I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
LONDON: I stare at the wallpaper in my hotel room. This wallpaper, were it in my apartment at home, would drive me crazy. But here it doesn’t matter, like not being bothered by a city council election you couldn’t vote in anyway. It passes right by, and I’m unencumbered, clipping my toenails and placing the small hard pieces in the ashtray that reads Inverness Terrace. Small hard pieces of American toenails, Americana of a sort. Some people might burn them.
Jessica’s found a place to live in Ladbroke Grove and will leave the hotel, our home away from home and her safe place from Charles. She once described their previous flat as having too many ghosts, a not unusual thing to say except that she believes in ghosts the way she believes in angels. In fact a ghost to her is an angel without a resting place. Today’s Guardianhas a paragraph on angels. The Vatican says they exist. Jessica isn’t amused or surprised. Her small sharp eyes (the eyes of a knitter, my mother would say) find their way into some secret part of me. She thinks that, and I’m beginning to believe her. Jessica also believes that no one should have any secrets and that everyone knows all secrets already. To her nothing is secret, everything is sacred.
Even in the midst of packing, readying herself for the move to her new home, Jessica’s composed and remarkably calm. She thinks I’m always either worried or excited. When I worry I know she’s right about me, and now my excitement diminishes knowing that she can so easily see into my dialectical personality. I’m also lazy and paranoid, but she hasn’t commented on this. I wonder why not.
She’s wrapping newspaper around her Buddhist altar and filling two large beaten up suitcases with clothes. When she looks up at me, she says, “Gossip is human, but unnecessary.” From Jessica’s point of view, if I can imagine it and were she to draw her version of reality, all people would be connected not only spiritually but materially, and even physically. I concur that gossip is human, simply because I do it, as do other people I know. But there must be other societies where gossip, as such, doesn’t exist. Jessica says that while it makes sense to believe that, and that she believes differences exist among peoples, she would bet that everywhere, in even the tiniest bit of society in the farthest reaches of the world from here—to others, she asserts, we are the farthest reach in the world—one would find gossip. Neither of us can prove or disprove the other’s point. For one thing I’m not even sure what gossip is. Or how precisely to distinguish it from other kinds of so-called information. Or what it means to do it, apart from the obvious. We are mirrors/movies to each other, etc. And I’m not so driven that I’ll go tomorrow to the British Museum and begin researching my position nor would Jessica. We just believe what we do. In Coming of Age in Samoa, Jessica remarks, tossing a stack of letters into a shopping bag, “the young girls gossiped to Margaret Mead. That’s how she learned so much.”
A picture of Margaret Mead talking with teenaged Samoan girls appears before me. An icepick, like the one that killed Trotsky, cuts into the image, the one I see, and the work beneath or supporting the image, which determines how to see it, that’s also mutilated. Hurt, the image is hurt or wounded. Her methods are in dispute I say rather than what first came to mind: Maybe the natives were just goofing on Mead. Which would upset Jessica. The sudden desire to disturb her passes just as suddenly. I’ve restrained myself, as most people do or try to. I have the desire to hurt others, to see how’d they react, but I usually don’t. I don’t like making scenes. But I like war movies and films about the Mafia.
Jessica keeps on packing, and the semblance, the image of unity our friendship offers both of us, remains intact. “Anyway, Mead is dead,” Jessica notes mournfully. Her reputation frayed like concierge Mancini’s shirt, I think. As a matter of will I could decide I believe in Mead, or believe Jessica’s right, if belief is the issue, and usually it is. I could picture Mead, walking down the halls of her beloved Museum of Natural History, where Mona Lisa-like she’d gaze fondly at a dinosaur bone. My father loved that museum too. He took me to it. It was the first I ever visited. He was so enthusiastic about the museum, he exhibited about it—and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade—a kind of patriotism, so that skeletons of extinct mammals and giant floats of comic book characters like Mickey Mouse were as much as anything else what I initially pledged allegiance to.
A postcard from Paris gets thrown into a suitcase. Jessica lifts it up again and stares at it, almost absentmindedly. “My life changed in Paris,” she says, “from one day to the next. I was passionately in love with Alan, I was traveling with him, and we hardly ever left our hotel room. He was the first man who really loved my body. It was 1968 and one day I was walking in the St. Germain des Pres area. Map in hand. Two young French guys threw stones at me. Alan wasn’t with me, and they called me names, anti-American names. I stopped, sort of froze in the middle of the road, and I waited for them to go away. After a while they walked off.”
Jessica places a couple of books about Gurdjieff onto her mystical pile. She was against the war, she said, she’d marched, signed petitions, everything. “Here I was, an American. An American, seen from the outside. I knew intellectually the war had something to do with me personally, but I’d never absorbed it emotionally. It was one of those moments when things fuse. And I thought to myself, I don’t want to go back.” Jessica looked me hard in the face, more direct, or American, than usual.
It’s never easy to imagine or sympathize with someone else’s epiphanies. Almost definitionally they exclude the other and immediately one wants one’s own. Jessica talked about what she knew of May ’68, the student revolt, the workers’ revolt, how the barricades were still up when she got there, her first trip to Europe, and there were no people behind them. “It was ghostly,” she reported. “The streets where the students had fought, the barricades, were ghostlike.” Later that night she tearfully asked Alan, “What was I doing there, walking around with a map in my hand?” To me she said, “We just kept on fucking. It was oddly exciting. Sex under those conditions can be very exciting.”
Jessica’s in the hotel room with her lover. She’s on all fours, her face heated in a way I’d never see it, her breasts swinging in rhythm to his thrusts. Rhythm and thrusts, words accompanying these small porno movies of the mind, stop me. They’re tired and also I don’t know how large Jessica’s breasts are and whether they’d swing or not. Probably they’d move. I don’t know why I have to get this right. I search for a more lascivious, luscious, and less obvious image and the projector switches off.
Jessica is speaking, indifferent to what can’t be seen, literally, the obscene. “It was the beginning of a real change in me,” she says. “At least that’s when I date it, but dear Charles thinks otherwise. He thinks it began with him years later. I couldn’t convince him otherwise, he’s stubborn beyond belief even though he appears so indefinite. That’s a trick. I think it’s an Englishman’s trick.” Here she paused as if mentally rubbing her hands and closed the second suitcase. “In the end I tricked him,” Jessica said and smiled. The smile signaled an aspect to her very different from the person I thought I had gotten to know. It was as if Bette Davis surfaced like a submarine through Greer Garson. “How’d you trick him?” She said, “I probably shouldn’t even have to tell you, because you should know. I’m pregnant.” Then she smiled that smile again. Jessica wanted Charles’s child even though she realized he was going to leave her. She stopped using her diaphragm but never told him. Especially wanted his child because he was leaving. “This isn’t a secret,” she whispers conspiratorially, “this is a mystery.” Clearly I had to rethink Jessica. For instance, was her initiation of a discussion about gossip merely a prelude to or a preparation for this revelation? She loomed suddenly as a character D. H. Lawrence might have forged, not one that I could ever have imagined or been able to comprehend. Like an ill-fitting or badly translated subtitle, the cockney phrase “bun in the oven” comes to mind, underlining this doubly pregnant moment in which neither Jessica nor I utters a word.
“But now,” she says at last, carrying on packing, unruffled, “you want to abandon me.” I’ve told her I think I’m going to Amsterdam. She’s laughing. I feel more like Charles, the errant husband, than ever. Instantly I regret making this association. Jessica ruffles my hair. “Don’t worry, I’ll have the test. I know I’m of that questionable age. Do you want children?” she asks, as I’m walking out the door. “I have time to decide,” I say. “Tempus fugit,” she says.
On the top of a nightbus, I can relax. When there’s no rush, no urgency to be somewhere, red doubledeckers are dreamy, more like comfortable and messy two-story houses than transportation. I’m listening brazenly to girls talk about boys and watching an elderly man whose hands shake so badly, he can barely roll his cigarette. It’s the last bus and it’s crowded. There are fewer and fewer night buses. Another way to keep the poor down, the vegetable man on Portobello declared to the customer standing in front of me last week. I’m able to leave London, to get a ticket for a train out of here. A ticket to ride. It seemed to me the vegetable man knew this and when I paid with the still-unfamiliar pound notes, his voice was tinged with irony as he affectionately chimed, “Ta, luv.”
I feel out of place and know that I’m right to feel out of place. Travel unsettles the appropriate. You’re bound to be inappropriate. Which is probably why I don’t feel the intense embarrassment some do at not being able to speak foreign languages correctly. It seems to me that one of the privileges of travel is never to fit in. And not to fit in, not to be able to, is a kind of freedom. One of the freedoms that money can buy, like buying a hotel room in which one is psychologically unburdened and can act out guilty pleasures, capitalist ones, no doubt.
I’m sure Margaret Mead would have something to say on this subject. I vaguely remember hearing about an essay she wrote during World War II attempting to explain why English women and American men, GIs, were producing so many children out of wedlock. Her theory was the codes were different: English men need to be encouraged by their women to go to bed together, whereas American women are the ones to say No to American men who encourage them to go to bed. So if you put an English woman used to being the one to say Yes together with an aggressive American male used to begging a Yes, they fuck like rabbits. It’s the end of restraint. It’s also wartime and subways aren’t just for sleeping although they never show that in those war movies I love. Just kissing on bridges as if the bridge itself were such a powerful metaphor we can instantly imagine that sexual union, as in a ballet where poetry stands for ordinary prose. Apparently Mead was asked to write about this unfortunate situation because both nations were embarrassed by the flagrant sexual display in their midst. Can nations be embarrassed? More of that funny anthropomorphizing that merges all activity into understandable human behavior. I can’t even grasp Jessica. Perhaps I should think of her as a nation with a multi-ethnic and religious character that would account for her seeming contradictions. Jessica’s American, Charles is English, who led whom to bed, to the altar, to distraction?
On an unusually sunny day when it was remarked again that we were having an English summer, Jessica moved out. Moving from one street to another or one city or country to another requires about the same amount of energy, and I made plans to return to Amsterdam. It seemed easier to go somewhere I’d already been. I wanted to hold my London life in suspension, a bit of fluff caught in a solution, or hold my life in suspense, if suspenseful could be used to describe my life in London. Certainly life is filled with everyday mystery—we’re given answers to questions that answer nothing—and doubtless life goes on without me, and things don’t remain the same, but can “I” ever know that?
This question, like so many other conundrums, puzzles and pleases and fills time, as does trying to imagine a mountainless valley. I eventually pack my bags and one rainy morning wander onto the street to get a taxi to the train station. In Victoria, I head for the ticket window and buy, in what strikes me as a fit of perversity, a ticket for Venice. I don’t want to go back to Amsterdam. I want to go somewhere I’ve never been. It’ll be my little secret. I like secrets. Secrets are sacred.
The photobooths in the station are black and white and color and I spend the rest of my English ten pences catching myself in all sorts of poses, looking at the camera and thinking one thing or the other, waiting for the machine to whirr and develop them, knowing that the camera cannot discern this inner life of mine. This secret life. And contrary to what Jessica thinks, one doesn’t necessarily leave a place to leave someone in particular. I’m reading Buber’s The Legend of the Baal-shem, which Jessica recommended (she’s reading all of Jean Rhys), and on the train to Dover, landscape and brick houses passing by indifferently, it strikes an eerie blow: “An angel born of twisted intentions will have twisted limbs.”
The white cliffs of Dover look like a quarry, and I’ve just had an argument with the concessionaire who sold me a cheese sandwich and gave me the wrong change, so that I can’t experience the cliffs the way I think I should. Several heads turn in my direction as I labor to make my point. From the expressions on their faces, mirrors behind which their opinions sit, I see myself as the ugly, that is, imperialistic American and, alternatively, the bossy New York woman. Or, less problematically, as just plain rude. Instantly I’m a set of conditions and positions, a reluctant but undeniable conduit, and Jessica’s epiphany resonates in this stuffy train car where I can conjure her enigmatic smile at will. If I were English, perhaps I wouldn’t have objected so vigorously, if I were more like John, my English friend who visits New York about once a year. He asked a counterman in a diner for the time and was handed a salami sandwich, which he ate. Then he asked for the check and was given a vanilla milk shake. John drank it down and paid without protest. To him that’s a New York story.
On the ferry to Calais, I switch from Martin Buber to Patricia Highsmith and read Edith’s Diary. Nothing like a woman going mad for the right political reasons, as well as other more arcane ones, to reassure one of one’s necessary differences from others. A typically grey sky blows gustily over a sea covered with white caps and I’m wondering about the many swimmers who’ve been challenged by these inhospitable waters. Suddenly, at the point of no return, where France is closer than England, the sky clears, turns a bright cloudless blue, and some English people on deck raise their glasses to toast the sun, which hovers on the horizon like an apparition or, more comically, like a mark of punctuation.
Switching trains in Paris at the Gare du Nord, there’s time to telephone Arlette, just to say hello. She’s probably at the bookstore where she works. But I don’t. I change money, receiving large colorful notes for smaller English ones, buy black and white real photo postcards of places I haven’t visited and French and English newspapers, drink a bowl of cafe au lait, wonder at French bread, reminisce about the smell of Gauloises and the nice Frenchman in Paris who ecstatically began at my ears and the nasty one in New York who wanted me to work harder, as he put it. Wantonly I enjoy hearing the French language, knowing that in a few hours it’ll be Italian. I write postcards home. All this can make one feel like a traveler.
To Jessica: “On my way to Venice. I’ll write you from there. Did you know or guess I wasn’t going to Amsterdam? I will eventually.” But then I tear up the postcard. It was a nice one, too, in black and white, taken from the top of the Eiffel Tower. I tear up as many as I send. Tear up more, actually. That’s why I wait until the very last moment to put the stamps on. An inadvertent collection of stamps has accumulated in my diary, and I’m learning to appreciate the tiny pictures, emblems of a country’s glorious, created past or improvised future. My father would’ve liked to have known this because he collected them. Haphazardly. He was always a little disorganized, beginning things and not completing them, reading several books at the same time and not finishing them, starting to learn a musical instrument then giving it up, hating to practice. Like the concertina. I meant to ask him about that, but never did.
Glancing up at the big board to see what track the train to Venice will be on, I spy a man who looks remarkably like Charles. He’s got a hat on. He’s carrying a briefcase, and he’s rushing. I can’t decide whether to jump up from the table and chase after him, or wait and see if fate, destiny, or whatever one wants to call coincidence so like fiction it makes one immobile, has in store. Perhaps he’s on his way to Venice too. Or returning to Istanbul, place of our first, by now extraordinary, meeting. He never wore a hat in Istanbul. In a desultory way and after much hesitation, I walk around the vast station, searching for him. But he’s gone, vanished. If he was ever there at all.
This is an excerpt from Lynne Tillman’s novel in progress Home Sick. Her recent novel, Haunted Houses, is published by Poseidon Press.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.