him, or at least created a kind of morbid condition of the spirit in which these emotions could flourish.
He grew to hate Havana. He grew to see its loose easy life as the enemy of his bond with Vera, and of his work.
Then came the gunfire in the night. It woke them up. They knew what it was, no question of fireworks or backfiring automobiles. Jack went out onto the balcony, Vera following him, hissing at him to be careful. He stood with his hands on the balustrade, peering all around, but there was nobody about, nothing to be seen. The moon was low over the sea at the end of the street. He came back in, and they sat in his studio smoking, waiting for more gunfire, for whatever was going to happen next. Nothing. The usual sounds of Havana late at night. The sea, the trees, the insects. Vehicles on distant streets. No voices though.
At last Vera got up and stood at the table, frowning, pouring them each a drink, a cigar between her teeth. Her hair was damp with the warmth of the night and her bare shoulders were bathed in moonlight.
Jack said he hated guns.
—They’re getting them from Russia, she said.
—Where did you hear that?
—-Someone told me.
And again the small bitter voice, seizing on this oblique reference to her life out there in the streets, the life he knew nothing about.
—So many friends you have.
He knew what he was doing when he said it, he hated that he was doing it, but he seemed to have no choice. What was the impulse: intensify the crisis, push it to the breaking point, get the thing finished and resolved one way or the other—was this it?
—Oh Christ, Jack, don’t start.
But he had started, and within ten minutes she was dressed and out the door, out into the dangerous dark streets, and he didn’t see her until the morning, by which time he knew it was all over with Havana.
So they left Havana, and with them went the battered cabin trunk with the brass studs in which they’d packed their painting gear, their sketchbooks, their journals, their clothes and books, as well as a bottle or two for emergencies. Vera’s canvases they shipped back to London. I see them on some smoky old coaster with rusted rivets and welded patches on the hull, the pair of them leaning on the rail, in dark glasses and Panama hats, as they moved on to the next island, the next coastal town. Jack’s experiences, recollected in drunken tranquility, by this time would have downshifted through nuanced gradations into a mild and rather maudlin memory of himself as a very young man drifting around the Caribbean with this difficult woman with whom he was engaged in a torrid and complicated love affair. The steamer belched oily black smoke into the sunlight and the captain stood on the bridge trying to shoot dolphins with a rifle. Off to the west the mangrove gave way to sandy beaches, an unbroken backdrop of dense palms with mountains in the distance and every few miles, just visible across a hazy, shimmering sea, a cluster of wooden shacks on stilts, and a rickety jetty, and the faint stench of seaweed drying in the sun. It was well into the afternoon when they learned that they would soon be docking for a couple of hours, and the prospect of a cool cantina and bottles of iced beer was welcome indeed.
—You had an idea, I said, what you were looking for.
Port Mungo: a once-prosperous river town now gone to seed, wilting and steaming among the mangrove swamps of the Gulf of Honduras.
Excerpted from Port Mungo by Patrick McGrath. Copyright © 2004 by Patrick McGrath. Published in June 2004 by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
—Patrick McGrath is the author of The Grotesque (Ballantine Books, 1990), Dr. Haggard’s Disease (Vintage, 1994), Asylum (Vintage, 1998), and Spider (Gallimard, 2002), and he was the coeditor, with Bradford Morrow, of The New Gothic. He lives in New York and London and is married to the actress Maria Aitken.