If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
New York, 1989.
I have long ceased trying to iron out the contradictions of my existence, I just live them. I let the pendulum swing from mood to mood, from role to role, from defiance to acceptance. One day I’m seething, the next I’m pliant. Most of all, I immerse myself in my work.
For the past week I have been in the world of floating particles, negative dirt and positive scratches, absorbed in technical minutiae, the pride of the specialist. I’m checking a final print. Poised in midtown in the land of rapidly vanishing theatres and hastily erected high-rises, I triangulate between the film lab, the titles house and the negative cutter. It’s a danger zone out there. Ruthless bulldozering creates rubble-strewn lots. I dart under the scaffolding and stay clear of the swinging cranes. Everywhere I go there are sad tales of places folding, the nuts and bolts of the industry. I trade pleasantries with the guys, I stop this side of salacious.
One day when I get home, there’s a call on the machine. The acoustic remoteness, the quavering and echo of the satellite assure me it’s a transatlantic call. I feel the heave and swell of the ocean as I listen to the unmistakable English voice, its clear long distance intonation. Out of the blue, a friend announces his arrival in the city at a future date. A very special friend.
I call his Cambridge lab. We’re terse, pragmatic, our excitement is contained.
“If I’m not there, wait for me at the Kar Ho,” I recommend.
A month later, I suspend my day and head for the airport. It’s three years since we last met. Perched on the chrome-plated rail in the passenger arrival lobby, my eyes are trained on the opaque barrier, I am engulfed in an eternity of waiting. The heavy metal doors open mechanically and clamp shut again, ejecting droves of passengers from the customs area into the arms of their expectant loved ones.
I scrutinize each new wave of arrivals intently, as though the act of looking alone will make him appear, will negate the void of separation. I try to guess who belongs to whom, to pair them by age, by physiognomy, this diminutive, aging couple with a rotund younger one, sedate parents with a frisky child. Absence is pretty abstract. The lobby scenario is dull and fiat, it’s missing a beat. It comes alive only in that one climactic moment, the sublime shock of recognition.
After an hour, doubt seeps into my consciousness. I’ve missed him. I double check the arrivals board for the Heathrow flights, I have him paged.
He is the last one off the plane, in his casual crumpled clothes, with his airy birdlike charm, his unassuming presence, fitting his description.
Relieved, our faces brighten into smiles, we grip each other strenuously. This time I know it will be different. There’s a yearning in his eyes I haven’t seen before, in the shadows under his eyes, a pain, a trace of sorrow. The eyes do not lie.
“Did you wait long?”
“I was afraid l’d…”
“… that you wouldn’t recognize me?”
“What about you?”
“I could never forget.”
The taxi races on the BQE towards the Williamsburg Bridge. We rediscover each other, I delight in his familiar high-strung mindfulness, his ready ringing laughter. We’re so absorbed we scarcely notice the meter shooting up steeply like mercury in a thermometer.
“It’s hitting thirty!”
“Don’t worry,” he assures me, “the exchange rate’s in my favor.”
After we cross the bridge, our ardor is dampened. People are draped over stoops or splayed out on the street, it’s unmistakably Manhattan. A cloud passes.
“The city’s totally, irrevocably changed,” I sigh with resignation.
He sees what I see. He shares my concern.
“It’s the same in London,” he sympathizes. “People living in cardboard boxes. The end of a civilization.”
Like a small child, I search for his hand in the back seat of the cab. I want to protect myself from tenderness. I introduce him to the particulars of my daily life, I shun the heavy stuff. Inside our building, home-tooled mailboxes hang on the wall at irregular intervals, more like birdboxes than receptacles for communication. Their individuality is a transgression against officialdom, the mailman scorns them. The mail arrives by a circuitous back route, late or not at all.
My friend chuckles. “It looks like messenger pigeons deliver your letters.”
“They’d do a better job.”
We stop for beer at the local bodega. The elevator, out of order for months, is still ailing. We trudge up the six flights of stairs. At the top, we stumble through a dark passageway that opens into a sudden clearing, a burst of light, my precarious sanctuary.
“What a nice space,” he exclaims, gazing up at the high, wooden sloping ceiling and the rusted sprinkler pipes. Thick metal hooks and abandoned wiring belie its previous occupant. “I didn’t remember it was so big.”
As we hover about each other, adjust to physical proximity, shards of memory threaten to pierce the frozen tundra of the present. I don’t admit them yet, I have my emotional agenda. I anchor myself in immediacy. I’m mainly concerned with the logistics of his stay, solicitous. He’s here for a scientific conference, I clear a desk for him. I show him the premises, the lizard in her tank, the goldfish in his bowl, the rabbit in her cage.
We drink the beer and decide the stairs are too much, we’ll stay in for dinner. We eat a slow sequential meal, one thing at a time. Homemade Mexican ravioli, string beans, salad, catch as catch can.
He sits opposite me at the big wooden table next to the glass bowl. The water is green and thick with algae, the solitary goldfish races around madly in concentric circles.
“What an unusually vigorous fish,” my friend observes.
We trace huge arcs in time and space, it makes me giddy, picking up threads from three, five, and fourteen years ago. He’s an eloquent listener, by turn forceful and vehement, thoughtful and responsive. Our dialogue touches many bases, the housing crisis, homeopathy, the European Common Market. He’s pro the integration of Europe, it recognizes a fait accompli.
“Even my cleaning lady goes to Spain for her holidays.”
I frown internally. In the sink, unspeakable mounds of crockery patiently await their turn under the soapsuds and the scrubbing brush.
“My cleaning person’s on permanent vacation,” I announce brightly, eliciting a rueful smile.
The rabbit crouches in her cage, attentive, her ears vertical.
I pace myself and don’t ask leading questions. This is a crystalline moment, I want it to exist for itself, bracketed within the context of our separate lives. For right now, I want it to be everything.
I explain the lay-out of the space. Out there, past the drums spilling over with shredded cardboard, the sink. Beyond that, the factory and the rest of the plumbing. Here, my study. Above, the sleeping platform which is my son’s room. Tonight, it’s the guest room. My son is with his father, a few blocks and a few light years away. I pull off the flannel sheets adorned with Pooh bears and penguins on skis from the narrow bed and replace them with clean dark blue cotton ones found on the street.
“There are just two single beds here,” I state with nonchalance, to mask the uncertainty and gagged emotion that I feel. “Anyway, I figured you must be tired.”
We are old hands at this. “Is that so,” my friend responds, unperturbed. “It’s okay, I understand.” “I’m making up your bed now so I don’t forget,” I call out to him. He is in the space underneath the platform, looking at photographs pinned to the wall above the light-table. The light table, a relic from the print era, is where I make phone calls and write down appointments in the day book. The photos are of Peter Loire and Alfred Hitchcock with his index finger on his lips. Then there’s a black and white one of me with a sculptor girlfriend, sitting on the back porch of a house on Fire Island many summers ago. My arm is around her shoulder, her eyes are shaded by the brim of a hat. Each of us has a hibiscus flower behind one ear. My face is framed by an abundant mass of hair, I’m staring past her at the ocean. We are bathed in rare tranquility, as if becalmed.
My friend examines the photo closely. “I’ve always liked the way you looked, but this photo proves,” he says, “that you’re a nineteenth-century Jewish beauty.”
I am touched, I know he means it.
“I like your concept of proof” I respond with a grin. “In Greece they think I’m Greek.”
We go to the back room, switch on the ten o’clock news and switch it off again. It’s pure tabloid sensationalism, abduction, murder and dismemberment. A tenant leader has been found headless in four plastic bags.
“The news can’t be this bad in England.” “No. I’ve had it, I’m turning in,” my friend decides, and goes upstairs.
“Let me mop down the floor first,” I plead, thinking of the accumulation of New York grime. “Don’t be silly, it’s fine. The tiles on my kitchen floor are much worse.”
A few minutes, or is it seconds later, I’m up there too, feeling strange and diffident … I haven’t had time to put away an eight- year-old’s paraphernalia. Telltale signs of boyhood, a long line of small metal cars, picture dictionaries, baseball cards, a teddy bear. I hope he won’t comment on it, but naturally he does.
“What would your son think of what we’re doing?” I shudder. My son, who charges at me like a bull then strokes my face, at once angelic and demonic, a staunch advocate of the nuclear family.
“He wouldn’t … he wouldn’t know what to think.”
Right now, I don’t either. I dismiss the subject quickly. I’m a tugboat pulling the barge of the past. There’s nowhere for it to go.
I rub his feet slowly and poke the taut muscles in his thighs, he relaxes.
“How come your legs are so hard?” I ask, a trifle enviously.
“It’s from living the right way,” he answers, laughing, and his arms reach out for me. My heart jumps, my body half surrenders. There’s not much room for maneuvers under the roof up here. I realize I am not prepared, I stall.
“Hang on a sec.” I get up abruptly and swing down the stairs to the chest of drawers. I rummage around amongst the cotton socks, undergarments and scarves in the top right hand drawer.
When I come back, I’m wearing a long white Armani T-shirt that came in the mail and not much else.
“Was it addressed to you?” asks my friend, his hands clasped behind his head.
I am amused. After a while in New York, one gets to be on quite a few lists.
“I don’t find everything on the street!”
I fall on top of him, the T-shirt between us. The jet-lag must be contagious, I’m in a trance. I savor the sumptuous languor of our exchange. Languid or not, gradually my body warms to his and eventually some kind of irreversible action is imminent. I remember how good it feels. He’s not prepared either. It’s not a time to swoon. We do some fast backtracking, debate the pros and cons and make a decision on the side of caution.
“Now, we don’t need to go back ten years,” he says. “I’ve been monogamous for five.”
“Mmm,” I say, holding him at bay. “Who’s going to go get them?”
He asks me how safe is the neighborhood. We’re half a block from John Gotti’s Ravenite Club, Gotti the boss of the Gambino crime family, purveyors of 50% of New York’s heroin supply, I remind him, it’s pretty safe.
“Let’s go together.”
“No,” I say, thinking of the stairs. “I’ll go, you’re the guest.”
From the shelves of the nearest Korean market I pluck other provisions to make the purchase less conspicuous. There’s a choice of three romantically illustrated packages pegged to the column opposite the cash register, lambskin, sharkskin or plain old rubber. We are alone in the lugubrious neon-lit store, the tight-lipped cashier and I, against a perennial backdrop of cut flowers. I’m right in his field of view, there’s no way to be discreet. I ask him which he recommends.
“Never use them,” he replies implacably, shaking open a paper bag with a single flick of the wrist.
“Bet you haven’t used these since Oxford,” I tell my friend on my return. Oxford is where we met, aeons ago. On the ground floor of a terrace house where the A40 motorway from London runs into town. He’s at the piano, enraptured, the night of his departure to India on a butterfly-hunting mission. I have an angle on him from the hallway. A head of dark springy hair, hands coursing the keyboard, hazel brown eyes, a mercurial intensity. He sees me watching, a spark flies.
“That’s right. Cambridge isn’t a high risk area.”
From a neighbor’s room upstairs, the Supremes intone their mournful canon ba-by, ba-by, whe-ere did our love go. It poses a classic threat. Still now, I hear that song and see them there, the tall girl with straggly blond hair and watery blue eyes, sitting barefoot, cross-legged on her bed, the hirsute, shorter boy-friend with wire-rimmed glasses waiting for her in the back yard.
The year of his return from India, we get together on New Year’s Eve in London. My place is hardly capacious, but the walls are white and the ceiling’s high. The door opens onto the bed and faces the window, the window looks at a tree. There’s just about room for a typewriter and turntable. I cook three-course meals on a single hot-plate. I have an evening job at the Aldwych, the Royal Shakespeare Company is in repetory with King Lear, the Rise and Fall of Mahagonny. I see Marat-Sade nine times. In the day, I chop up Reuter’s news bulletins for a Fleet Street weekly with big scissors. Important politicians from Britain’s former colonies parade in and out and engage in loud rhetoric behind closed doors.
We go to a party in Chelsea, a black taxicab drives us home to NW3. We must’ve overcome our apprehensions, the magnet of sexuality draws us to it like shrapnel. The cab radiates so much energy I’m scared it will explode. It’s a first of sorts, he gives a new dimension to being wanted. I wonder whether I’m still a free agent.
After that night, it’s no longer a question of freedom and reason, it’s a question of where and when. With him it’s more fun, everything is more precise. Passion is not easily assuaged, we’re still awake at dawn. Later, the charge welds an indissoluble bond between us. Our visits, invariably at critical junctures, act as markers. He is the only person who has witnessed a chequered progression from one shore of the Atlantic to the other.
We hold each other tight in the narrow bed, we who have not given each other precedence, he’s quicksilver in my arms. We’ve not acquired the sexual immunity bestowed by long years of intimacy and cohabitation. Distance and a fractured relationship have kept us on the qui-vive.
Close up, I scan his sensitive observant face, a man with insights that I value. All of a sudden a quick succession of images is released like notes in a cadenza, a tide of mixed emotion. I weep for the passing of time and the betrayal of experience by language, a flash flood on a sunny day.
London. It’s late one night in May. There’s a nightingale descanting on a tree-lined avenue in Hampstead, a frosty jagged half-moon beams through a small square latch window, the air is fragrant with linden blossom and magnolia, the sickening sense-stirring sweetness of an English spring. The phone rings on the landing one floor below. I’m just out of college and don’t have my own phone. I dart out of the L-shaped attic room that I rent from an Irish landlady, plunge down the stairs and pounce on the phone before some irate lodger slams it down. I don’t say no. I don’t lay down conditions and demands and quid pro quos. I obviously haven’t yet learned the fine art of negotiation. He charges down the desolate motorway to London. An hour later, we’re locked in an embrace, a sensual dragon devours us, we are consumed in flames.
I throw back the bedclothes and extinguish the conflagration. I pull my knees to my chest. He gets up to go.
“What are you doing, ” I ask.
Later still, I’m angry but my anger is mute.
“I remember how much I wanted you,” he tells me now, remembering. “And you were always there.”
“I wish I could say the same.”
Fifty miles is the closest we ever live to each other. Ninety minutes from Paddington Station. Two and half hours between Philadelphia and New York. Mostly, three thousand miles of Atlantic Ocean have separated us, massive walls of cold grey glassy water, of wild churning roiling water overlain by undulating banks of cloud. I am on its shores and about to plunge in. What if things were to change.
The following week, I take the train to Oxford. His tiny stone cottage is set back from the road at the end of an alley way. I wait at the gate, kicking stones, determined and afraid.
Pretty soon, he shows up with his motorcycle. “Huh,” he says and parks the bike. The piano is downstairs, the bed is upstairs and huge, the walls are a chalky blue-grey. There’s one orange in the fridge. We fuck with great abandon to the St. John Passion.
Afterwards, I drive the Mini minor past the milkman with his horse and cart, we eat voraciously on the Broad.
From the New York street down below the raucous bellowing of young males and the thwack of wipple balls shatters our nocturnal communion.
“What a racket,” he says, “in Cambridge they shut up at nine o’clock.”
All of a sudden, I catch my breath. I’m at college in Regent’s Park. Descartes is seated in his bathrobe by the stove, cogitating. I’m having an attack of mind-body dualism. Pilot of my ship, at some stage I must have run aground. Now, points of pain like road blocks arrest the limpid flow of sensation. A truck door swings outwards as I cycle past, I’m thrown from the bike and hit the asphalt hard. Injury is very site specific. What if he notices?
I decide to be casual.
“They use black titanium for bone fractures now,” I announce with authority.
He looks at me with an indelible look, he holds me closer, I feel his comprehension.
“Nothing functions the way it used to,” he says, but his acts belie his words, his hands reassure me. Soft but decisive, they coax me gently, we move together on the bed.
My friend knows me well, he senses my slightest trepidations.
“What would you like me to do,” he asks unexpectedly.
It’s dark, it’s light, fingers of rain are drumming on the roof. My mind holds a quiver of sensations that my body cannot brook. Or maybe I’m in some transcendent nirvana where everything is what it is and want has been eliminated.
“Nothing. Everything’s fine. I mean, nothing else. It’s just …” At this point, I lose my stoicism.
“You look lovely.”
He doesn’t tell me not to cry.
“If you haven’t had sex for eight months …”
I lie. Eight sounds too long.
“Six.” “… for six, this must be a nice fuck for you.”
Hampstead High Street leads to the Everyman Cinema. It’s quite a steep incline. From my attic I’d walk down Belsize Avenue under a canopy of trees and turn left up the hill towards the village, John Keats’ house, the library, and the wanton, mysterious Heath. Early summer mornings, I’d watch the sun rise and the swallows skim the pellucid water for insects.
On my way there one day he is driving down the hill. He brakes. I tell him about my invitation to Boston for the summer. An invitation which extends into another life. It’s ‘68. I zigzag across the vast supine continent from New England to Nashville to LA and San Francisco. I stay up high as a kite for three nights in a row, an ecstatic insomniac. At the end of it, I sell my return ticket to a girl from Brooklyn with a guitar. Intoxicated with New York City, I never go back. Very existential, my former magazine cohorts in London write, you just upped and left.
Three years of tumultuous art world activity pass before we see each other again. In New York, my horizons expand, or rather, the cutting edge of the prevailing art gives vent to an antimaterialist bias. I have found my home. My life assumes a form, a direction. Below 14th Street, the scene is intense, cohesive and integrated. Many things are born, poetry walks off the page, art waltzes out of the gallery, into the desert and back onto the page. We change the demographics of a neighborhood. There’s no premonition of the evils that are to come. From behind a glazed storefront window on Grand Street, England seems cutesipoo, picayune, mildewy, inconsequential, and far away. New York is where the action is. Undaunted by the obstacles, I advance into the oceanic future, waves break over me.
My work begins in earnest. Now it also has a format, square and seventy-pound coated offset, and erratic periodicity. Love comes and goes, but partnerships remain in place. And yet … England is mostly the language that I speak. A stray postcard to London evokes a prompt reply. I’m at the airport, scanning the shadowy figures behind translucent glass. He’s on his way to do research in Philadelphia on a government scholarship. A CIA one-man welcome committee is there also, offering his services. I take charge.
I confront the man in the brogues and polyester suit.
“He’s with me,”
I assert emphatically. “You had a great deal more to offer than he did,” my friend reminds me of the incident delightedly.
It’s not until we are both expatriates, freed from the class prisms of Great Britain, that we really talk. Don’t let those mellifluous tones fool you. We take the ferry and wander for hours on Staten Island. It’s the seventies. Women’s lib has brought a mellowing of the macho stance and from him, the claim of truth, profuse apologies, a reconciliation of sorts.
“We should have lived together;” he finally acknowledges.
The next morning, he is reading “Portrait of a Lady” when I go upstairs with the tea. I manage to spill some on the cover as I sit down on the bed.
“In a screenplay, that’d be an incident that underscores the main action,” I venture to get through a tight spot.
He’s good-humored but unconvinced. “It’s a scene we could very well do without,” he answers quickly.
Breakfast is definitely more prosaic. Its formality castigates the ardor of the previous night Long appropriated by the mercantile, now Soho grates, and going out to Jerry’s is a big mistake. The croissants are cold, I don’t want mine microwaved. We almost have a spat over the effects of microwave radiation. It’s hard to argue facts and evidence with a scientist. I find an excuse to get up from the table.
“Let’s not fight,” I entreat him when I come back.
Time compresses and expands like the folds of an accordion, and twenty-four hours is too long when you’re waiting, too short when you’re there. I sense the acceleration of the day. Framed in the tall arched window, his face blanched in the glare of morning light, he stares beyond the churchyard trees at a sign on a distant condominium, black letters on an orange background. His eyes are eagle sharp, he deciphers what it says, “Waste Not A Moment.”
He turns away and back to me.
“I have a strong desire to stand in front of some beautiful paintings,” he confesses.
My walls are hung with robust imagery, bold, surreal pastel drawings by my son, vivid frescoes by his father, but that’s not what he means.
“The Frick or the Met.”
I make an effort. “Ill check out the Frick with you.” It takes me a long time to get ready. I’m restless. At the subway station, I’m relieved to run into a New York friend, en route to a literary lunch with a foreign publisher. He’s sporting a dark suit, a striped shirt and an exotically patterned tie. He’s in a good mood. I greet him exuberantly, I confide in him.
“I’m having a problem portraying evil.”
At the Frick, we lose and find each other amidst the Holbeins, Bronzinos, El Grecos and Fragonards. I study the way paint conveys lighting on a face. The museum’s custodial solemnity prompts a yawn or two despite the grandeur of the work. I find it kind of stuffy, I miss my son’s precocious ferocity. I prowl warily in the hallowed vestibules, evading the reproachful stare of the sentinels. I won’t be provoked into comparisons of historic with contemporary art. At eighteen I admired El Greco. Now, I’m happy we can at least agree on the Goyas.
It’s not until he boards the Long Island Rail Road, headed for a famous North Shore laboratory, late in the afternoon, after lunch in Central Park behind the boating lake, watching two Italian gondoliers in a wonderful display of kitsch, that I am racked by a sense of urgency. All week, at the lab and on the street, the feeling arches over like a cresting wave. It turns into a burning and inchoate desire, a sentence that must be completed. In the modern idiom, I fax him a message in code which he doesn’t get. I try to talk myself out of it. He hasn’t forgotten, he’s obviously consumed by his work. Long ago we signed an unwritten manifesto of priorities.
“It was a complete contrast,” he explains a week later on his way home when we meet again, this time on the steps of the Met. “At night, a quiet room with a view over an inlet…”
In a reprise, I become predictable, mildly accusatory.
“And no telephone in the room.”
” … and during the day, the life of the mind. It’s quite something, the life of the mind.”
I don’t dissent. “I never had enough quarters to call you,” he continues. “You could have called collect.”
“I wouldn’t do that! Besides. I had to summarize four hundred and thirty-nine research papers!”
Crunching briskly across the park to 57th Street, we grind to a halt on the station platform. The JFK trains are on a twenty-minute schedule. Oblivious of all around, we wait as if on hold, our arms entwine, our heads touch. A train slinks past unnoticed. Shades and shadows of feeling envelop us like a carapace. The rituals of meetings and partings are so institutionalized, I’m afraid of sounding melodramatic and ridiculous in the confusion of departure.
I wrestle with the swordblade of speech, words to lighten the oppressive weight of silence.
My voice echoes inside my head. “It was so sweet of you to come,” I think I mouthe at last, not very trenchantly.
At the far end of the platform, a train hisses and snorts to a standstill. This time we’re catapaulted into action, we rush to make it. With unnerving exactitude, the doors snap to a close between us, separate us like a slicer.
Through the glass I strain to catch his response. “Ill dub that software for your computer” he waves frenziedly as the train thunders off into the tunnel black. Ah. My orphan PRO 350 must have found a mate. I smile and head for the downtown A.
Liza Béar is a New York writer and filmmaker. She is a 1990 NYFA Fellow in Literature and her first feature film, Force of Circumstance, opens at the Bleecker Street Cinema June 1.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.