I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I had just returned from Colombia, SA, where I had been acting in a low budget movie and living in the Hotel Plaza de Bolivar, which is less a hotel than a bordello where cocaine is sold by sordid desk clerks, with the manuscript of my novel, Burma, secure in its brown manila folder. I had not written a word of Burma in South America, although it had been my intention to write a great deal of this book, if not all of it, during the long hiatuses between my acting duties, because I have often acted in films and knew these spells of inactivity would be frequent. The humidity in my room overcame me. I felt confident of finishing Burma, for it had started auspiciously, page after page had rolled off my pen, so to speak, with hardly any mental effort, and as it was a book about my own life, my own experience, I thought the detachment and physical distance of South America from the familiar landscape of New York City would enhance my creative efforts. However, the heat and humidity of the Hotel Plaza de Bolivar defeated me. I could not write a word. I lay in bed, under the useless breeze generated by the electric ceiling fan, perspiring, reading again and again the pages that had so easily issued from my earlier flurry of work. With mounting dread I struggled for a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph that could plausibly follow from the point where my novel had broken off, in a summer house in East Hampton. After all, I reasoned, my life continued after that, I’m still alive now, the time that has passed has been rich with incident.
These thoughts gave me confidence. I knew I had done things in life. One experience had followed another, laden with raw material. When I really get to work again on Burma, I thought, I’ll find that a good deal of germination has taken place. I’m probably still absorbing experiences which I shall be able to use soon. In fact it is probably premature even to contemplate going on, although quite soon I shall go on, continuing from the last paragraph I wrote in East Hampton. And then my own perceptions will surprise me. But not yet.
It had been summer in Colombia, exhaustingly balmy, the damp languorous heat of the day punctured by sudden, torrential rainstorms lasting an hour or so, usually one rainstorm in the morning, another in midafternoon, and a third at the outset of evening. The effect of all these rainstorms, which hardly did anything to abate the deadly heat, was to drench the very air in asphyxiating humidity, so that one felt as if one were breathing water. And when I returned to New York, winter was in full chill. First it was debilitating summer, then demoralizing winter, all within five hours. I boarded the plane in Bogota thinking, at last I can continue with Burma, as soon as I’m home in my own flat, among my own belongings, and not in this alien, scorching, sodden environment. When I’m in New York, safely at home, hearing my own language and its inimitable rhythms, words will no longer fail me. The bracing cold of the New York winter will invigorate my brain.
An exceptionally frigid, wet afternoon greeted me at Kennedy Airport. The Avianca jet landed in a foot of slush, skidding and lurching on the innundated runway. I had been dissuaded from smuggling a small quantity of cocaine by an acquaintance in Cartagena who assured me that everyone entering the United States from Colombia was thoroughly searched by Customs. But the Customs officer waved me through without a glance into my luggage.
In the taxi, I felt the familiar exhilaration of returning to New York, an exhilaration like that of arriving in a completely foreign city, knowing perfectly well that this thrill would soon dissipate, that within a few days my six weeks of tropical escape would become a distant memory. By then, I thought, I’ll have resumed Burma where I left off, after leaving “Rita” and her summer house four years ago. I had returned to Manhattan then, too, though in summer, not in winter, and without exhilaration, in fact far from any sort of exhilaration. Although in real life I had at first gone home for a month, I mean to my family’s home in New Hampshire, and then back to Manhattan, I had decided in Burmato leave out this depressing episode, as one is entitled in fiction, for the sake of artistry, to change certain elements and leave out certain episodes which do nothing to further one’s general design. And the month I had spent in real life, at home with my aging parents, between leaving Rita and resuming my existence in Manhattan, had no place at all in the general design of Burma, far from it. A description of this period, in my view, would simply have depressed and alienated anyone, including myself. No, best to edit this family visit right out of Burma, ploughing ahead with the central story.
I arrived at my apartment house, grateful for the small weight of my bags. For once I had not overpacked or acquired heavy books during the journey. In Colombia I had purchased nothing, and the only additions to the luggage I’d left New York with were four large conch shells and a lump of brain coral that I pulled from the surf in the Rosario Islands. And despite these supplementary baggage items, various parts of my wardrobe had been left behind, with the film’s wardrobe mistress, in the event that it became necessary to re-shoot scenes and hence to return to Cartagena. This clothing had weighed roughly the same as the shells in my luggage, and so I returned carrying virtually the same amount that I’d left with.
Within a few hours, the customary hopelessness of my apartment had succeeded, as it always did, in ruining the optimistic mood of the flight and the taxi ride. There has never been adequate storage space in this narrow flat, nor have I ever been able to control the insane proliferation of papers, books, magazines, clothing, shoes, furniture, and broken machines such as tape recorders and radios, the sheer accumulation of detritus in this flat has always defeated me and ruined any bright mood I might bring in from outside. Not that the flat itself is particularly gloomy. On the contrary, others have long envied the ample sunlight this apartment enjoys, if that is the word, and the disarray which has always caused me disorientation and actual grief has never bothered other people, who quite often claim, when I apologize for it, to live in a disorder so far exceeding my own disorder that mine seems to them the spirit of tidiness, a claim that has always sounded to me like a brazen lie. But it is true, of course, that the disorder of others often appears orderly to oneself. One cannot necessarily imagine a better order for other people’s belongings, since they are usually of little interest or importance to oneself. It seems to me, though, that my own disorder, which is far from intentional, demonstrates the impossibility of maintaining any state of order whatsoever in a city where disorder is the norm, where one is never left alone for a single minute, and where importunity reigns supreme. For ten years, since moving here from a different city, I have been continually inconvenienced and importuned by other people, not the people with whom I choose to spend time, but others, other people whom I hardly know and have no connection with, people who want things and who view others as implements, tools, and opportunities. One cannot help being shocked, as a resident of such a city, by the flagrant usury, if that is the word, employed by persons who know what they want and are willing to use anyone and everyone in order to advance their venal, obnoxious designs. A person living in such a place may easily find himself the object of grotesque attentions from people who want things, without soliciting such attentions in any fashion whatever. For even a few days to pass without the intrusion of phone calls and letters from the craven individuals who infest this city is to know inner peace of an unprecedented kind. But I have never known such peace, since moving here, except during the three or four days after my return from a journey, when people believe I am still away. After three or four days the word gets around, and the circus of importunity resumes with renewed malignancy. People who have never understood the writer’s intrinsic and irrefutable need for solitude and peace, who have never understood and will never understand such a need, constantly attack the writer’s precious solitude with every sort of cunning.
After returning from Colombia, I did, in fact, experience several days of uninterrupted calm. But the dispiriting mess of my cramped flat paralyzed me. My desk, which has never really been clean, was strewn with bills, letters, pencils, stamps, note pads, matchbooks, the chamber of a lock I had replaced some months earlier, loose pages of a journal I was unable to keep longer than a week, paperback books, and all the other distracting objects that reduce the mind’s ability to concentrate. This mess was destroying me, destroying my mind and destroying Burma, despite the otherwise ideal conditions that prevailed in the immediate wake of my return.
For several days, the deliquescence of the apartment impeded my progress. Why had I never taken energetic steps against the inevitable decay and clutter, the dense piling-up of increasingly impersonal effects, in all the many years I had lived in this far from ideal, but somehow inevitable residence? I had taken some steps, but not enough. Whatever measures I took were neutralized and overtaken by the action of time. This building is falling apart, year by year. The wooden floors are decayed. The brick walls leak plaster dust over every surface. Everything crumbles. It’s impossible to move anywhere, since even a smaller place would now be twice as expensive. Whenever I returned from a journey I found myself freshly disturbed to consider that I might have to live in such a crumbling, narrow, inconvenient flat for the rest of my life, or at least for as long as I lived in Manhattan. Which is, as far as I’m concerned, the same thing as being sentenced to life imprisonment. Why should a human being inhabit the same apartment for 20, 30, 40 years? What influence does such a term of imprisonment exert on the human brain, what crushing limitations are imposed by such a term of imprisonment?
This line of thought led me nowhere. Recalling my sanguine mood upon checking out of the Hotel Plaza de Bolivar, I resolved on putting things in order. Once things were in order, these black thoughts could find no fertile ground. After some hours my desk, except for the typewriter and a stack of typing paper, was bare and polished. I turned on the radio, tuning it to a classical music station, arranged my cigarettes and matches near the typewriter, sat down, rolled a blank sheet into the typewriter, lighted a cigarette, and stared. I had been so long away from Burma that a glow of anticipation actually made my skin tingle.
Burma broke off as the narrator prepared to leave East Hampton. Four years earlier I, too, had left East Hampton, under similar but not identical circumstances. Though drawn from my own life, Burma was not entirely my own story, its narrator’s obsessions were not my obsessions. I had invented the book-within-the-book, the never-quite-remembered story, and my plan, as far as I could recall, had been to connect the climax of the book with the climax of the book-within-the-book, in the process sorting through the confused intervening years. Since the period of the book I had contributed a number of essays to a number of publications, I had established myself, to some extent, as a writer, I no longer lived entirely like a marginal person. Yet, on the other hand, I had not achieved anything resembling independence, my inner life continued fluctuating between hope and negation, so to speak. Burma was addressed to a “You” that I had once been desperately infatuated with and now felt nothing but indifference toward, for reasons that are too tangled and ultimately too tiresome to enumerate. Therefore the problem I now faced, the Burma problem, consisted in recapturing defunct feelings, recapturing and then transposing them to an imaginary object. This “You” of Burma, the addressee, so to speak, had been present to my writing mind no later than two months earlier, and yet, and yet, “You” seemed now, as I looked over the manuscript, less than entirely present, and not simply less than entirely present but an almost grotesquely inappropriate, hypothesized reader of Burma. But to expunge this “You” clearly meant to destroy the very form of Burma, “You” couldn’t just be done away with so easily. I will simply pretend that You is someone else, I decided, turning up the manuscript’s last page and scrutinizing its last words, enjoyed a state of truce.
I decided to fix a pot of coffee, for sustained alertness during the creative act. The kitchen yielded an almost empty bag of Bustelo coffee, a saucepan, filter papers; I boiled water, then poured it over the mingy tablespoon of Bustelo. A trickle of brackish water dribbled into the glass pot. This won’t do, I realized: what I need to get going is a full, robust, nerve-shattering pot of coffee, rather than this tepid stream of nauseating liquid, which resembles the tinto sold in medicine cups in the streets of Cartagena.
Though I had enjoyed that mild beverage in Cartagena, I had no wish to enjoy it here. I dressed in several layers of warm clothing, and went out, braving the arctic cold. The day, however, was bright. People of all sorts trampled through the streets, in heavy boots, stamping through puddles of grimy slush. Snow melted ubiquitously. I had dressed for bitter weather. But the sun shone, the air was warm. I walked several blocks, down Second Avenue, my spirits lifting. I drank in the mixture of old and new sights. For years now, the slum neighborhood I inhabit has been changing into a fashionable district, the result of a supposed artistic renaissance in the area, and of all the corruption and hypocrisy this implies, the professional classes, ever intent on living amid novelty, have bought all the property in this so-called bohemian sector, driving out the city’s poorest inhabitants. Everything shining and new in this neighborhood reminds me that soon it will be impossible for anyone except the rich to live here. In spite of this repulsive process, which nothing can stop or even slightly delay, my depression evaporated at the sight of so much vile, meaningless activity, and the transformations effected during my sojourn in South America. It is curious, but one can, if necessary, find solace in repulsive things. And this is especially true in this neighborhood, for some reason.
These streets with their low buildings, tenements and store fronts had once contained the mystery of Burma: I lived in them, but thought of someone on another continent who wandered rootless through the world, sometimes intercepting me in my travels. I met him not long after leaving East Hampton, he became my emotional history for three years, notwithstanding my attempts to break free or to interest myself in other people who were more accessible; I did, in fact, make a fool of myself with a number of other foolish people, but it all came out to nothing, and now it was all long over with and I was, in a manner of speaking, free. The clean slate of the day with its gouged and scarred pentimento of other days, nights, weeks, decades was my clean slate, and the air was blue, clear, only slightly cool, almost a spring air, as if washed by the newly fallen, rapidly melting snow. There are no seasons any more per se. It only remained for the evenings to grow morbid near Christmas Eve, melancholy around New Year’s, symbolically bright at Eastertime.
In a Korean vegetable market near 5th Street, I buy a fresh bag of coffee and cream, noticing that my funds are dissolving as rapidly and unconsciously as ever. And there I see Victor, rooting around amid the anise root and cabbages, holding a green plastic shopping basket stuffed with produce and dairy products. I call to him. He turns, surprised to see me, dropping a large turnip into a watery basin of tofu patties. We embrace awkwardly. He retrieves his turnip. Victor’s wearing a light denim jacket with fleecy white lining, his curly brown hair is clipped short, his glasses make his smooth face look square. I think I’ve known Victor as long as I’ve lived in New York. Ordinarily, I see Victor every few days, or speak to Victor on the telephone, I suppose in the last years nothing much has ever happened to me without Victor knowing about it, though Victor is less forthcoming about what happens to him. Perhaps I am less curious about Victor’s experiences than Victor is about mine, I ask Victor less often than he asks me: What’s going on with you, how are you feeling, what’s bothering you, are you all right, have you been feeling better. So I have kept Victor aware of my vicissitudes as if he absolutely needed to know every trivial thing that happens to me, and of course now that I think of it this must have required considerable forbearance on Victor’s part over the years. After all the myriad trips—not myriad really, but many—trips I have taken, I contacted Victor. I used to talk about my journeys, but no more. And after returning from South America I refrained from contacting Victor or anyone else, with the exception of my mother, who lives in a small town and has done so all her life, and hence frets and worries over my travels in what she calls the big wide world, though of course there is nothing to worry about. We shall all be dead soon enough, one way or another. From my mother there is little danger of a disruption in my routine. For 20 years I have phoned my mother every Sunday. For 20 years, my mother has only phoned me when a death occurs in our family, or when I have failed to call for several weeks. No one in my family expects the slightest thing from anyone else in my family, since the family dreams of my mother and father were shattered long ago. Not all at once, but in increments. First my father went deaf, then alcoholic. Next, my mother’s favorite brother died from cancer of the throat, a death that dragged on and on for years and years, causing this once handsome, alert man to become a drunkard and a walking cadaver, his appearance mutilated by repeated surgery. Later my brother married a woman whose hostility toward my family cast a pall over my brother’s visits, which became less and less frequent as time passed. And I myself, after leaving home for college in a large city, went completely mad, being unable to cope with the discovery that nothing in my background had prepared me for real life, and that I was doomed like everyone else. For two years, I had a series of breakdowns, and was carted in and out of the nearest mental hospital like a piece of furniture. When that period finished, I wasted ten years in a trance of incessant motion and meaningless employment, in ever more remote cities, thus destroying whatever hopes my parents had entertained for me. As soon as my situation stabilized, a tumor was found in my father’s intestines, requiring extensive surgery, then chemotherapy. My father’s cancer treatment forced him to stop drinking, which he had done excessively since going deaf. When he stopped drinking his hearing returned, as it might have done 35 years earlier, had he stopped drinking then. My father’s despair, which had formed so much of the atmosphere of my childhood and my brother’s childhood, left him suddenly at the age of 60. Then, quite predictably, my mother became alcoholic as my father’s health and disposition improved. As my father’s despair lessened, my mother’s despair grew. Throughout my childhood, my father lived in a world of silence and despair, totally dependent upon my mother. Now my mother became dependent on alcohol, no longer needing to maintain her strength. She became weak as he became strong. These are by no means the only miseries which ruined the hopes and dreams of my family, only a few, typical miseries such as beset and ruin every family. I don’t know why I mention them, really.
A person never frees himself entirely from the sad history of such miseries, naturally. A person can only hope to confine his reflections or wallowings to some formally regulated routine, and my weekly phone call, assuaging my mother’s anxiety over my supposedly dangerous travels, served this purpose. Since I had not called my mother from South America, I called her and talked for an unusually long time when I returned. But I didn’t let anyone else know I was again in my apartment. My ambition to complete, or at least resume Burma demanded the silence of a few days, but of course one cannot leave one’s apartment in such circumstances, since doing so risks the chance encounter. But I left anyway, walking directly into an encounter with Victor. I now wonder how many works of literary creation have failed to materialize, thanks to the kind of unforeseen distraction I let myself in for that day, over a year ago, by leaving my apartment.
But what does it matter now? I had only to tell Victor that I was working assiduously, against tremendous odds. Instead, if memory serves, we drank coffee in a Mexican restaurant. I related my South American adventures. Victor described his recent efforts at painting (he had given this up for several years). The sunlight glared and shimmered on the waxy red tablecloth. When I closed my eyes I imagined myself on the dining room terrace of the Hotel Plaza de Bolivar, staring into a glass of the wretched local wine and thinking about Burma and the sequence of real-life events that followed from the final paragraph to the seedy hotel terrace in that crumbling Caribbean port. From the terrace one could see the huge carved doors of the Palace of the Inquisition. I looked into Victor’s eyes, brown and watery behind the thick lenses of his horn-rimmed glasses. The terrace faded into the frost-smeared plate glass facing Second Avenue.
I was not in South America anymore. This wretched town—Victor said, reminding me of all the miseries living here had piled on over time. I could remember a time, not long before this, when everything had seemed possible, and wondered how it had come about that within a short time everything became impossible and out of the question. A person is young, he thinks anything can happen, and everything does happen, and even after making every conceivable mistake, things still appear laden with possibility. A few years go by, and everything is a mistake, everything becomes impossible, any step turns out a mistake, any action causes despair and horror. Victor, for, example, had come to New York in his youth, to become an artist, and instead fell into furniture design, to support himself. And soon every type of person wanted Victor’s furniture, to sit on Victor’s chairs and recline on Victor’s sofas, in their so-called gracious homes. Victor hates making furniture, yet this is precisely what he is valued for, making things he despises and cannot stop making. A person is young, he thinks he’d rather starve than do things he hates doing, a few years go by and he finds himself doing everything he hates, to keep alive, to keep alive. And naturally by keeping alive this way, he isn’t alive, he is living but he isn’t alive. He is only keeping alive his albuminous substance, dragging it from one impossible situation to the next like a sack weighted down with iron filings.
On this rare day in December, with a clear head, I understood all this, without forming any conclusion. I could not have endured another day of solitude, Burmanotwithstanding, and despite every resolve to become methodical, disciplined, and single-minded about my own concerns. In the vast stream of time, my own concerns were doomed to vanish without a trace like everyone else’s. Victor’s problems would also be flushed down the toilet of passing time. This is a banner year, I said, and Victor surprised me by agreeing without asking what I meant. We drank more coffee. The sun had started fading. I felt my will dissolve. Any day now, I thought, I shall have to look for money, and I’ve exhausted every source. I said it aloud. Victor said, You’ll have to write something, then. If I write something, I said, for a magazine, for instance, I won’t be paid for months and months, and you can never make enough to live, writing, and besides, I said, I’ve nothing whatsoever to say, I’ve hardly said anything but at the same time I’ve said more than enough, as far as I’m concerned. Everything I want to do is much too complicated for my brain.
You’ll see, Victor said. Things are going to change now, very quickly. I’m fed up with everything, personally. When people are fed up, things change.
Not necessarily, I said. I remember exactly one year ago, we were sitting in a place like this, not drinking coffee but beer. I had just published a quite long essay on the philosopher Wittgenstein, and I recall being thoroughly fed up with everything, and if memory serves, you were fed up with everything as well. Your life, your work, your relationship with Richard which even then you characterized as unrewarding and masochistic, and look here, I went on, nothing whatsoever has really happened. I went to Europe four times on other people’s money, and now I’ve gone to South America. But I’ve accomplished nothing in all this. You, meanwhile, continue to make furniture, see the same friends, and still go out with Richard, which is anyway something. I carried the torch for three years for Alexis, and probably spent a total of ten evenings in bed with Alexis, most of them in different countries and spaced out over months, now I’m almost 35 and I’ve wasted the last part of my youth on someone who didn’t love me, and what’s even worse, in my estimation, is that nothing has changed since this time last year. Except that we’ve both gotten older and possibly even more deluded than we were at this time a year ago.
What do you mean deluded? I’m disgusted, not deluded. If I were deluded I’d still be happy, Victor declared.
When were you ever happy, I challenged. Victor, I’ve known you for years, you have always been unnaturally agreeable but I’m quite certain you have never been happy for a single moment.
I’ve had moments of happiness, Victor said, but that isn’t what I meant. I was less unhappy when I wasn’t aware of how things sit. As you get older you see how things go, how things work, and what makes the world go around. And then you’re really in for it.
Someday we’ll both think we were happy right now, I said, I’m sure of it.
And I was, absolutely sure. You go along dissatisfied at all times with everything, becoming bored and exhausted even with the few things you could once tolerate, and naturally look back believing you were happier once upon a time, though this question of happy or not happy is quite ridiculous. If I think about then, that day, wasting time with Victor, I see Burma breaking away from my mind as a large chunk of a glacier might break away from the entire mass and float away irretrievably. Was it then, that day, when I realized an inner blankness had truly replaced the gnarled, impossible feelings that had dominated me for three years, that I had at last achieved a state of suspension, a condition of feeling nothing or almost nothing, in which the past of Burma, the Burmapast, was insubstantial, invalid, a history of youthful detours and sidetracks? If not that precise afternoon, then at roughly that period, the pre-Christmas period, the feeling of persisting in the face of error began to melt away. I began to see clearly the warped patterns that had influenced my comings and goings in the world, the egregious and increasingly extravagant methods of escape I had employed to avoid facing things. I had, for example, agreed to the South American trip in order to avoid Burma, convincing myself that travel would enrich my consciousness, when in fact it had done nothing of the sort, it had simply distracted me from my own self-set goals, my own aspirations. It had also put my mind off my three-year mania for Alexis and enabled me—this was the positive side, really—to conclude this unfavorable, punishing, three-year long relationship in my own mind. When I returned from South America, Alexis no longer existed for me. Or rather, he existed, but nothing more than that. No longer would I pine away and suffer because of him, far from it. I had never occupied that much of his attention, whereas he had occupied nearly all of my attention, had in fact permeated my every waking and unconscious thought, I had been hopelessly and absurdly in love with Alexis whereas, for Alexis, I hardly existed at all. And now he hardly existed at all for me. Alexis was out of my system, just as I had always been more or less out of his system. Even if I hadn’t made the slightest progress on Burma, my trip had achieved the important purpose of putting Alexis out of my mind. However, Alexis had inspiredBurma and now I could not go on with Burma as I had intended, everything would have to change.
Therefore part of the problem, as I then thought, was, Burma minus Alexis. And what about me minus Alexis, would that be genuinely liberating, or another trap? You go on and on in all futility with someone, utterly dissatisfied, thinking to save yourself by getting rid of him, then you get rid of him and find you have nothing left. You have no one to think about, no focus for your cogitations. And therefore the whole meaning of your life disappears, despair sets in, sometimes followed by suicide.
These speculations flashed through my thoughts in less than a moment. I dismissed them as jejune. Alexis had been as much of a mental construction as Burma, an obsession no one else could possibly experience, least of all Alexis. In some sense it was absolutely worthless because it was, had been, impalpable and baseless. The proof being that I no longer felt anything about it, and nothing in the world could possibly make it exist again, least of all Alexis, about whom I now felt nothing whatsoever. He existed as before, but I felt nothing about him. Strange. He existed no more and no less than he had when his existence meant everything to me.
Some weeks later, Victor said, You know something, you haven’t mentioned Alexis in quite a long time. But by then something else had started happening, if anything more consuming and ridiculous than what had gone before.
Gary Indana is a writer who lives and works in New York. His plays, The Roman Polanski Story and Phantoms of Louisiana were performed at The Performing Garage in 1982 and 83. He is currently working on his first novel and is an art critic at the Village Voice.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee