In America

A Novel

Susan Sontag

Picador

One

PERHAPS IT WAS the slap she received from Gabriela Ebert a few minutes past five o’clock in the afternoon (I’d not witnessed that) which made something, no, everything (I couldn’t have known this either) a little clearer. Arriving at the theatre, inflexibly punctual, two hours before curtain, Maryna had gone directly to her star’s lair, been stripped to her chemise and corset and helped into a fur-lined robe and slippers by her dresser, Zofia, whom she dispatched to iron her costume in an adjoining room, had pushed the candles nearer both sides of the mirror, had leaned forward over the jumbled palette of already uncapped jars and vials of makeup for a closer scrutiny of that all too familiar mask, her real face, the actress’s under-face, when behind her the door seemed to break open and in front of her, sharing the mirror, hurtling toward her, she saw her august rival’s reddened, baleful face shouting the absurd insult, threw herself back in her chair, turned, glimpsed the arm descending just before an involuntary grimace of her own brought down her eyelids at the same instant it bared her upper teeth and shortened her nose, and felt the shove and sting of a large beringed hand against her face.

It all happened so rapidly and noisily—her eyes stayed closed, the door banged shut—and the shadow-flecked room with

its hissing gas jets had gone so silent now, it might have been a bad dream: she’d been having bad dreams. Maryna clapped her palm to her offended face.

"Zofia? Zofia!"

Sound of the door being opened softly. And some anxious babble from Bogdan. "What the devil did she want? If I hadn’t been down the corridor with Jan, I would have stopped her, how dare she burst in on you like that!"

"It’s nothing," Maryna said, opening her eyes, dropping her hand. "Nothing." Meaning: the buzz of pain in her cheek. And the migraine now looming on the other side of her head, which she intended to keep at bay by a much-practiced exercise of will until the end of the evening. She bent forward to tie her hair in a towel, then stood and moved to the washstand, where she vigorously soaped and scrubbed her face and neck, and patted the skin dry with a soft cloth.

"I knew all along she wouldn’t—"

"It’s all right," said Maryna. Not to him. To Zofia, hesitating at the half-open door, holding the costume aloft in her outstretched arms.

Waving her in, Bogdan shut the door a bit harder than he intended. Maryna stepped out of her robe and into the burgundy gown with gold braiding ("No, no, leave the back unbuttoned!"), rotated slowly once, twice, before the cheval glass, nodded to herself, sent Zofia away to repair the loose buckle on her shoe and heat the curling iron, then sat at the dressing table again.

"What did Gabriela want?"

"Nothing."

"Maryna!"

She took a tuft of down and spread a thick layer of Pearl Powder on her face and throat.

"She came by to wish me the best for tonight."

"Really?"

"Quite generous of her, wouldn’t you agree, since she’d thought the role was to be hers."

"Very generous," he said. And, he thought, very unlike Gabriela.

He watched as three times she redid the powder, applied the rouge with a hare’s foot well up on her cheekbones and under her eyes and on her chin, and blackened her eyelids, and three times took it all off with a sponge.

"Maryna?"

"Sometimes I think there’s no point to any of this," she said tonelessly, starting again on her eyelids with the charcoal stick.

"This?"

She dipped a fine camel’s-hair brush into the dish of burnt umber and traced a line under her lower eyelashes.

It seemed to Bogdan she was using too much kohl, which made her beautiful eyes look sorrowful, or merely old. "Maryna, look at me!"

"Dear Bogdan, I’m not going to look at you." She was dabbing more kohl on her brows. "And you’re not going to listen to me. You should be inured by now to my attacks of nerves. Actor’s nerves. A little worse than usual, but this is a first night. Don’t pay any attention to me."

As if that were possible! He bent over and touched his lips to the nape of her neck. "Maryna . . ."

"What?"

"You remember that I’ve taken the room at the Saski for a few of us afterward to celebrate—"

"Call Zofia for me, will you?" She had started to mix the henna.

"Forgive me for bringing up a dinner while you’re preparing for a performance. But it should be called off if you’re feeling too . . ."

"Don’t," she murmured. She was blending a little Dutch pink and powdered antimony with the Prepared Whiting to powder her hands and arms. "Bogdan?"

He didn’t answer.

"I’m looking forward to the party," she said and reached behind for a gloved hand to lay on her shoulder.

"You’re upset about something."

"I’m upset about everything," she said dryly. "And you’ll be so kind as to let me wallow in it. The old stager has need of a little stimulation to go on doing her best!"

MARYNA DID NOT RELISH lying to Bogdan, the only person among all those who loved her, or claimed to love her, whom she did in fact trust. But she had no place for his indignation or his eagerness to console. She thought it might do her good to keep this astonishing incident to herself.

Sometimes one needs a real slap in the face to make what one is feeling real.

When life cuffs you about, you say, That’s life.

You feel strong. You want to feel strong. The important thing is to go forward.

As she had, single-mindedly, or almost: there had been much to ignore. But if you are of a stoical temperament, and have a talent for self-respect, and have worked hard with another talent God gave you, and have been rewarded exactly as you had dared to hope for your diligence and persistence, indeed, your success arrived more promptly than you expected (or perhaps, you secretly think, merited), you might then consider it petty to remember the slights and nurture the grievances. To be offended was to be weak—like worrying about whether one was happy or not.

Now you have an unexpected pain, around which the muffled feelings can crystallize.

You have to float your ideals a little off the ground, to keep them from being profaned. And cut loose the misfortunes and insults, too, lest they take root and strangle your soul.

Take the slap for what it was, a jealous rival’s frantic comment on her impregnable success—that would have been something to share with Bogdan, and soon put out of mind. Take it as an emblem, a summons to respond to the whispery needs she’d been harboring for months—this would be worth keeping to herself, even cherishing. Yes, she would cherish poor Gabriela’s slap. If that slap were a baby’s smile, she would smile at the recollection of it, if it were a picture, she would have it framed and kept on her dressing table, if it were hair, she would order a wig made from it . . . Oh I see, she thought, I’m going mad. Could it be as simple as that? She’d laughed to herself then, but saw with distaste that the hand applying henna to her lips was trembling. Misery is wrong, she said to herself, mine no less than Gabriela’s, and she only wants what I have. Misery is always wrong.

Crisis in the life of an actress. Acting was emulating other actors and then, to one’s surprise (actually, not at all to one’s surprise), finding oneself better than any of them were—including the pathetic bestower of that slap. Wasn’t that enough? No. Not anymore.

She had loved being an actress because the theatre seemed to her nothing less than the truth. A higher truth. Acting in a play, one of the great plays, you became better than you really were. You said only words that were sculpted, necessary, exalting. You always looked as beautiful as you could be, artifice assisting, at your age. Each of your movements had a large, generous meaning. You could feel yourself being improved by what was given to you, on the stage, to express. Now it would happen that, mid-course in a noble tirade by her beloved Shakespeare or Schiller or Slowacki, pivoting in her unwieldy costume, gesturing, declaiming, sensing the audience bend to her art, she felt no more than herself. The old self-transfiguring thrill was gone. Even stage fright—that jolt necessary to the true professional— had deserted her. Gabriela’s slap woke her up. An hour later Maryna put on her wig and papier-mâché crown, gave one last look in the mirror, and went out to give a performance that even

she could have admitted was, by her real standards for herself, not too bad.

BOGDAN WAS so captivated by Maryna’s majesty as she went to be executed that at the start of the ovation he was still rooted in the plush-covered chair at the front of his box, hands clenching the rail. Galvanized now, he slipped between his sister, the impresario from Vienna, Ryszard, and the other guests, and by the second curtain call had made his way backstage.

"Mag-ni-fi-cent," he mouthed as she came off from the third curtain call to wait beside him in the wings for the volume of sound to warrant another return to the flower-strewn stage.

"If you think so, I’m glad."

"Listen to them!"

"Them! What do they know if they’ve never seen anything better than me?"

After she’d conceded four more curtain calls, Bogdan escorted her to the dressing-room door. She supposed she was starting to allow herself to feel pleased with her performance. But once inside, she let out a wordless wail and burst into tears.

"Oh, Madame!" Zofia seemed about to weep, too.

Stricken by the anguish on the girl’s face and intending to comfort her, Maryna flung herself into Zofia’s arms.

"There, there," she murmured as Zofia held her tightly, then let go with one arm and delicately patted Maryna’s crimped, stiffened mass of hair.

Maryna released herself reluctantly from the girl’s unwavering grip and met her stare fondly. "You have a good heart, Zofia."

"I can’t stand to see you sad, Madame."

"I’m not sad, I’m . . . Don’t be sad for me."

"Madame, I was in the wings almost the whole last act, and when you went to die, I never saw you die as good as that, you were so wonderful I just couldn’t stop crying."

"Then that’s enough crying for both of us, isn’t it?" Maryna

started to laugh. "To work, you silly girl, to work. Why are we both dawdling?"

Relieved of her regal costume and reclothed in the fur-lined robe, Maryna sponged off Mary Stuart’s face and swiftly laid on the discreet mask suitable to the wife of Bogdan Dembowski. Zofia, sniffling a little ("Zofia, enough!"), stood behind her chair embracing the sage-green gown Maryna had chosen that afternoon to wear to the dinner Bogdan was giving at the Hotel Saski. She put the gown on slowly in front of the cheval glass, returned to the dressing table and undid the curls and brushed and re-brushed her hair, then piled it loosely on her head, looked closer into the mirror, added a little melted wax to her eyelashes, stood again, inspected herself once more, listening to the ascending din in the corridor, took several loud, rhythmical breaths, and opened the door to an enveloping wave of shouts and applause.

Among the admirers well connected enough to be admitted backstage were some acquaintances but, except for Ryszard, clasping a bouquet of silk flowers to his broad chest, she saw no close friends: those invited to the party had been asked to go on ahead to the hotel. And more than a hundred people were waiting outside the stage door, despite the foul weather. Bogdan offered the shelter of his sword-umbrella with the ivory handle so she could linger for fifteen minutes under the falling snow, and she would have lingered another fifteen had he not waved away the more timid fans, their programs still unsigned, and shepherded Maryna through the crowd toward the waiting sleigh. Ryszard, finally pressing his bouquet into her hands, said the Saski was only seven streets away and that he preferred to walk.

How strange, in her native city to be receiving friends in a hotel, but for the last five years—her talents having led her inexorably to the summit, an engagement for life at the Imperial Theatre in Warsaw—she no longer had an apartment in Kraków.

"Strange," she said. To Bogdan, to no one, to herself. Bogdan frowned.

A thunderbolt, like the crack of gunfire, as they arrived at the hotel. A scream, no, only a shout: an angry coachman.

They walked up the carpeted marble staircase.

"You’re all right?"

"Of course I’m all right. It’s only another entrance."

"And I have the privilege of opening the door for you."

Now it was Maryna’s turn to frown.

And how could there not be applause and beaming faces, customary welcome at a first-night party—but she really had given a splendid performance—as Bogdan opened the door (in answer to her "Bogdan, are you all right?" he had sighed and taken her hand) and she made her entrance. Piotr ran to her arms. She embraced Bogdan’s sister and gave her Ryszard’s silk flowers; she let herself be embraced by Krystyna, whose eyes had filled with tears. After the guests, gathering closely around her, had each paid tribute to her performance, she looked from face to face, and then sang out gleefully:

May you a better feast never behold, You knot of mouth friends!

Upon which words everyone laughed, which means, I suppose (I had not arrived yet), that she said Timon’s lines in Polish, not English, but also means that nobody except Maryna had read Timon of Athens, for the feast in the play is not a happy one, above all for its giver. Then the guests spread about the large room and began talking among themselves about her performance and, after that, about the larger question afoot (which is more or less when I arrived, chilled and eager to enter the story), while Maryna had forced herself toward humbler, less sardonic thoughts. No jealous rivals here. These were her friends, those who wished her well. Where was her gratitude? She hated her

discontents. If I can have a new life, she was thinking, I shall never complain again.

MA R Y N A ?

No answer.

"Maryna, what’s wrong?"

"What could be wrong . . . doctor?"

He shook his head. "Oh, I see."

"Henryk."

"That’s better."

"I’m disturbing you."

"Yes"—he smiled—"you disturb me, Maryna. But only in my dreams, never in my consulting room." Then, before she could rebuke him for flirting with her: "The splendors of your performance last night," he explained.

He saw her still hesitating. "Come in"—he held out his hand—"Sit"—he waved at a tapestry-covered settee—"Talk to me." Two steps into the room, she leaned against a bookcase. "You’re not going to sit?"

"You sit. And I’ll continue my walk . . . here."

"You came here on foot in this weather? Was that wise?"

"Henryk, please!"

He sat on the corner of his desk.

She began to pace. "I thought I was coming here to besiege you with questions about Stefan, if he really—"

"But I’ve told you," Henryk interrupted, "that the lungs already show a remarkable improvement. Against such a mighty enemy, the struggle waged by doctor and patient is bound to be long. But I think we’re winning, your brother and I."

"You talk rubbish, Henryk. Has anyone ever told you that?"

"Maryna, what’s the matter?"

"Everyone talks rubbish—"

"Maryna . . ."

"Including me."

"So"—he sighed—"it isn’t Stefan you wanted to consult me about."

She shook her head.

"Then let me guess," he said, venturing a smile.

"You’re making fun of me, my old friend," Maryna said somberly. "Women’s nerves, you’re thinking. Or worse."

"I?"—he slapped the desk—"I, your old friend, as you acknowledge, and I thank you for that, I not take my Maryna seriously?" He looked at her sharply. "What is it? Your headaches?"

"No, it’s not about"—she sat down abruptly—"me. I mean, my headaches."

"I’m going to take your pulse," he said, standing over her. "You’re flushed. I wouldn’t be surprised if you had a touch of fever." After a moment of silence, while he held her wrist then gave it back to her, he looked again at her face. "No fever. You are in excellent health."

"I told you there was nothing wrong."

"Ah, that means you want to complain to me. Well, you shall find me the most patient of listeners. Complain, dear Maryna," he cried gaily. He didn’t see the tears in her eyes. "Complain!"

"Perhaps it is my brother, after all."

"But I told you—"

"Excuse me"—she’d stood—"I’m making a fool of myself."

"Never! Please don’t go." He rose to bar her way to the door. "You do have a fever."

"You said I didn’t."

"The mind can get overheated, just like the body."

"What do you think of the will, Henryk? The power of the will."

"What sort of question is that?"

"I mean, do you think one can do whatever one wants?"

Excerpted from In America by Susan Sontag.
Copyright © 2001 by Susan Sontag.
Published in 2001 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.