YESTERDAY, I FOUND VIOLET'S LETTERS TO BILL. THEY WERE HIDDEN between the pages of one of his books and came tumbling out and fell to the floor. I had known about the letters for years, but neither Bill nor Violet had ever told me what was in them. What they did tell me was that minutes after reading the fifth and last letter, Bill changed his mind about his marriage to Lucille, walked out the door of the building on Greene Street, and headed straight for Violet's apartment in the East Village. When I held the letters in my hands, I felt they had the uncanny weight of things enchanted by stories that are told and retold and then told again. My eyes are bad now, and it took me a long time to read them, but in the end I managed to make out every word. When I put the letters down, I knew that I would start writing this book today.
"While I was lying on the floor in the studio," she wrote in the fourth letter, "I watched you while you painted me. I looked at your arms and your shoulders and especially at your hands while you worked on the canvas. I wanted you to turn around and walk over to me and rub my skin the way you rubbed the painting. I wanted you to press hard on me with your thumb the way you pressed on the picture, and I thought that if youdidn't, I would go crazy, but I didn't go crazy, and you never touched me then, not once. You didn't even shake my hand."
I first saw the painting Violet was writing about twenty-five years ago in a gallery on Prince Street in SoHo. I didn't know either Bill or Violet at the time. Most of the canvases in the group show were thin minimalist works that didn't interest me. Bill's painting hung alone on a wall. It was a large picture, about six feet high and eight feet long, that showed a young woman lying on the floor in an empty room. She was propped up on one elbow, and she seemed to be looking at something beyond the edge of the painting. Brilliant light streamed into the room from that side of the canvas and illuminated her face and chest. Her right hand was resting on her pubic bone, and when I moved closer, I saw that she was holding a little taxi in that hand--a miniature version of the ubiquitous yellow cab that moves up and down the streets of New York.
It took me about a minute to understand that there were actually three people in the painting. Far to my right, on the dark side of the canvas, I noticed that a woman was leaving the picture. Only her foot and ankle could be seen inside the frame, but the loafer she was wearing had been rendered with excruciating care, and once I had seen it, I kept looking back at it. The invisible woman became as important as the one who dominated the canvas. The third person was only a shadow. For a moment I mistook the shadow for my own, but then I understood that the artist had included it in the work. The beautiful woman, who was wearing only a man's T-shirt, was being looked at by someone outside the painting, a spectator who seemed to be standing just where I was standing when I noticed the darkness that fell over her belly and her thighs.
To the right of the canvas I read the small typed card: Self-Portrait by William Wechsler. At first I thought the artist was joking, but then I changed my mind. Did that title next to a man's name suggest a feminine part of himself or a trio of selves? Maybe the oblique narrative of two women and a viewer referred directly to the artist, or maybe the title didn't refer to the content of the picture at all, but to its form. The hand that had painted the picture hid itself in some parts of the painting andmade itself known in others. It disappeared in the photographic illusion of the woman's face, in the light that came from the invisible window, and in the hyperrealism of the loafer. The woman's long hair, however, was a tangle of heavy paint with forceful dabs of red, green, and blue. Around the shoe and the ankle above it, I noticed thick stripes of black, gray, and white that may have been applied with a knife, and in those dense strokes of pigment I could see the marks left by a man's thumb. It looked as if his gesture had been sudden, even violent.
That painting is here in the room with me. When I turn my head I can see it, although it too has been altered by my failing eyesight. I bought it from the dealer for $2,500 about a week after I saw it. Erica was standing only a few feet away from where I am sitting now when she first looked at the canvas. She examined it calmly and said, "It's like looking at another person's dream, isn't it?"
When I turned to the picture after Erica spoke, I saw that its mixed styles and shifting focus did remind me of the distortions in dreams. The woman's lips were parted, and her two front teeth protruded slightly. The artist had made them shiny white and a little too long, almost like an animal's. It was then that I noticed a bruise just below her knee. I had seen it before, but at that moment its purple cast, which was yellow-green at one edge, pulled my eyes toward it, as if this little wound were really the subject of the painting. I walked over, put my finger on the canvas, and traced the outline of the bruise. The gesture aroused me. I turned to look at Erica. It was a warm September day, and her arms were bare. I bent over her and kissed the freckles on her shoulders, then lifted the hair off her neck and kissed the soft skin underneath it. Kneeling in front of her, I pushed up the material of her skirt, ran my fingers along her thighs, and then I used my tongue. Her knees bent slightly toward me. She pulled down her underpants, tossed them onto the sofa with a grin, and pushed me gently backward onto the floor. Erica straddled me and her hair fell forward onto my face as she kissed me. Then she sat back, pulled off her T-shirt, and removed her bra. I loved that view of my wife. I touched her breasts and let my finger circle a perfectly round mole on the left one, before she leaned over me again. She kissed myforehead and cheeks and chin and then began fumbling with the zipper of my pants.
In those days, Erica and I lived in a state of almost constant sexual excitement. Just about anything could spark off a session of wild grappling on the bed, the floor, and, once, on the dining room table. Since high school, girlfriends had come and gone in my life. I had had brief affairs and longer ones, but always there had been gaps between them--painful stretches of no women and no sex. Erica said that suffering had made me a better lover--that I didn't take a woman's body for granted. On that afternoon, however, we made love because of the painting. I have often wondered since why the image of a sore on a woman's body should have been erotic to me. Later, Erica said that she thought my response had something to do with a desire to leave a mark on another person's body. "Skin is soft," she said. "We're easily cut and bruised. It's not like she looks beaten or anything. It's an ordinary little black-and-blue mark, but the way it's painted makes it stick out. It's like he loved doing it, like he wanted to make a little wound that would last forever."
Erica was thirty-four years old then. I was eleven years older than that, and we had been married for a year. We'd literally bumped into each other in Butler Library at Columbia. It was late on a Saturday morning in October, and the stacks were mostly empty. I had heard her steps, had felt her presence behind the dim rows of books illuminated by a timed light that gave off a low humming sound. I found the book I was looking for and walked toward the elevator. Except for the lamp, I heard nothing. I turned the corner and tripped over Erica, who had seated herself on the floor at the end of the stack. I managed to keep my footing, but my glasses sailed off my face. She picked them up, and as I bent over to take them from her, she began to stand up and her head knocked against my chin. When she looked at me, she was smiling: "A few more like that, and we might have something going--a regular slapstick routine."
I had fallen over a pretty woman. She had a wide mouth and thick dark hair cropped to her chin. The narrow skirt she was wearing hadmoved up her legs in our collision, and I glanced at her thighs as she tugged at her hem. After adjusting her skirt, she looked up at me and smiled again. During the second smile, her bottom lip quivered for an instant, and I took that small sign of nervousness or embarrassment to mean that she was susceptible to an invitation. Without it, I'm quite sure I would have apologized again and walked away. But that momentary tremor in her lip, gone in a moment, exposed a softness in her character and offered me a glimpse of what I guessed was her carefully guarded sensuality. I asked her to have coffee with me. Coffee turned into lunch, and lunch into dinner, and the following morning I was lying next to Erica Stein in the bed of my old apartment on Riverside Drive. She was still sleeping. The light came through the window and illuminated her face and hair. Very carefully I put my hand on her head. I left it there for several minutes while I looked at her and hoped she would stay.
By then we had talked for hours. It turned out that Erica and I came from the same world. Her parents were German Jews who left Berlin as teenagers in 1933. Her father became a prominent psychoanalyst and her mother a voice teacher at Juilliard. The Steins were both dead. They died within months of each other the year before I met Erica, which was the same year my mother died: 1973. I was born in Berlin and lived there for five years. My memories of that city are fragmentary, and some may be false, images and stories I shaped from what my mother told me about my early life. Erica was born on the Upper West Side, where I ended up after spending three years in a Hampstead flat in London. It was Erica who prompted me to leave the West Side and my comfortable Columbia apartment. Before we married, she told me she wanted to "emigrate." When I asked her what she meant, she said that it was time for her to sell her parents' apartment on West Eighty-second Street and take the long subway ride downtown. "I smell death up here," she said, "and antiseptic and hospitals and stale Sacher torte. I have to move." Erica and I left the familiar ground of our childhoods and staked out new turf among the artists and bohemians farther south. We used the money we had inherited from our parents and moved to a loft on Greene Street between Canal and Grand.
The new neighborhood with its empty streets, low buildings, and young tenants freed me from bonds I had never thought of as constraints. My father died in 1947, when he was only forty-three years old, but my mother lived on. I was their only child, and after my father was gone, my mother and I shared his ghost. My mother grew old and arthritic, but my father remained young and brilliant and promising--a doctor who might have done anything. That anything became everything for my mother. For twenty-six years she lived in the same apartment on Eighty-fourth Street between Broadway and Riverside with my father's missing future. Every once in a while, when I was first teaching, a student would refer to me as "Dr. Hertzberg" rather than "Professor," and I would inevitably think of my father. Living in SoHo didn't erase my past or induce forgetfulness, but when I turned a corner or crossed a street, there were no reminders of my displaced childhood and youth. Erica and I were both the children of exiles from a world that has disappeared. Our parents were assimilated middle-class Jews for whom Judaism was a religion their great-grandparents had practiced. Before 1933 they had thought of themselves as "Jewish Germans," a phrase that no longer exists in any language.
When we met, Erica was an assistant professor in English at Rutgers, and I had already been teaching at Columbia in the art history department for twelve years. My degree came from Harvard, hers from Columbia, which explained why she was wandering in the stacks that Saturday morning with an alumni pass. I had fallen in love before, but in almost every case I had arrived at a moment of fatigue and boredom. Erica never bored me. She sometimes irritated and exasperated me, but she never bored me. Erica's comment about Bill's self-portrait was typical of her--simple, direct, and penetrating. I never condescended to Erica.
I had walked past 89 Bowery many times without ever stopping to look at it. The run-down, four-story brick building between Hester and Canal had never been more than the humble quarters of a wholesale business,but those days of modest respectability were long over by the time I arrived to visit William Wechsler. The windows of what had once been a storefront were boarded up, and the heavy metal door at street level was gouged and dented, as if somebody had attacked it with a hammer. A man with a beard and a drink in a paper bag was lounging on the single front step. He grunted in my direction when I asked him to move and then half-rolled, half-slid off the step.
My first impressions of people are often clouded by what I come to know about them later, but in Bill's case, at least one aspect of those first seconds remained throughout our friendship. Bill had glamour--that mysterious quality of attraction that seduces strangers. When he met me at the door, he looked almost as disheveled as the man on the front step. He had a two-day beard. His thick black hair bushed out from the top and sides of his head, and his clothes were covered with dirt as well as paint. And yet when he looked at me, I found myself pulled toward him. His complexion was very dark for a white man, and his clear green eyes had an Asiatic tilt to them. He had a square jaw and chin, broad shoulders, and powerful arms. At six-two, he seemed to tower over me even though I couldn't have been more than a few inches shorter. I later decided that his almost magical appeal had something to do with his eyes. When he looked at me, he did so directly and without embarrassment, but at the same time I sensed his inwardness, his distraction. Although his curiosity about me seemed genuine, I also felt that he didn't want a thing from me. Bill gave off an air of autonomy so complete, it was irresistible.
"I took it for the light," he said to me when we walked through the door of the loft space on the fourth floor. Three long windows at the far end of the single room were shining with the afternoon sun. The building had sagged, which meant the back of the place was considerably lower than the front. The floor had warped as well, and as I looked toward the windows, I noticed bulges in the boards like shallow waves on a lake. The high end of the loft was spare, furnished only with a stool, a table constructed from two sawhorses and an old door, and stereo equipment, surrounded by hundreds of records and tapes in plastic milkcrates. Rows of canvases had been stacked against the wall. The room smelled strongly of paint, turpentine, and must.
All the necessities for daily life had been crowded into the low end. A table knocked up against an old claw-foot bathtub. A double bed had been placed near a table, not far from a sink, and the stove protruded from an opening in an enormous bookcase crammed with books. There were also books piled in stacks on the floor beside it, and dozens more on an armchair that looked as if it hadn't been sat on in years. The chaos of the loft's living quarters revealed not only Bill's poverty but his obliviousness to the objects of domestic life. Time would make him richer, but his indifference to things never changed. He remained curiously unattached to the places where he lived and blind to the details of their arrangements.
Even on that first day, I felt Bill's asceticism, his almost brutal desire for purity and his resistance to compromise. The feeling came both from what he said and from his physical presence. He was calm, soft-spoken, a little restrained in his movements, and yet an intensity of purpose emanated from him and seemed to fill up the room. Unlike other large personalities, Bill wasn't loud or arrogant or uncommonly charming. Nevertheless, when I stood next to him and looked at the paintings, I felt like a dwarf who had just been introduced to a giant. The feeling made my comments sharper and more thoughtful. I was fighting for space.
He showed me six paintings that afternoon. Three were finished. The three others had just been started--sketchy lines and large fields of color. My canvas belonged to the same series, which were all of the dark-haired young woman, but from one work to another, the woman's size fluctuated. In the first painting, she was obese, a mountain of pale flesh in tight nylon shorts and a T-shirt--an image of gluttony and abandon so huge that her body appeared to have been squeezed into the frame. She was clutching a baby's rattle in her fat fist. A man's elongated shadow fell across her right breast and huge belly and then dwindled to a mere line at her hips. In the second, the woman was much thinner. She was lying on a mattress in her underwear looking down at her own body with an expression that seemed to be at once autoerotic and self-critical. She was grippinga large fountain pen in her hand, about twice the size of a normal pen. In the third picture, the woman had gained a few pounds, but she wasn't as plump as the person in the canvas I had bought. She was wearing a ragged flannel nightgown and sitting on the edge of the bed, her thighs casually parted. A pair of red knee socks lay at her feet. When I looked at her legs, I noticed that just below her knees were faint red lines left by the elastic of the socks.
"It reminds me of Jan Steen's painting of the woman at her morning toilet, taking off her sock," I said. "The small painting in the Rijksmuseum."
Bill smiled at me for the first time. "I saw that painting in Amsterdam when I was twenty-three, and it got me thinking about skin. I'm not interested in nudes. They're too arty, but I'm really interested in skin."
For a while we talked about skin in paintings. I mentioned the beautiful red stigmata on the hand of Zurbarán's Saint Francis. Bill talked about the skin color of Grünewald's dead Christ and the rosy skin of Boucher's nudes, whom he referred to as "soft porn ladies." We discussed the changing conventions of crucifixions and pietas and depositions. I said Pontormo's Mannerism had always interested me, and Bill brought up R. Crumb. "I love his rawness," he said. "The ugly courage of his work." I asked him about George Grosz, and Bill nodded.
"A relative," he said. "The two are definitely artistic relatives. Did you ever see Crumb's series Tales from the Land of Genitalia? Penises running around in boots."
"Like Gogol's nose," I said.
Bill showed me medical drawings then, a field I knew little about. He pulled out dozens of books from his shelves with illustrations from different periods--diagrams of medieval humors, eighteenth-century anatomical pictures, a nineteenth-century picture of a man's head with phrenological bumps, and one from around the same time of female genitalia. The latter was a curious drawing of the view between a woman's splayed thighs. We stood beside each other and stared down at the detailed rendering of vulva, clitoris, labia, and the small blackened hole of a vaginal entrance. The lines were harsh and exacting.
"It looks like a diagram for machinery," I said.
"Yes," he said. "I never thought of that." He looked down at the picture. "It's a mean picture. Everything is in the right place, but it's a nasty cartoon. Of course the artist thought it was science."
"I don't think anything is ever just science," I said.
He nodded. "That's the problem with seeing things. Nothing is clear. Feelings, ideas shape what's in front of you. Cézanne wanted the naked world, but the world is never naked. In my work, I want to create doubt." He stopped and smiled at me. "Because that's what we're sure of."
"Is that why you've made your woman fat and thin and in between?" I said.
"To be honest, it was more of an urge than an idea."
"And the mixture of styles?" I said.
Bill walked to the window and lit a cigarette. He inhaled and let the ash drop on the floor. He looked up at me. His large eyes were so penetrating, I wanted to turn away from them, but I didn't. "I'm thirty-one years old, and you're the first person who ever bought one of my paintings, unless you count my mother. I've been working for ten years. Dealers have rejected the work hundreds of times."
"De Kooning didn't have his first show until he was forty," I said.
"You misunderstand me," he said, speaking slowly. "I don't ask that anyone be interested. Why should they be interested? I'm wondering why you are interested."
I told him. We sat down on the floor with the paintings in front of us, and I said that I liked ambiguity, that I liked not knowing where to look on his canvases, that a lot of modern figurative painting bored me, but his pictures didn't. We talked about de Kooning, especially one small work that Bill had found inspiring, Self-portrait with Imaginary Brother. We talked about Hopper's strangeness, and about Duchamp. Bill called him "the knife that cut art to pieces." I thought he meant this in a derogatory way, but then he added, "He was a great con artist. I love him."
When I pointed out the razor stubble he had included on the thinwoman's legs, he said that when he was with another person, his eyes were often drawn to a single detail--a chipped tooth, a Band-Aid on a finger, a vein, a cut, a rash, a mole, and that for a moment the isolated feature took over his vision, and he wanted to reproduce those seconds in his work. "Seeing is flux," he said. I mentioned the hidden narratives in his work, and he said that for him stories were like blood running through a body--paths of a life. It was a revealing metaphor, and I never forgot it. As an artist, Bill was hunting the unseen in the seen. The paradox was that he had chosen to present this invisible movement in figurative painting, which is nothing if not a frozen apparition--a surface.
Bill told me that he had grown up in the New Jersey suburbs, where his father had started a cardboard-box business and eventually made a success of it. His mother volunteered for Jewish charities, was a den mother for the Cub Scouts, and had later gotten a real estate license. Neither of his parents had gone to college, and there were few books in the house. I imagined the green lawns and quiet houses of South Orange--bicycles in driveways, the street signs, the two-car garages. "I was good at drawing," he said, "but for a long time baseball was much more important to me than art."
I told him that I had suffered through sports at the Fieldston School. I was thin and nearsighted and had stood in the outfield and hoped that nobody would hit the ball in my direction. "Any sport that required a utensil was impossible for me," I said. "I could run and I could swim, but put something in my hand and I dropped it."
In high school, Bill began his pilgrimages to the Met, to MoMA, to the Frick, to galleries, and, as he put it, "to the streets." "I liked the streets as much as museums, and I spent hours in the city wandering around, inhaling the garbage." When he was a junior, his parents divorced. That same year he quit the cross-country team, the basketball team, the baseball team. "I stopped working out," he said. "I got thin." Bill went to college at Yale, took studio art, art history, and literature courses. That was where he met Lucille Alcott, whose father was a professor atthe law school. "We were married three years ago," he said. I found myself looking for traces left by a woman in the loft, but I saw nothing. "Is she at work?" I said to him.
"She's a poet. She rents a little room a couple of blocks from here. That's where she writes. She's also a freelance copy editor. She copyedits. I paint and plaster for contractors. We get by."
A sympathetic doctor saved Bill from Vietnam. Throughout his childhood and youth he had suffered from severe allergies. When they were bad his face swelled up and he sneezed so hard he got a neckache. Before he reported to the draft board in Newark, the physician added the phrase "with a tendency toward asthma" to the word "allergies." A couple of years later, a tendency might not have earned Bill 1-Y status, but this was 1966 and the full force of Vietnam resistance was still in the future. After college, he spent a year working as a bartender in New Jersey. He lived with his mother, saved all his earnings, and traveled in Europe for two years. He moved from Rome to Amsterdam to Paris. To keep himself going, he took odd jobs. He worked as a desk clerk for an English magazine in Amsterdam, a tour guide of the catacombs in Rome, and a reader of English novels for an old man in Paris. "When I read to him, I had to lie on the sofa. He was very particular about my position. I had to take off my shoes. It was important to him that he had a clear view of my socks. The money was good, and I put up with it for a week. Then I quit. I took my three hundred francs and left. It was all the money I had in the world. I walked into the street. It was about eleven at night, and there was this wasted old man standing on the sidewalk with his hand out. I gave the money to him."
"Why?" I said.
Bill turned to me. "I don't know. I felt like it. It was stupid, but I never regretted it. It made me feel free. I didn't eat for two days."
"An act of bravado," I said.
He turned to me and said, "Of independence."
"Where was Lucille?"
"She was living in New Haven with her parents. She wasn't very well then. We wrote to each other."
I didn't ask about Lucille's illness. When he mentioned it, he looked away from me, and I saw his eyes narrow in an expression of pain.
I changed the subject. "Why did you call the painting I bought a self-portrait?"
"They're all self-portraits," he said. "While I was working with Violet, I realized that I was mapping out a territory in myself I hadn't seen before, or maybe a territory between her and me. The title popped into my head, and I used it. Self-portrait seemed right."
"Who is she?" I said.
"Violet Blom. She's a graduate student at NYU. She gave me that drawing I showed you--the one that looks like machinery."
"What's she studying?"
"History. She's writing about hysteria in France at the turn of the century." Bill lit another cigarette and glanced at the ceiling. "She's a very smart girl--unusual." He blew the smoke up, and I watched its faint circles combine with specks of dust in the window light.
"I don't think most men would portray themselves as a woman. You borrowed her to show yourself. What does she think?"
He laughed for an instant and then said, "She likes it. She says it's subversive, especially because I like women, not men."
"And the shadows?" I asked him.
"They're mine, too."
"Too bad," I said. "I thought they were mine."
Bill looked at me. "They can be yours, too." He gripped my lower arm with his hand and shook it. This sudden gesture of camaraderie, even affection, made me unusually happy. I have thought about it often, because that small exchange about shadows altered the course of my life. It marks the moment when a meandering conversation between two men took an irrevocable turn toward friendship.
"She floated through the dance," Bill said to me a week later over coffee. "She didn't seem to know how pretty she was. I chased her for years. It was on again and off again. Something kept bringing me back." Bill madeno mention of Lucille's illness in the following weeks, but the way he talked about her led me to think she was frail, a woman who needed protection from something he had chosen not to talk about.
The first time I saw Lucille Alcott, she was standing in the doorway of the Bowery loft, and I thought she looked like a woman in a Flemish painting. She had pale skin, light brown hair, which she had tied back, and large, almost lashless blue eyes. Erica and I had been invited to have dinner on the Bowery. It was raining that November night, and while we ate we heard the rain on the roof above us. Somebody had swept the floor of dust and ashes and cigarette butts for our visit, and somebody had put a large white cloth over Bill's worktable and set eight candles on top of it. Lucille took credit for cooking the meal, a tasteless brown concoction of unrecognizable vegetables. When Erica politely inquired after the name of the dish, Lucille looked down at her plate and said in perfect French, "Flageolets aux légumes." She paused, raised her eyes, and smiled. "But the flageolets seem to be traveling incognito." After stopping for a second, she continued, "I would like to cook more attentively. It called for parsley." She peered down at her plate. "I left out the parsley. Bill would prefer meat. He ate a lot of meat before, but he knows that I don't cook meat, because I have convinced myself that it is not good for us. I don't understand what it is about recipes. I am very particular when I write. I am always worrying about verbs."
"Her verbs are terrific," Bill said and poured Erica more wine.
Lucille looked at her husband and smiled a little stiffly. I didn't understand the uneasiness of the smile, because Bill's comment had been made without irony. He had told me several times how much he admired her poems and had promised to give me copies of them.
Behind Lucille, I could see the obese portrait of Violet Blom and wondered if Bill's craving for meat had been translated into that huge female body, but later my theory was proven wrong. When we had lunch together, I often saw Bill chewing happily on corned-beef sandwiches, hamburgers, and BLTs.
"I make rules for myself," Lucille said about her poems. "Not the usual rules of metrics, but an anatomy I choose, and then I dissect it.Numbers are helpful. They're clear, irrefutable. Some of the lines are numbered." Everything Lucille said was characterized by a similarly rigid bluntness. She seemed to make no concessions to decorous conversation or small talk. At the same time, underneath nearly every remark she made, I felt a strain of humor. She talked as if she were observing her own sentences, looking at them from afar, judging their sounds and shapes even as they came from her mouth. Every word she spoke rang with honesty, and yet this earnestness was matched by a simultaneous irony. Lucille amused herself by occupying two positions at once. She was both the subject and object of her own statements.
I don't think Erica heard Lucille's comment about rules. She was talking about novels with Bill. I can't imagine that Bill had heard it either, but during the discussion between them, rules came up again. Erica leaned toward Bill and smiled. "So you agree, the novel is a bag that can hold anything."
"Tristram Shandy, chapter four, on Horace's ab ovo," Bill said, pointing his index finger at the ceiling. He began to quote, as if he were hearing an inaudible voice somewhere to his right. "'Horace, I know, does not recommend this fashion altogether: but that gentleman is speaking only of an epic poem or a tragedy--(I forgot which);--besides, if it was not so, I should beg Mr. Horace's pardon;--for in writing what I have set about, I shall confine myself neither to his rules, nor to any man's rules that ever lived." Bill's voice rose on the final clause, and Erica threw back her head and laughed. They meandered from Henry James to Samuel Beckett to Louis-Ferdinand Celine as Erica discovered for herself that Bill was a voracious reader of novels. It launched a friendship between them that had little to do with me. By the time our dessert arrived--a weary-looking fruit salad--Erica was inviting him to Rutgers to speak to her students. Bill hesitated at first, and then agreed.
Erica was too polite to ignore Lucille, who was sitting beside her, and some time after she asked Bill to visit one of her classes, she focused all her attention on Lucille. My wife nodded at Lucille when she listened, and when she talked her face was a map of shifting emotions and thoughts. In contrast, Lucille's composed face betrayed almost no feeling. As theevening went on, her peculiar remarks gained a kind of philosophical rhythm, the clipped tone of a tortured logic, which reminded me a little of reading Wittgenstein's Tractatus. When Erica told Lucille she knew of her father by reputation, Lucille said, "Yes, his reputation as a law professor is very good." After a moment, she added, "I would have liked to study law, but I couldn't. I used to try to read my father's law books in his library. I was eleven. I knew that one sentence led to another, but by the time I got to the second sentence, I had forgotten the first, and then during the third, I forgot the second."
"You were only eleven," Erica said.
"No," she said. "It was not my age. I still forget."
"Forgetting," I said, "is probably as much a part of life as remembering. We're all amnesiacs."
"But if we've forgotten," Lucille said, turning to me, "we don't always remember that we forgot, so that to remember that we forgot is not exactly forgetting, is it?"
I smiled at her and said, "I'm looking forward to reading your work. Bill's talked about it with a lot of admiration."
Bill lifted his glass. "To our work," he said loudly. "To letters and to paint." He had let himself go and I could see he was a little drunk. His voice cracked on the word "paint." I found his high spirits endearing, but when I turned to Lucille with my glass lifted for the toast, she smiled that tense, forced smile a second time. It was hard to tell whether her husband had brought on that expression or whether it was merely the result of her own inhibition.
Before we left, Lucille handed me two small magazines in which her work had appeared. When I shook her hand, she took mine limply. I squeezed her palm in return, and she didn't seem to mind. Bill hugged me good-bye, and he hugged and kissed Erica. His eyes were shiny with wine, and he smelled of cigarettes. In the doorway, he put his arm around Lucille's shoulder and pulled her close to him. Next to her husband, she looked very small and very self-conscious.
It was still raining when we stepped outside onto the Bowery.
After I put up our umbrella, Erica turned to me and said, "Did you notice that she was wearing the loafers?"
"What are you talking about?" I said.
"Lucille was wearing the shoes, or rather the shoe, in our painting. She's the woman walking away."
I looked at Erica, absorbing her statement. "I guess I didn't look at her feet."
"I'm surprised. You looked pretty closely at the rest of her." Erica grinned, and I saw that she was teasing me. "Don't you find that evocative about the shoe, Leo? And then there's the other woman. Every time I looked up, I saw her--that skinny girl looking down at her underpants, a little greedy and excited. She looked so alive, I felt like they should have set a place for her at the table."
I pulled Erica toward me with my free hand, and holding the umbrella over us, I kissed her. After the kiss, she put her arm around my waist and we walked toward Canal Street. "Well," she said, "I wonder what her work is like."
All three of the poems Lucille had published were similar--works of obsessive, analytic scrutiny that hovered somewhere between the funny and the sad. I remember only four lines from those poems, because they were unusually poignant, and I repeated them to myself. "A woman sits by the window. She thinks / And while she thinks, she despairs / She despairs because she is who she is / And not somebody else."
The doctors tell me that it won't come to blindness. I have a condition called macular degeneration--clouds in my eyes. I have been nearsighted since I was eight years old. Blur is nothing new to me, but with glasses I used to see everything perfectly. I still have my peripheral vision, but directly in front of me there is always a ragged gray spot, and it's growing thicker. My pictures of the past are still vivid. It's the present that's been affected, and those people who were in my past and whom I still see have turned into beings blotted by clouds. This truth startled mein the beginning, but I have discovered from fellow patients and from my doctors that what I have experienced is perfectly normal. Lazlo Finkelman, for example, who comes several times a week to read to me, has lost some definition, and neither my memory of him from before my eyes dimmed nor my peripheral vision is enough to sustain a clear picture. I can say what Lazlo looks like, because I remember the words I used to describe him to myself--narrow pale face, tall bush of blond hair that stands straight up at attention, black glasses with large frames over small gray eyes. But when I look straight at him now, his face won't come into focus, and the words I once used are left hanging. The person they are meant to delineate is a clouded version of an earlier picture I can no longer bring fully to mind, because my eyes are too tired to be always peeking at him from the side. More and more, I rely on Lazlo's voice. But in his even, quiet tone as he reads to me, I have found new sides to his cryptic personality--resonances of feeling that I never saw on his face.
Even though my eyes have been crucial to my work, poor vision is preferable to senility. I can't see well enough anymore to wander through galleries or return to museums to look at works I know by heart. Nevertheless, I keep a catalogue in my mind of remembered paintings, and I can leaf through it and usually find the work I need. In class, I have given up using a pointer for slides, and refer to details instead of pointing at them. My remedy for insomnia these days is to search for the mental image of a painting and work to see it again as clearly as possible. Lately, I've been calling up Piero della Francesca. Over forty years ago, I wrote my dissertation on his De prospectiva pingendi, and by concentrating on the rigorous geometries of his paintings I once analyzed so closely, I fend off other pictures that rise up to torment me and keep me awake. I shut out noises from the street and the intruder I imagine is lurking on the fire escape outside my room. The technique has been working. Last night, the Urbino panels began to melt into my own semisleep dreams, and soon after, I lost consciousness.
For some time, I have had to struggle to ward off dread when I lie alone and try to sleep. My mind is large, but my body feels smaller than itonce did, as though I am steadily shrinking. My fantasy of reduction is probably connected to growing older and more vulnerable. The circle of a lifetime has begun to close, and I've been thinking more often about my early childhood--what I can remember from Mommsenstrasse 11 in Berlin. It isn't that I recall every part of the apartment where we lived, but I can still take the mental walk up two flights of stairs and past the window with etched glass to our door. Once inside, I know that my father's office is to the left and the parlor rooms lie ahead of me. Although I have retained only a few details of the apartment's furniture and objects, I have a general memory of its spaces--of its large rooms, high ceilings, and changing light. My room was located down a small corridor off the apartment's biggest room. That was where my father played the cello on the third Thursday of every month with three other musical doctors, and I remember that my mother would open the door to my room so that I could hear them play while I was lying in bed. I can still walk through the door of my room and climb up onto the window casement. I climb, because in memory I am as tall as I was then. Below I can see the courtyard at night, detect the lines of the paving bricks and the blackness of the bushes. When I take this walk, the apartment is always empty. I move through it like a phantom, and I have begun to wonder what actually happens in our brains when we return to half-remembered places. What is memory's perspective? Does the man revise the boy's view or is the imprint relatively static, a vestige of what was once intimately known?
Cicero's speaker walked through spacious, well-lit rooms he remembered and dropped words onto tables and chairs where they could be easily retrieved. No doubt I have assigned a vocabulary to the architecture of my first five years--one mediated through the mind of a man who knows the horror that would arrive after the little boy was gone from the apartment. During the last year we were in Berlin, my mother left a light burning in the hallway to calm me before I slept. I had nightmares, and I would wake to a strangling fear and the sound of my own screaming. Nervös was the word my father used--Das Kind ist nervös. My parents didn't speak to me about the Nazis, only about our preparations to leavehome, and it's hard to know to what degree my childish fears were related to the fear that every Jew in Germany must have felt at the time. The way my mother told it was that she was taken by surprise. A party whose views had seemed absurd and contemptible suddenly and inexplicably took hold of the country. Both she and my father were patriotic, and while they were still in Berlin, they regarded National Socialism as something distinctly un-German.
On August 13. 1935, my parents and I left for Paris, and from there we traveled to London. My mother packed sandwiches for the train--brown bread with sausage. I remember the sandwich on my lap, because beside it on a wrinkled square of wax paper was a Mohrenkopf--a ball of pastry filled with custard and covered with chocolate. I have no memory of eating it, but I distinctly recall my delight at the thought that it would soon be mine. The Mohrenkopf is vivid. I see it in the light of the train window. I see my bare knees and the hem of my navy blue shorts. That is all that remains of our exodus. Around the Mohrenkopf is emptiness, a void that can be filled with other people's stories, historical accounts, numbers, and facts. Not until I turned six do I have anything like a continuous memory, and by then I was living in Hampstead. Only weeks after I was sitting on that train, the Nuremberg Laws were passed. Jews were no longer citizens of the Reich, and the opportunities to leave had diminished. My grandmother, my uncle and aunt, and their twin daughters, Anna and Ruth, never left. We were living in New York when my father found out that his family had been pushed onto a train for Auschwitz in June of 1944. They were all murdered. I keep their photographs in my drawer--my grandmother in an elegant hat with a feather standing beside my grandfather, who would be killed in 1917 at Flanders. I have the formal wedding portrait of my Uncle David and Aunt Marta, and a picture of the twins in short wool coats with ribbons in their hair. Beneath each girl in the white border of the photo, Marta wrote their names, to avoid confusion. Anna on the left, Ruth on the right. The black-and-white figures of the photographs have had to stand in place of my memory, and yet I have always felt that their unmarked graves became a part of me. What was unwritten then is inscribed into what I call myself.The longer I live the more convinced I am that when I say "I," I am really saying "we."
In Bill's last finished portrait of Violet Blom, she was naked and starved. Her entire body was darkened by the enormous shadow of an unseen spectator who loomed over her. When I stood close to the canvas, I noticed that parts of her body were covered with a fine hair. Bill called it "lanugo" and said that the starving body often grows hair for protection. He said that he had spent hours studying medical and documentary photographs to get it right. Her skeletal body was painful to look at, and her huge eyes gleamed as if she had a fever. Bill had painted her emaciated body in color, first rendering her with painstaking realism and then going over her body with bold, expressionistic strokes, using blue and green and dabs of red on her thighs and neck. The black-and-white background resembled an aging photograph, like the ones I keep in my drawer. On the floor behind Violet were several pairs of shoes--men's, women's, and children's, painted in gray tones. When I asked Bill if this portrait referred to the death camps, he said yes, and we talked about Adorno for over an hour. The philosopher had said there could be no art after the camps.
I knew Bernie Weeks through a colleague at Columbia, Jack Newman. The Weeks Gallery on West Broadway had done well, because Bernie had a talent for sniffing out new artists, and he had connections. He was one of those people in New York who was purported to "know everybody." "Knowing everybody" is a phrase that denotes not having many relations with people but having relations with a few people generally thought to be significant and powerful. When I introduced Bernie to Bill, Bernie was probably about forty-five, but his age was subsumed by his youthful presence. He wore immaculate, up-to-the-minute suits with brightly colored sneakers. The casual shoes gave him a faint air of eccentricity always welcome in the art world, but they also added to what I thought of as Bernie's bounce. He never stopped moving. He ran up stairs, hopped into elevators, rocked back and forth on his heels when heexamined a piece of art, and jiggled his knees through most conversations. By drawing attention to his feet, he alerted the world to his indefatigable go-getting and nonstop pursuit of newness. He had a breathless patter to go with the bounce, and his speech, although sometimes fractured, was never stupid. I pushed Bernie to look at Bill's work and had Jack call Bernie as well. Jack had already been to Bill's studio and had become a convert to what he called "the growing and shrinking Violets."
I wasn't on the Bowery when Bernie came to look at the work, but it ended as I had hoped. The paintings were shown the following fall. "They're weird," Bernie said to me. "Good weird. I think the fat/thin angle is going to fly. Everybody's on a diet, for Christ's sake, and the self-portrait bit. It's good. It's a little risky to show new figurative work right now, but he's got something. And, I like the quotations. Vermeer, de Kooning, and Guston after his revolution."
By the time the show opened, Violet Blom had flown off to Paris. I met her just once before she left--on the stairway in 89 Bowery. I was coming. She was going. I recognized her, introduced myself, and she paused on the steps. Violet was more beautiful than Bill's paintings of her. She had large green eyes with dark lashes that dominated her round face. Curling brown hair fell over her shoulders, and although her body was hidden under a long coat, I came to the conclusion that she was not thin but didn't qualify as chubby either. She shook my hand warmly, said she had heard all about me, and added, "I love the fat one with the taxi." She then said she was sorry she had to run and raced down the stairs. As I continued my climb, I heard her call my name. When I turned around, I saw that she was already standing in front of the door to the street. "You don't mind if I call you Leo, do you?" I shook my head.
She ran back up the stairs, stopped a couple of steps below me, and said, "Bill really likes you." She hesitated. "I'm going away, you see. I'd like to be able to think that you're there for him."
I nodded. She took a couple more steps, reached up for my shoulder, and squeezed it as if to confirm that she really meant what she was saying. Then she stood very still and looked straight at me for several seconds. "You have a nice face," she said. "Especially your nose. You have abeautiful nose." Before I had time to respond to this compliment, she had turned around and was running down the steps. I watched the door slam behind her.
That night when I brushed my teeth and for many nights after, I examined my nose in the mirror. I turned my head to one side and then to the other and tried to catch a glimpse of my profile. I had never spent much time on my nose, had rather disparaged it than admired it, and I can't say that I found it particularly attractive, but that feature in the middle of my face was nevertheless changed forever, transformed by the words of a beautiful young woman, whose image I saw every day hanging on my wall.
Bill asked me to write an essay for the show. I had never written about a living artist and Bill had never been written about before. The little work I called "Multiple Selves" has now been reprinted and translated into several languages, but at the time I regarded its twelve pages as an act of admiration and friendship. There was no catalogue. The essay was stapled together and handed out at the opening. I wrote it over a period of three months, between correcting papers and committee meetings and student conferences, jotting down thoughts as they came to me after class and on the subway. Bernie knew that Bill needed critical support if he was going "to get away with" his work at a moment when minimalism reigned in most galleries. The argument I made was that Bill's art referred to the history of Western painting but turned its assumptions inside out, and that he did it in a way that was essentially different from earlier modernists. By including a viewer's shadow in each canvas, Bill called attention to the space between the viewer and the painting where the real action of all painting takes place--a picture becomes itself in the moment of being seen. But the space the viewer occupies also belongs to the painter. The viewer stands in the painter's position and looks at a self-portrait, but what he or she sees is not an image of the man who has signed the painting in the right-hand corner but somebody else: a woman. Looking at women in painting is an established erotic convention that essentially turns every viewer into a man dreaming of sexual conquest. Any number of great painters have painted pictures of womenthat subvert the fantasy--Giorgione, Rubens, Vermeer, Manet--but as far as I know not a single male painter has ever announced to the viewer that the woman was himself. It was Erica who elaborated the point one evening. "The truth is," she said, "we all have a man and a woman inside us. We're made from a father and a mother, after all. When I'm looking at a beautiful, sexy woman in a picture, I'm always both her and the person who's looking at her. The eroticism comes from the fact that I can imagine I'm him looking at me. You have to be both people or nothing will happen."
Erica was sitting up in bed reading the indecipherable work of Jacques Lacan when she made this statement. She was wearing a sleeveless cotton nightgown cut low at the neck, and she had tied her hair back, so that I could see her soft earlobes. "Thank you, Professor Stein," I said to her, and put my hand on her belly. "Is there really someone in there?" Erica put her book down and kissed me on the forehead. She was almost three months pregnant, and it was still our secret. The exhaustion and nausea of the first two months had lifted, but Erica had changed. There were days when she shone with happiness and other days when she seemed always to be on the brink of tears. Erica had never been steady, but her moods were even more volatile now. One morning at breakfast she sobbed noisily over an article about foster care in New York City that featured a four-year-old boy named Joey who had been booted out of one home after another. One night she woke up weeping after she dreamed that she left her newborn on a ship and it sailed away as she stood on the dock. Another afternoon, I found her sitting on the sofa with tears streaming down her cheeks. When I asked her what was the matter, she sniffled and said, "Life is sad, Leo. I've been sitting here thinking about how sad it all is."
These changes in my wife, physical and emotional, also affected my essay on Bill. Violet's body, which grew and shrank in the canvases, did more than hint at fertility and its transformations. One of the fantasies between the viewer/painter and the female object had to be impregnation. After all, conception is plurality--the two in the one--the male and the female. After he read the piece, Bill grinned. He shook his head andfelt his unshaven face before he said a word to me. In spite of my confidence, I felt a rush of anxiety. "It's good," he said. "It's very good. Of course half of it never crossed my mind." Bill was silent for about a minute. He hesitated, seemed about to speak, and then paused again. Finally, he said, "We haven't told anybody yet, but Lucille is two months pregnant. We've been trying for over a year. The whole time I was working with Violet, we were hoping that we would have a child." After I told Bill about Erica, he said, "I've always wanted kids, Leo, lots of kids. For years I've had this daydream about traveling around the world and populating the earth. I like to imagine myself as the father of hundreds, thousands of children." I laughed when he said it, but I never forgot that fantasy of extravagant potency and multiplication. Bill dreamed of covering the earth with himself.
About halfway through his own opening, Bill disappeared. He told me later that he went to Fanelli's for a Scotch. He had looked pretty miserable from the start as he stood under the NO SMOKING sign, inhaling deeply on a cigarette and tapping the ashes into the pocket of a jacket that was too small for him. Bernie always attracted a good crowd. The guests milled about the big white space with glasses of wine and talked loudly. My essay sat on the desk in a pile. I had given papers at conferences and seminars, had published in journals and magazines, but my work had never been distributed as a leaflet. The novelty pleased me, and I surveyed the takers. A pretty redhead picked it up and read the first few sentences. I felt particularly gratified when she moved her lips as she read. It seemed to suggest an added interest in my words. The piece had also been taped to the wall, and a few people glanced at it. One young man wearing leather pants appeared to read it in its entirety. Jack Newman showed up and slouched around the gallery, one eyebrow raised in an expression of bemused irony. Erica introduced Jack to Lucille, and he cornered her for a good half hour. Every time I looked up, I saw him leaning over her, an inch closer than he should have been. Jack had been married and divorced twice. His lack of success with wives hadn't stoppedhim from pursuing less permanent encounters, and his wit more than compensated for his lack of physical charm. Jack was comfortable with his jowly face, big belly, and stubby legs, and he made women comfortable with them, too. I had seen him go after the most unlikely people time and time again and succeed. He seduced them with the well-turned compliment. I watched his mouth move as he stood beside Lucille, and I wondered what baroque quips he was using on her that evening. When Jack sidled up to me later to say good-bye, he rubbed his jaw, looked me straight in the eyes, and said, "So what about Wechsler's wife? Do you think she melts in the sack or stays frozen?"
"I have no idea," I said. "But I hope you don't have any leanings in that direction. She's not one of your student nymphettes, and she's pregnant, for God's sake."
Jack lifted his palms toward me and gave me a look of mock horror. "Heaven forbid," he said. "The thought never entered my mind."
Before Bill escaped to Fanelli's, he introduced me to his parents. Regina Wechsler, who had become Regina Cohen after her second marriage, was a tall, attractive woman with a large bust, thick black hair, considerable amounts of gold jewelry, and a sweet, lilting voice. When she spoke, she cocked her head sideways and glanced up at me from under her long eyelashes. She undulated her shoulders as she declared the evening "wonderful" and referred to the toilet, before she went off to use it, as "the powder room." And yet Regina wasn't all artifice. She sized up the soberly dressed crowd in a few seconds, pointed to her red suit, and said, "I feel like a fire engine." She let out a deep, sudden laugh, and her humor cut straight through her posing. Her husband, Al, was a pink-faced man with a square jaw and a deep voice, who seemed genuinely interested in Bill and his work. "They take you by surprise, don't they?" he said about the paintings, and I had to agree.
Before Regina left, I saw her hand Bill a letter. I was standing right beside her, and I suppose she thought I deserved an explanation. "It's from his brother Dan, who couldn't be here tonight." An instant later, she turned to Bill and said, "Your father just walked in. I'm going to say hello to him before we leave."
I watched Regina approach a tall man who had just come out of the elevator. The resemblance between father and son was striking. Sy Wechsler had a narrower face than Bill, but his dark eyes and skin, his broad shoulders and strong limbs were so much like his son's that the two could have been mistaken for each other if viewed from behind, a fact I would remember later when Bill began a portrait series of his father. While Regina spoke to him, Sy nodded and answered, but his expression was vague. I guessed that the encounter was awkward for him and that he was bearing up by adopting a polite but distant attitude toward his ex-wife, but the expression on his face never changed. When he approached Bill, he stuck out his hand and Bill shook it. He thanked his father for coming and introduced me. When we shook hands, I looked into the man's eyes and he returned the look, but there was little recognition in his face. He nodded at me, said, "Congratulations and good luck," and then turned to his pregnant daughter-in-law and said exactly the same thing. He did not comment on his forthcoming grandchild, who by then was a small bump under Lucille's dress. He glanced at the paintings as if they were the work of some stranger, and left the gallery. I don't know whether the suddenness of his father's arrival and departure rattled Bill enough to make him leave or whether it was just the pressure of finding himself under scrutiny by an art world he feared might reject him.
As it turned out, the critics both rejected and accepted him. That first show set the tone for the rest of Bill's career. He would always have passionate defenders and violent detractors, but as painful or pleasant as it might have been for Bill to be hated by some people and worshiped by others, he would become far more important to reviewers and journalists than they ever would be to him. By the time of his first show, Bill was already too old and too stubborn to be swayed by critics. He was the most private person I have ever known, and only a few people were ever allowed to enter the secret room of his imagination. It is ironic and sad that perhaps the most important inhabitant of that room was and would always be Bill's father. Alive, Sy Wechsler was the incarnation of his son's unfulfilled longing. He was one of those people who were never fullypresent at the events of their own lives. A part of him was not there, and it was this absent quality in his father that Bill never stopped pursuing--even after the man was dead.
Bill showed up for the small dinner at Bernie's loft after the opening, but he was mostly silent, and we all went home early. The next day, a Saturday, I went to see him on the Bowery. Lucille was visiting her parents in New Haven, and Bill told me the story of his father. Sy's parents were immigrants who had left Russia as small children and ended up on the Lower East Side. Bill told me that his grandfather had abandoned his wife and three children when Sy, the oldest, was ten. The story in the family was that Moishe ran off to Canada with another woman, where he became a wealthy man and fathered three other children. At his grandmother's funeral, Bill had met a woman named Esther Feuerstein, and it was through Esther that he learned what no one in the family had ever mentioned. The day after her husband left, Rachael Wechsler had walked into the tiny kitchen in their tenement on Rivington Street and stuck her head in the oven. It was Sy who had pounded on Esther's door and Sy who helped Esther pull a screaming Rachael away from the gas. Despite her encounter with early death, Bill's grandmother lived to be eighty-nine years old. His description of the old lady was unsentimental. "She was nuts," he said. "She used to howl at me in Yiddish, and when I didn't understand her, she'd whack me with her purse."
"My father always favored Dan," Bill said. He didn't make this statement with any bitterness. I already knew that Dan had been an unstable, high-strung child and that sometime in his early twenties he had had a schizophrenic breakdown. Since then, Bill's younger brother had been in and out of hospitals and halfway houses and mental health clinics. Bill said that his father was touched by weakness, that he had a natural attraction to people who needed a helping hand. One of Bill's cousins had Down's syndrome, and Sy Wechsler had never forgotten Larry's birthday, although he sometimes forgot his older son's. "I want you to read the note Dan sent me," Bill said. "It will give you a good idea of what goes on in his head. He's mad, but he's not stupid. I sometimes think he'sgot the life of at least five people in him." Bill handed me a wrinkled, smudged piece of paper, written by hand.
CHARGE BRO THE RS W.! REACH THE ACHE! HEAR THE BEAT. TO THE ROSE, THE COAT, THE CAR, THE RATS, THE BOAT. TO BEER. TO WAR. TO HERE. TO THERE. TO HER. WE WERE, ARE HER. LOVE, DAN (I) EL. (NO) DENIAL.
After I read the note, I said, "It's a kind of anagram."
"It took me a while to figure it out, but if you look at it closely, all the words in the poem are made up of the letters in the first line--except the last ones, when he signs off."
"Who is the 'her'? Did he know about your paintings?"
"My mother might have told him. He writes plays, too. Some of them rhyme. Dan's sickness isn't anybody's fault. I think my mother always felt that something was wrong, even when he was a baby, but at the same time, it didn't help that my parents were, well, not really together. By the time he was born, my mother was pretty disappointed. I don't think she had had any idea who she was marrying. By the time she found out, it was too late."
I suppose we are all the products of our parents' joy and suffering. Their emotions are written into us, as much as the inscriptions made by their genes. That afternoon, sitting in a chair not far from the bathtub, while Bill sat on the floor, I told him about my father's death, a story I had only told to Erica. I was seventeen when my father died. He had three strokes. The first one paralyzed his left side, which distorted hisface and made speaking difficult. He slurred his speech. He complained of a cloud in his brain that snatched words from his consciousness, and he spent hours typing out sentences with his good hand, often pausing for minutes to retrieve a missing phrase. I hated the sight of my debilitated father. I still dream that I wake up and find that a leg or arm is paralyzed or has simply dropped off my body. My father was a proud, formal man whose relation to me was principally one of answering my questions, sometimes more thoroughly than I wished. A question of only a few seconds could easily yield a half-hour lecture. My father didn't talk down to me. He had great confidence in my understanding, but the truth was that his discourses on the nervous system or the heart or liberalism or Machiavelli often bored me. And yet, I never wanted him to stop talking. I liked to have his eyes on me, liked to sit near him, and I would wait for the signs of affection that always concluded his talks--a pat on my arm, on my knee, or the tender quiver in his voice when he rounded off his speech by saying my name.
In New York, my father read the Aufbau, a weekly paper for German Jews in America. During the war it published lists of missing people, and my father read every name before he read anything else in the paper. I dreaded the arrival of the Aufbau, dreaded my father's absorption, his hunched shoulders, the blank look on his face as he read down the lists. The hunt for his family took place in silence. He never said, I am checking to see if their names are here. He said nothing. My mother and I choked on his silence, but we never never interrupted it by speaking.
The third stroke killed him. My mother found him dead beside her in the morning. I had never seen or heard my mother cry, but that morning she let out a terrible wail that brought me running to my parents' bedroom. She told me in a strange, tough voice that Otto was dead, shooed me out of the room, and closed the door behind her. I stood outside the door and listened to her low guttural noises, to her muffled cries and hoarse gasps. It was never clear to me how long I stood there, but after some time she opened the door. Her face was calm then and her posture unusually erect. She told me to come in, and we sat beside my father'sbody for several minutes before she stood up and walked into the other room to use the telephone. My father wasn't terrible to look at, but the change from life to death scared me. The blinds on the windows were still drawn, and along their bottoms I noticed two brilliant lines of sun. I studied them as I sat there in the room alone with my father.
When Erica and Lucille were both about five months pregnant, I took a snapshot of the two of them in our loft. Erica is grinning at the camera, and she has her arm securely around Lucille's shoulders, who looks small and shy but contented at the same time. Her left hand is laid protectively on her belly and her chin is lowered as she looks up. One side of her mouth has twisted itself into an obliging smile. Pregnancy suited Lucille. It softened her, and the picture is a reminder to me of a gentleness in her personality that was more often hidden than not.
In her fourth month, Erica started humming, and she hummed until our son was born. She hummed at breakfast. She hummed on her way out the door in the morning. She hummed at her desk while she worked on her "Three Dialogues" paper--the one on Martin Buber, M. M. Bakhtin, and Jacques Lacan, which she delivered at a conference at NYU two and a half months before she gave birth. The humming drove me crazy, but I strove to be tolerant. When I asked her to stop, she would always look up at me with startled eyes and say, "Was I humming?"
During their pregnancies, Erica and Lucille became friends. They compared internal kicks and belly size. They went shopping for minuscule outfits and laughed like two conspirators about their squashed bladders, protruding navels, and large bra sizes. Erica laughed louder. Although Lucille never lost her reticence, she seemed to relax more with Erica than with other people. And yet, after the babies were born, there was a shift in Lucille toward Erica--a barely perceptible hint of coolness. I did not see it or feel it until Erica pointed it out, and even then I doubted the truth of it for a long time. Lucille was not socially graceful. Her manners had a blunt, uncivil edge and, on top of that, she was probably exhaustedfrom the rigors of caring for an infant. My arguments usually convinced Erica until she felt it again: the tiny sting of possible rejection--always ambiguous, always subject to many interpretations.
When I saw Lucille, we talked about poetry. She continued to give me the little magazines that published her, and I took time with the poems and made comments on them. My comments were usually questions--about form, about choices she had made or not made, and she talked eagerly to me about her use of commas and periods and her preference for simple diction. Her ability to focus on these details was extraordinary, and I enjoyed our conversations. Erica didn't like Lucille's poems. She once confided in me that reading them was "like eating dust." Lucille may have divined Erica's distaste for her work and instinctively withdrawn from that disapproval, or she might not have liked the fact that Erica eagerly embraced Bill's literary opinions and sometimes called him for a reference or just to ask him a question. I don't know, but as time wore on, I understood that the two women were no longer close, and that the more Lucille withdrew from Erica, the more she seemed interested in me.
About two weeks after I took the photograph of Erica and Lucille, Sy Wechsler dropped dead of a heart attack. It happened early one evening after work while he was taking in the mail. Wechsler lived alone, and it was his brother Morris who found him the next morning, lying near the kitchen table with bills, a couple of business letters, and several catalogues on the floor beside him. No one had expected Wechsler to die. He did not smoke or drink, and he ran three miles a day. Bill and his Uncle Morris made the funeral arrangements, and Sy's youngest brother flew in from California with his wife and two children. After the funeral, Bill and Morris cleaned out the big house in South Orange, and when that task was over, Bill started drawing. He drew hundreds of pictures of his father, both from memory and from photographs. Bill had produced very little since his first show, not because he didn't want to work but because he needed to earn money. Two of the Violet paintings had sold to collectors, but the money they brought in had disappeared quickly. Once Bill knew he and Lucille were going to have a child, he had takenevery plastering job he was offered, and after grinding days on a contracting site, he was often too tired to do anything but sleep. Sy Wechsler left $300,000 to each of his sons, and with his share of the money, Bill transformed his life.
The loft above us at 27 Greene Street was up for sale. Bill and Lucille bought it, and by early August of 1977 they had moved in. The rent on the Bowery was low, and Bill kept it as his studio. The money, Bill told me, "will buy us time to do our own work." But that summer, Bill had few hours to spare for painting. All day, every day, he sawed, hammered, drilled, and breathed in dust. He erected Sheetrock walls in the raw space to make rooms. He laid tile in the bathroom once the plumber had installed the fixtures. He built closets and put in lights and hung the kitchen cabinets, and at night he would return to the Bowery and his sleeping wife and draw his father. It was grief as energy. Bill understood that his father's death had given him a new beginning and that the gargantuan physical labors of that summer were finally spiritual. He worked in the name of his father for his unborn son.
In early August, only days before Matthew was born, Bernie Weeks and I walked to the Bowery in the late afternoon to take a look at Bill's early plans for a new series of paintings--which were developing out of the drawings of his father. While Bernie was flipping through the drawings of Sy Wechsler--sitting, standing, running, sleeping--he paused at one and said, "You know, I had a nice conversation with your father once."
"At the opening," Bill said flatly.
"No, it was a couple of weeks after. He came back to look at the paintings. I recognized him, and we chatted for two or three minutes."
In a startled voice, Bill said, "You met him in the gallery?"
"I thought you knew," Bernie said casually. "He was there for at least an hour. He took his time, going very slowly. He would look at one for quite a while and then move on to the next one."
"He went back," Bill said. "He went back and looked at them."
The story of his father's return visit to the Weeks Gallery never left Bill. It became the single concrete sign he had of his father's affection forhim. Before that, Sy's long days at the box business, his appearances at the occasional Little League game, school play, or first art opening had had to suffice as markers of his father's paternal duty and goodwill. Bernie's story added a layer to Bill's internal portrait of his father. It also had the irrational effect of confirming his loyalty to the Weeks Gallery. Bill confused the messenger and the message, but it hardly mattered. As Bernie rocked back and forth on his heels in front of several mounted drawings of Sy Wechsler and ran his fingers through the keys and papers and debris that Bill said would be mounted onto the canvases, I sensed his excitement. Bernie was in for the long haul.
Birth is violent, bloody, and painful, and all the rhetoric to the contrary will not convince me that I am wrong. I have heard the stories of women squatting in the fields, snapping umbilical cords with their teeth, strapping their newborns onto their backs, and picking up the scythe, but I wasn't married to those women. I was married to Erica. We went to Lamaze classes together and listened attentively to Jean Romer's breathing advice. A stocky woman in bermuda shorts and thick-soled sneakers, Jean referred to birth as "the great adventure" and to the members of her class as "moms" and "coaches." Erica and I watched films of athletic, smiling women doing deep knee bends during their labors and breathing their babies out of them. We practiced panting and blowing as we silently corrected Jean's grammar every time she told us "to lay down on the floor." At forty-seven, I was the second-to-oldest father-to-be in the class. The oldest was a bullish man in his sixties named Harry who had been married before, had grown-up children, and was now working on his second child from his second wife, who looked like a teenager but was probably well into her twenties.
Matthew was born on August 12, 1977, at St. Vincent's Hospital. I stood beside Erica and watched her agonized face, squirming body, and clenched fists. Every once in a while I reached for her hand, but she batted me away and shook her head. Erica did not scream, but down the hallway in another labor room, a woman shrieked and wailed at the topof her lungs, pausing only to swear both in Spanish and in English. She too must have had a "coach" with her, because after a few seconds of surprising silence, we heard her yell, "Fuck you, Johnny! Fuck you and your fucking breathing! You fucking breathe! I'm dying!"
Near the end, Erica's eyes took on a bright, ecstatic gleam. She clenched her teeth and growled like a animal when she was told to push. I stood beside the doctor in my surgical gown and watched the wet, bloody, black head of my son emerge from between Erica's legs, followed immediately by his shoulders and the rest of his body. I saw his bloated little penis, saw blood and fluid gush from Erica's closing vagina, heard Dr. Figueira say, "It's a boy," and felt dizzy. A nurse pushed me into a chair, and then I had my son in my arms. I looked down at his wrinkled red face and soft lopsided head and said, "Matthew Stein Hertzberg," and he looked me in the eyes and grimaced.
It had come to me late. I was a graying, wrinkling father of an infant son, but I took to parenthood with the enthusiasm of the long deprived. Matt was an odd little creature with thin red limbs, a purplish umbilical stump, and downy black hair on only part of his head. Erica and I spent a lot of time studying his peculiarities--his greedy slurping noises when he fed, his mustard-colored bowel movements, his waving arms and legs, and his absorbed staring, which suggested brilliance or idiocy, depending on how you looked at it. For about a week, she called him "our naked stranger," but then he became Matthew or Matt or Matty boy. In those first few months after he was born, Erica showed a competence and ease I hadn't seen in her before. She had always been nervous and excitable, and when she was really heated her voice would take on a shrill, anxious timbre, a register that affected me physically--as if someone were running a fork over my skin. But Erica had few outbursts during Matt's early days. She was almost serene. It was rather like being married all over again to someone slightly different. She never slept enough, and the skin beneath her eyes was dark with lack of sleep, but her features were milder than I had ever seen them. When she nursed Matt, she would sometimes look at me with a tenderness that was nearly painful in its intensity. Often, I was still reading in bed while Erica and Matt slept togetherbeside me, his head on her breast as she held him. Even while she slept, she was aware of him and would wake to his smallest squeak. Sometimes, I would put down my book and look at the two of them in the light of my reading lamp. I now think I was lucky that I wasn't young. I knew what I might not have known earlier--that my happiness had come. I even told myself to fix the image of my wife and son in my mind while I watched them sleep, and it is still there, a clear picture left by my conscious wish. I can see Erica's profile on the pillow, her dark hair falling over her cheek, and Matt's little head, about the size of a grapefruit, turned in toward his mother's body.
We tracked Matt's development with the precision and attentiveness of Enlightenment scientists, noting each phase of his growth as if nobody had ever smiled, laughed, or rolled over before him. Erica once called me loudly to his crib, and when I arrived beside her, she pointed at our son and said, "Leo, look! I think he knows it's his foot. Look at the way he's sucking on his toes. He knows they belong to him!" Whether Matt had actually discovered the perimeter of his own body by then or not remained a moot point, but he increasingly became someone with a personality we could identify. He was not a loud person, but I suppose that if every time you utter a barely audible noise, one of your parents comes running, you do not become loud. For a baby he seemed weirdly compassionate. One evening when Matt was about nine months old, Erica was getting him ready for bed. She was carrying him around with her and opened the refrigerator to retrieve his bottle. By accident two glass containers of mustard and jam came with it and smashed on the floor. Erica had gone back to work by then, and her exhaustion got the better of her. She looked at the broken glass and burst into tears. She stopped crying when she felt Matt's small hand gently patting her arm in sympathy. Our son also liked to feed us--half-chewed bits of banana or pureed spinach or mashed carrots. He would come at me with his sticky fist and push the unsavory contents into my mouth. We read this as a sign of his generosity. From the time he could sit, Matt showed great powers of concentration, and when I saw other children his age, I found I hadn't exaggerated this trait. He had a long attention span, but he didnot speak. He gurgled and babbled and pointed, but the words were very slow in coming.
When Erica returned to work, we hired a nanny for Matt. Grace Thelwell was both tall and fat, a woman in her fifties who had grown up in Jamaica. She had four adult children and six grandchildren and the posture of a queen. She walked noiselessly around our house, spoke in a low musical voice, and exuded a Buddha-like calm in the face of all agitation. Her refrain consisted of two words: "Never mind." When Matt cried, she would hold him and sing the words, "Never mind." When Erica rushed in after a day at Rutgers and ran into the kitchen, looking wild-eyed and harried, Grace would place a hand on her shoulder and say, "Never mind" before she helped Erica put the groceries away. \when Grace came to us, her practical philosophy arrived with her, and it soothed all three of us--like a warm Caribbean breeze blowing through the rooms of the loft. She would always be Matt's fairy godmother, and the longer she was with us the more I felt that she was not an ordinary person but someone of feeling and intelligence, whose ability to distinguish between the important and the trivial often put me and Erica to shame. When Erica and I went out in the evenings and Grace stayed home with Matt, we would return to find her sitting in his room while he slept. The lights were always out. Grace did not read or knit or busy herself with anything. She sat in silence on a chair looking over him, content with the fullness of her own thoughts.
Mark Wechsler was born on August twenty-seventh. We were now two families, one on top of the other. Although the physical closeness made visiting easy, I saw Bill only a little more often than before. We loaned each other books, shared articles we had read, but our domestic lives were mostly contained within the walls of our separate apartments. All first babies shock their parents to one degree or another. Their demands are so urgent, their emotions run at such a high pitch that families close in on themselves to answer their calls. Bill would sometimes bring Mark with him to visit me when he returned home after a day at the studio. "Lucille's taking a nap," he would say. "She's exhausted," or, "I'm giving her a break. She needs silence." I accepted these commentswithout question, although I did hear the occasional note of worry in Bill's voice; but then he had always worried about Lucille. He was easy with his son, a small, blue-eyed version of himself who struck me as placid, well-fed, and slightly dopey. My obsessive interest in Matthew did not carry over to Mark, but the fact that Bill's affection for his own son was at least as passionate as mine for Matt solidified my sense that our lives were parallel--that in the hectic, grubby ordeal of caring for a baby, he and Lucille, like Erica and me, had discovered new strains of joy between them.
Only Lucille's weariness wasn't like Erica's. It had an existential cast--as though she suffered from more than being up at night. She didn't come to see me often, perhaps once every two months, and she always called days ahead of time to arrange the meeting. At the appointed time, I would open the door to find Lucille standing in the hallway with a sheaf of poems in her hand. She always looked pale and drawn and stiff. Her hair hung around her face uncombed, usually dirty. Mostly she wore jeans and old-fashioned blouses in dull colors, and yet her disheveled appearance didn't disguise her prettiness, and I admired her lack of vanity. I was always glad to see her, but Lucille's visits augmented Erica's feeling that Lucille had forgotten her. Lucille always greeted Erica politely. She would endure Erica's questions about Mark, answer them in curt, precise sentences, and then she would turn to me. Her economical but resonant poems were written in a voice of complete detachment. Inevitably they contained autobiographical references. In one poem a man and a woman lie beside each other in bed, unable to sleep, but neither one says a word to the other. They don't speak, out of deference to the other, but in the end, the woman feels the man's consideration as a presumption that he knows what she is thinking. Her annoyance with him keeps her awake long after he has gone to sleep. Lucille called the poem "Aware and Awake." A baby turned up in some works, a comic character referred to as "It." "It" wailed and clung and kicked and spat up, rather like a windup toy whose mechanism had gone haywire and couldn't be controlled. Lucille never acknowledged in any way that the poems were personal. She treated them as objects that might be rema-nipulatedwith my help. Her coolness fascinated me. Every once in a while she would smile to herself as she read a line, and I couldn't penetrate the source of her humor. While I sat next to her, I had the sense that she was always somewhere ahead of me, and that I was running after her. I would look down at the blond hairs on her slender arm and ask myself what it was about her I couldn't grasp.
One evening before she left to go upstairs, I watched as she began to gather up her papers. I had learned to turn away, because I knew that if I looked at her, she would feel uncomfortable and might drop her pencil or eraser. When I shook her hand good-bye, she thanked me and opened the door. It was when she began to walk through it that I had an uncanny sensation of resemblance, followed by a sudden certainty that I was right. In that moment, Lucille reminded me of Sy Wechsler. The link between them was neither physical nor spiritual. Their personalities had little in common except what they both lacked--a quality of ordinary connectedness to other human beings. Lucille didn't elude only Bill, she eluded everyone who knew her. The old adage "He married his mother" had to be revised. Bill had married his father. Hadn't he said, "I chased her for years"? As I listened to the sound of her feet on the stairs, I wondered if he wasn't chasing her still.
In the spring before Matt turned two, I overheard a fight between Bill and Lucille. It was a Saturday afternoon and I was sitting in my chair by the window. I had a book in my hand, but I had stopped reading it because I was thinking about Matt. Erica had taken him out to buy new sneakers, and just before the two of them had left, he had spoken his first words. Matt had pointed at his mother, at himself, and at the shoes he was wearing. I had said I hoped his new shoes would be beautiful, and then Matthew had eked out two garbled sounds--"ooo neets," which Erica and I had joyfully translated as "new sneaks." The child was learning how to talk. I had opened the window to let in the warm breeze. The windows above must have been opened, too, because Bill's booming voice interrupted my reverie about Matt's verbal breakthrough.
"How could you say that?" Bill screamed.
"You weren't supposed to hear it. She shouldn't have told you!" Lucille's voice rose with each word. Her anger surprised me. She was always so controlled.
Bill growled back. "I don't believe that. She tells everybody everything. You told her because you knew she would tell me, and then you could refuse to take responsibility for your own words. Do you deny you said it? No! So--did you mean it?"
There was silence.
"What the hell am I doing here?" Bill yelled. "Tell me that!" I heard a loud crash. Bill must have hit or kicked something.
"You broke it!" I heard rage in Lucille's voice, trembling, hysterical rage, and it cut through me. Mark started crying. "Shut up!" she shrieked. "Shut up! Shut up!"
I went to close the window. The last thing I heard was Bill saying, "Mark, Mark. Come here."
The following day, Bill called me from his studio and told me he had moved out of Greene Street and was living on the Bowery again. His voice sounded dull with misery. "Do you want me to come over?" I asked. He didn't answer me for a few seconds. Then he said, "Yeah, I think I do."
Bill didn't mention the mysterious woman who had played a pivotal role in the argument I had overheard the day before, and I couldn't ask him about her without telling him that I had eavesdropped. I let him talk, even though most of what he said explained little. He told me that although Lucille had said over and over again how much she looked forward to being a mother before Mark was born, after the birth she had seemed disappointed. "She's been really low and irritable. Everything about me seems to annoy her--I swallow too loudly when I eat. I brush my teeth too vigorously. I pace when I'm thinking and it drives her nuts. My socks smell. I touch her too much. I work too hard. I'm gone too long. She likes me to take care of Mark, but she doesn't like the way I do it. I shouldn't sing Lou Reed songs to him. They're inappropriate. The games I play are too rowdy. I throw him off his schedule."
Lucille's complaints were banal--the familiar stuff of joyless intimacy. I've always thought that love thrives on a certain kind of distance, that it requires an awed separateness to continue. Without that necessary remove, the physical minutiae of the other person grows ugly in its magnification. From where I sat opposite Bill, he looked to me like the Byronic ideal of male beauty. A black curl had fallen onto his forehead as he inhaled a cigarette and squinted in thought. Behind him were the seven unfinished paintings of his father he had decided to show. For two years he had been working on portraits of Sy Wechsler. There must have been fifty canvases of the man in various positions, but Bill had chosen to exhibit only seven--all of them of his father viewed from the back. He called the series "Missing Men." The afternoon light sank in the windows, the big room grew darker, and we didn't speak for minutes on end. For the first time, I pitied Bill, and a pain settled in my chest at the thought of his suffering. Around five o'clock I told him that I had promised Erica I would be home in ten minutes.
"You know, Leo," he said, "for years I've been thinking that Lucille was somebody else. I deceived myself. That's not her fault. It's mine. And now I have a son."
Instead of responding directly to this, I said, "It might not be much, but I'm here for you if you need me." As I said it, I remembered Violet running up the stairs toward me and what she had said to me about my being "there" for Bill. For a few moments, I wondered if she had known something I didn't about Bill and Lucille, and then I forgot about her and her comment for almost a year.
Lucille stayed on in the Greene Street loft, and Bill lived on the Bowery. Mark shuttled back and forth between his parents--half the week with Lucille, the other half with Bill. They talked on the phone every day, and neither Bill nor Lucille ever mentioned divorce. Trucks and fire engines and baby wipes appeared in the Bowery loft, and sometime in July, Bill made his son a beautiful bed that looked like a boat. He constructed a stand that allowed it to rock back and forth like an oversized cradle, andhe painted it a deep marine blue. Bill read to his son and fed him and encouraged him to at least try the plastic potty in the little room with the toilet. He worried about his appetite and fretted about him falling down the stairs, and he picked up most of his toys, even though he had no gift for housekeeping. The loft was filthier than it had ever been because Bill never bothered to clean it. The sink turned colors I had never seen before on porcelain--a palette that ranged from pale gray to orange to a deep, mucky brown. I didn't mention the dirt. The truth was that father and son seemed comfortable enough in the big crooked room. They didn't mind living among the towers of soiled laundry that rose up from a dusty, ash-covered floor.
Bill didn't say much more to me about his failing marriage. He never complained about Lucille, and when he wasn't taking care of Mark, he worked long hours and slept little. But the truth was that when Erica and Matt and I visited Bill and Mark that summer, I often felt relieved when we left them and walked outside into the hot street. The studio had an oppressive, nearly smothering atmosphere, as if Bill's sadness had leaked into the chairs, the books, the toys, and the empty wine bottles that piled up under the sink. In the paintings of his father, Bill's sorrow took on a palpable beauty that was executed with a rigorous, unflinching hand, but in life his pain was merely depressing.
When the portraits of Bill's father were shown in September, Lucille did not come to the opening. I'd asked her if I would see her there, and she'd said that she was editing a manuscript and would have to work into the night. Her answer sounded like an evasion, and I must have looked dubious, but she'd insisted. "I have a deadline," she'd said. "There is nothing I can do about it."
Every painting in the show sold, but not to Americans. A Frenchman named Jacques Dupin bought three paintings; the others went to a German collector and a Dutchman in the pharmaceutical business. After that show, Bill was picked up by a gallery in Cologne, one in Paris, and another in Tokyo. American reviewers were befuddled--acclaim by one critic was neutralized by the savage attack of another. There was no consensus about Bill among those who wrote about art for a living, and yet Inoticed large numbers of young people in the gallery, not just at the opening but every time I went to look at the paintings. Bernie told me that he had never had so many artists and poets and novelists in their twenties at any exhibition as at that one. "The kids are all talking about him," he said. "That's got to be good. The old fogies are going to die off, and they'll take over."
It took me several visits to the gallery to understand that the man whose back looked very much the same from one painting to another was aging. I noticed that wrinkles formed at the back of his neck and that his skin changed. Moles multiplied. In the last painting there was a small cyst beneath Sy's ear. By some miracle of art or nature, however, his hair remained black in every one. Bill's rendering of his father, always clad in a dark suit, reminded me of seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, but without their illusion of depth. The smooth, clear image of the man's back was lit from the left side of the canvas, and every fold in the suit's material, every speck of dust on a padded shoulder, every crease in the black leather of a shoe had been painstakingly depicted. But what fascinated spectators was the material Bill had applied over this initial image, which partly obscured it--the letters, photographs, postcards, business memos, receipts, motel keys, movie ticket stubs, aspirins, condoms--until each work became a thick palimpsest of legible and illegible writing, as well as a medley of the various small objects that fill junk drawers in almost any household. There was nothing innovative about gluing foreign materials to a painting, but the effect was very different from Rauschenberg's dense layerings, for example, because the debris in Bill's canvases had been left behind by one man, and as I moved from one painting to another, I enjoyed reading the scraps. I especially liked a letter written in crayon: "Dear Uncl Sy, Thank you for the relly neet racing car. It's relly neet. Love, Larry." I studied the invitation that read, "Please come and celebrate Regina and Sy's Fifteenth Wedding Anniversary. Yes, it's really been that long!" There was a hospital bill for Daniel Wechsler, a playbill from Hello, Dolly!, and a torn, wrinkled piece of paper with the name Anita Himmelblatz written on it, followed by a telephone number. Despite these momentary insights into a life, the canvases and theirmaterials had an abstract quality to them, an ultimate blankness that conveyed the strangeness of mortality itself, a sense that even if every scrap of a life were saved, thrown into a giant mound and then carefully sifted to extract all possible meaning, it would not add up to a life.
Over each canvas, Bill had placed a thick piece of Plexiglas, which removed the viewer from the two layers underneath. The Plexiglas turned the works into memorials. Without it, the objects and papers would have been accessible, but sealed behind that transparent wall, the image of the man and the detritus of his life could not be reached.
I returned to the show on West Broadway seven or eight times. The last time I went, only days before it closed, I met Henry Hasseborg. I had seen him before lurking around other galleries and knew him by sight. Jack, who had spoken to him on a couple of occasions, had once called him "man as toad." Hasseborg was a novelist and art critic, known for his arch prose and scathing opinions. He was a tiny bald person, always dressed fashionably in black. He had small eyes, a flattened nose, and an enormous mouth. A rash that may have been eczema crawled up one side of his face and onto his head. He approached me and introduced himself. He said that he was familiar with my work and hoped that I was working on another book. He had read my "Piero" and loved it, as well as my book of essays. "Tremendous" was the word he used. Then he casually glanced over at a canvas and said, "You like it?"
I told him I did and began to say why when he interrupted me: "You don't think they're anachronistic?"
I began another sentence. "No, I think he puts historical references to another use--"
Hasseborg cut me off again. He was almost a foot shorter than I was. As he looked up at my face, he took a step closer to me, and his proximity made me suddenly uncomfortable. "They say he's landed galleries in Europe. Which ones?"
"I don't know," I said. "You should talk to Bernie if you're interested."
"Interest might be too strong a word," he said, and smiled. "Wechsler's a little too cerebral for me."
"Really," I said. "I feel a lot of emotion in the work." I paused, surprised that he had let me finish, and went on. "I seem to remember an article you wrote on Warhol. If anyone's work embodies ideas, it's Warhol. Surely that's cerebral."
Hasseborg leaned even closer to me, his chin lifted. "Andy's an icon," he said, as if this answered my question. "He had his finger on the cultural pulse, man. He knew what was coming, and it came. Your friend Wechsler's running down some side street ..." He didn't finish the sentence. He looked at his watch and said, "Shit, I'm late. See you around, Leo."
As I watched him walk slowly toward the elevator, I asked myself what had just happened. The tone of his conversation had shifted from ingratiating flattery to insulting familiarity. I also realized that when he'd introduced himself, he hadn't mentioned my friendship with Bill, but as he'd continued to talk, he had insinuated our connection by asking about the European galleries and then directly referred to Bill as "your friend Wechsler." Finally, he had rounded off our aborted talk with the flippant use of my first name, as if we were old friends. I was not a naif. For Hasseborg, manipulating other people was a sophisticated game that could reap him benefits: an inside scoop, a bit of art world gossip, a quote from someone who'd never intended his remark to be public. He was an unscrupulous man, but he was also an intelligent man, and in New York that combination could take you far. Henry Hasseborg had wanted something from me, but for the life of me I couldn't imagine what it was.
By then Erica and I had been together for over five years, and I often thought of our marriage as one long conversation. We talked a lot, and I liked listening to her, especially in the evenings, when she spoke about Matt or her work. Her voice was lovely when she was tired. It lost its shrillness, and her words were sometimes interrupted by yawns or little sighs of relief that the long day was over. One night, we were lying in bed together still talking hours after Matt had gone to sleep. Erica had herhead on my chest and I was telling her about my essay on Mannerism, mostly Pontormo, which began with a long definition of "distortion"--and the context needed to understand what such a word meant. She moved her hand over my belly, and then I felt her fingers stray into my pubic hair. "You know, Leo," she said, "The smarter you are, the sexier you are." I never forgot Erica's equation. For her, the charms of my body were related to the swiftness of my mind, and in light of this, I thought it wise to keep that higher organ tight, lean, and well-exercised.
Matt had grown into a thin, thoughtful boy who spoke in monosyllables and wandered around the house with his stuffed lion, "La," singing to himself in a high, tuneless voice. He wasn't articulate, but he understood everything we said to him. Either Erica or I read to him at night, and while Matt listened, he lay very still in his new big bed, his hazel eyes open and concentrated, as if he could see the story unfold on the ceiling above him. Sometimes he would wake up at night, but he rarely called out to us. We would hear him in the next room, chattering to his animals and cars and blocks in a fluent but private language. Like most two-year-olds, Matt often ran himself to exhaustion, sobbed violently, ordered us around, and was frustrated when we refused to obey his imperial commands, but inside the toddler I felt a strange, tumultuous, and solitary core--an immense inner sanctum where a good part of his life took place.
Violet reappeared in June of 1981. I was near the Bowery, because I had bought some sausage at an Italian deli on Grand Street, and in the spirit of my summer freedom from student papers, students themselves, and the endless bickering of my colleagues in committee meetings, I decided to drop in on Bill. I was walking down Hester Street when I saw him standing with Violet outside the Chinese movie theater on the corner. I recognized Violet instantly, even though I saw her only from behind and she had cut her hair short. She was holding Bill tightly around the waist and her head was pressed against his chest. I watched him lift her facetoward him with both hands and kiss her. Violet stood on tiptoe to reach him and lost her balance for a moment before Bill caught her, laughed, and kissed her forehead. Neither one of them saw me standing stock-still on the sidewalk across the street. Violet kissed Bill again, hugged him again, and then ran off down the street, away from me. I noticed that she ran well, like a boy, but she tired quickly, slowed, and began to skip down the block, turning once to blow Bill a kiss. He watched her until she turned the corner. I crossed the street, and when I approached Bill, he waved at me.
After I had reached him he said, "You saw us."
"Yes, I was up the street at the deli and ..."
"It's all right. Don't worry about it."
"She's been back for a while." Bill put his arm around my shoulder. "Come on," he said. "Let's go upstairs."
while Bill talked to me about Violet, his eyes had the steady concentrated gleam I remembered from the first year I met him. "It started before," he said, "when I was painting her. Nothing happened between us. I mean, we didn't have an affair, but the feeling was there. God, I was careful. I remember thinking that if I so much as brushed against her, I was finished. Well, then she left, and I couldn't stop thinking about her. I thought I'd get over it, that it was a sexual attraction that would pass if I ever saw her again. When she called me a month ago, a part of me hoped I'd take one look at her and say to myself, 'You spent years obsessing about this broad? Were you nuts?" But she walked through the door and ..." Bill rubbed his chin and shook his head."I fell apart the second I saw her. Her body ..." He didn't finish the sentence. "She's so responsive, Leo. I've never experienced anything like it. Not even close."
When I asked him if he had told Lucille about Violet, he shook his head. "I've put it off, not because she wants me back. She doesn't, but because Mark ..." He hesitated. "It's much more complicated when you have a child. The poor kid's pretty confused already."
We talked about our sons for a while. Mark was articulate but easilydistracted. Matt said little but could amuse himself alone for a long time. Bill asked about Pontormo, and I talked about elongation in The Deposition for a few minutes before I said I had to leave.
"Before you go, I want to show you something. It's a book Violet lent me."
The book had been written by a Frenchman, Georges Didi-Huberman, but what interested Bill were its photographs. They had all been taken at the Salpetriere Hospital in Paris, where the famous neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot had conducted experiments on women suffering from hysteria. Bill explained that a number of the patients had been hypnotized for the photographs. Some were twisted into positions that reminded me of contortionists in the circus. Others looked at the camera with blank eyes as they held out their arms, which had been pierced through with pins the size of knitting needles. Still others were kneeling and appeared to be praying or beseeching God for help.
The photograph on the book's cover is the one I remember best, however. A pretty dark-haired girl was lying in bed with the sheets over her. She had twisted her body to one side and was sticking out her tongue. The tongue seemed unusually thick and long, a fact that made the gesture more obscene than it might have been. I also thought I saw a glint of mischief in her eyes. The photograph was carefully lit to bring out the voluptuous roundness of the girl's shoulders and torso under the sheets. I stared at the picture for some time, not quite sure what I was seeing.
"Her name was Augustine," Bill said. "Violet's particularly interested in her. She was photographed obsessively in the ward and became a kind of pinup girl for hysteria. She was also color-blind. Apparently, many of the hysterics saw colors only when they were hypnotized. It's almost too perfect--the poster girl for an illness in the early days of photography sees the world in black and white."
Violet was only twenty-seven then, still writing furiously on her dissertation about long-dead women whose illness included violent seizures, paralyzed limbs, stigmata, obsessive scratching, lewd postures,and hallucinations. She called the hysterics "my lovely lunatics," and referred to them casually by name, as if she had met them not long ago in the ward and regarded them as friends or at least as interesting aquaintances. Unlike most intellectuals, Violet didn't distinguish between the cerebral and the physical. Her thoughts seemed to run through her whole being, as if thinking were a sensual experience. Her movements suggested warmth and languor, an unhurried pleasure in her own body. She was forever making herself more comfortable. She wriggled into chairs, adjusted her neck and arms and shoulders. She crossed her legs or let one dangle over the edge of a sofa. She had a tendency to sigh, take deep breaths, and bite her bottom lip when she was thinking. Sometimes she would gently stroke her arm while she talked or finger her lips while she listened. Often she would reach out and touch my hand very lightly when she spoke to me. With Erica she was openly affectionate. She would stroke Erica's hair or let her arm lie comfortably around her shoulders.
Beside Lucille, my wife had looked loose and open. Next to Violet, Erica's nerves and the relative tightness of her body seemed to redefine her as reserved and cautious. The two women liked each other immediately, however, and the friendship between them would last. Violet seduced Erica with her stories of feminine subversion--tales of women who made daring escapes from hospitals and husbands, fathers and employers. They chopped off their hair and disguised themselves as men. They climbed over walls, jumped out windows, and leapt from roof to roof. They boarded ships and sailed out to sea. But Erica especially loved the animal stories. Her eyes widened and she smiled as she listened to Violet tell about an outbreak of meowing among girls who attended a convent school in France. At exactly the same hour every afternoon, the girls went down on their hands and knees and meowed loudly for several hours until the whole neighborhood pulsed with the noise. Another incident involved canine behavior. Violet reported that in 1855 every single woman in the French town of Josselin succumbed to a fit of uncontrollable barking.
Violet captivated Erica with her own stories, too, most of them keptsecret from me and only hinted at, but I gathered that Violet had been in and out of many beds in her young life, and that not every bed had had a man in it. For Erica, who had slept with exactly three men in the course of her thirty-nine years, Violet's erotic adventures were more than intriguing anecdotes. They were tales of enviable daring and freedom. For Violet, Erica embodied feminine reason, an idea that most of history has relegated to an oxymoron. Erica had a patience of mind that Violet lacked, a dogged willingness to tease a thought to fruition, and there were days when Violet would come to our door with a question for Erica, usually about German philosophy--Hegel, Husserl, or Heidegger. Violet became Erica's student then. She would lie on our sofa, her eyes fixed on her teacher's face, and while she listened she squinted, frowned, and pulled at strands of her hair, as though these gestures could help her puzzle out the tortuous mysteries of being.
I doubt that either Erica or I would have taken to Violet so quickly had she not been with Bill. It wasn't only that we knew him and were well-disposed to the woman he had fallen for so hard, it was that we liked Bill and Violet together. They were beautiful, those two, and my mind is still crammed with memories of their bodies from the early days of their love affair: Violet with her hand in Bill's hair or on his thigh or Bill leaning over her, his mouth grazing her ear. Every time I saw them, I had the impression that they had just made love or were about to make love, that their eyes never left each other. Infatuated people often look ridiculous to others; their nonstop cooing, touching, and kissing can be intolerable to friends who have left that stage behind them. But Bill and Violet didn't embarrass me. Despite their obvious passion for each other, they played at restraint, holding back when Erica or I were in the room, and I think the tension they created together was what I liked best. I always felt that there was an invisible wire between them, stretched nearly to its breaking point.
Violet had grown up on a farm near Dundas, Minnesota, a town with a population of 623. I knew almost nothing about her corner of the Midwest,with its alfalfa fields, Holstein cows, and stolid characters with names like Harold Lundberg, Gladys Hrbek, and Lovey Munkemeyer, but I imagined it nevertheless, stealing images from movies and books of a flat landscape under a large sky. She had graduated from high school in the neighboring town of Northfield and attended St. Olaf College in that same town before she fled east to graduate school at NYU. Her great-grandparents on both sides had emigrated from Norway and made their way across the country to start their farms and fight the earth and weather. Violet's rural childhood still clung to her. It appeared not only in her long midwestern vowels and in her references to milking machines and feedbags, but in the earnestness and weight of her spirit. Violet had charm, but it was not cultivated charm. When I spoke to her, I had the feeling that her thoughts had been nourished in wide-open spaces where talk was sparse and silence ruled.
One afternoon in July I found myself alone with Violet. Erica had taken Matt and Mark back to Greene Street, along with the first chapter of Violet's dissertation, which she had promised to read. Bill had gone off to Pearl Paint for supplies. The light shone on Violet's brown hair as she sat cross-legged on the floor in front of a window and told me the story of Augustine, which turned into a story about herself.
In Paris, Violet had rummaged through documents, files, and case studies called observations from the Salpetriere hospital. From these accounts, she had cobbled together a few sketchy personal histories. "Both her parents were servants," Violet told me. "Not long after she was born, they sent her away to live with relatives. She stayed with them for six years but then was sent away again to a convent school. She was an angry girl--unruly and difficult. The nuns thought she was possessed by the devil, and they threw holy water in her face to calm her. When she was thirteen, the nuns expelled her, and she went back to her mother, who was working in a house in Paris as a chambermaid. The case study doesn't mention what happened to her father. He must have disappeared. It does say that Augustine was hired 'on the pretext' that she teach the children of the house to sing and sew. For her efforts she was allowed to sleep in a little closet. It turned out that her mother washaving an affair with the master of the house. In the records, they just call him 'Monsieur C.' Not long after Augustine moved in, Monsieur C. began making sexual advances toward her, but she refused him. Finally he threatened her with a razor and then raped her. She started having convulsive fits and bouts of paralysis. She hallucinated rats and dogs and big eyes staring at her. It got so bad that her mother took her to the Salpetriere, where she was diagnosed as a hysteric. She was fifteen."
"A lot of people would go crazy after that kind of treatment," 1 said.
"She didn't have a chance. You'd be surprised how many of the girls and women I've been reading about came from similar backgrounds. Most of them were dirt-poor. A lot of them were shuttled back and forth between one parent or relative and another. They were always being uprooted as children. Several of them had been molested, too, by a relative or employer or somebody." Violet stopped talking for several seconds. "There are still psychoanalysts who talk about 'hysterical personality,' but most pyschiatrists don't even consider hysteria a mental illness anymore. The one thing that's left on the books is 'hysterical conversion' or 'conversion disorder.' That's when you wake up one day and can't move your arms or legs and there's no physical reason for it."
"You're saying that hysteria was a medical creation," I said.
"No," Violet said. "That's too simple. The medical establishment was certainly part of it, but the fact that so many women had hysterical attacks, not just women who were hospitalized for them, goes beyond doctors. Swooning, thrashing, and foaming at the mouth were a lot more common in the nineteenth century. It hardly happens anymore. Don't you find that strange? I mean, the only explanation is that hysteria really was a broad cultural phenomenon--a permissible way out."
"Out of what?"
"Out of Monsieur C.'s house, for one thing."
"You think that Augustine was pretending?"
"No. I think she was really suffering. If she had been admitted to a hospital today, they would have said she was schizophrenic or bipolar, but let's face it, those names are pretty vague, too. I think her illness tookthe form it did because it was in the air, floating around like a virus--the way anorexia nervosa floats around today."
While I thought about her comment, Violet continued. "When we were kids, my little sister, Alice, and I used to spend a lot of time in the barn. The summer after I turned nine and Alice turned six, we were playing with our dolls up in the hayloft. We were sitting across from each other making our dolls talk when suddenly Alice got this strange look on her face and pointed at the little window. 'Look Violet,' she said, 'there's an angel.' I didn't see anything except the little square of sunshine, but I was spooked, and then for a second I thought that there might be a figure there--a pale, weightless thing. Alice fell over and started kicking and choking. I grabbed her and tried to shake her. At first, I thought she was fooling, and then I saw her eyes roll up into her head and I knew she wasn't. I started screaming for my mother, and then I was gagging on my own spit. I was kicking and rolling around in the hay. My mother came running out of the house and climbed up the ladder to us. I was all crazy, Leo. I was yelling so loud I got hoarse. It took my mother a couple of minutes to figure out which one of us was in trouble. When she did, she had to push me out of the way, really hard, because I was holding on to Alice's knees and I wouldn't let go. My mother carried Alice out of there and down the ladder and drove her to the hospital." Violet took a big, shuddering breath and continued. "I stayed home with my father. I was sick with shame. I had panicked. I did everything wrong. I wasn't brave at all, but worse than that, a part of me knew that I had been acting flipped out, and that it was only partly real." Violet's eyes filled with tears. "I went into my room and started counting. I counted way up to four thousand and something, and then my father came into my room and told me Alice was going to be all right. He had talked to my mother at the hospital, and I cried all over him for a long time." Violet turned her head away from me. "Alice had had a grand mal seizure. She's an epileptic."
"You shouldn't blame yourself for being scared," I said.
Violet looked at me, her eyes suddenly shrewd. "You know how Charcot began to understand hysteria? The hysterics just happened to behoused right next door to the epileptics at the hospital. After a little while, the hysterics started having seizures. They became what they were near."
In August Erica and I rented a house on Martha's Vineyard for two weeks. We celebrated Matt's fourth birthday in the small white house about a quarter mile from the beach. After he woke up that morning, Matt was unusually quiet. He seated himself at the breakfast table across from me and Erica and looked soberly at the presents that were piled in front of him. Behind his head through the kitchen window I could see the green expanse of the small lawn and the shine of dew on the grass. I waited for him to begin tearing off the wrapping paper, but he didn't move. He looked as if he were about to say something. Matt often paused before a speech, collecting himself for the sentence ahead. His verbal abilities had improved dramatically in the past year, but they still lagged behind most of his friends'.
"Don't you want to open your presents?" Erica said to him.
He nodded at the pile, looked over at us, and said in a clear loud voice, "How does the number get inside my body?"
"The number?" I said.
"Four." Matt's hazel eyes widened with the question.
Erica reached across the table and put her hand on his arm. "I'm sorry, Matty," she said, "but we don't understand what you mean."
"Turn four," he said. I could hear the insistence in his voice.
"Oh, I see," I said slowly. "The number doesn't go inside you, Matt. People say you're turning four, but nothing happens in your body." It took us a while to explain numbers to Matt, to make it clear that they didn't magically lodge themselves inside us on our birthdays, that they were abstract symbols, a way of counting years or cups or peanuts or anything else for that matter. I thought about Matthew's four again that night when I heard Erica's voice coming from the bedroom. She was reading "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," and every time she read "Open sesame," Matt sang out the magic words with her. It wasn'tstrange that he had stumbled over the phrase "to turn four." His body had miraculous properties, after all. It had an invisible inside and a smooth surface with openings and passageways. Food went into it. Urine and feces came out of it. When he cried, a salty liquid streamed from his eyes. How could he possibly know that "turning four" didn't signify yet another physical transformation, a kind of corporeal "open sesame" that allowed a brand-new number four to take its place beside his heart or in his stomach or maybe find a home in his head?
That summer I had begun taking notes for the book I was planning to write about changing views in Western painting, an analysis of the conventions of seeing. It was a large, ambitious project and a dangerous one. Signs have often been confused with other signs, as well as with the things that lie beyond them in the world. But iconic signs function differently from words and numbers, and the problem of resemblance has to be addressed without falling into the trap of naturalism. As I worked on the book, Matt's four was often with me, a little reminder to avoid a very seductive form of philosophical error.
In Violet's first letter to Bill, dated October 15, she wrote, "Dear Bill, You left me an hour ago. I didn't expect you to vanish from my life so abruptly, to disappear without any warning at all. After I walked you to the subway and you kissed me good-bye, I came home, sat down on the bed, and looked at the pillow squashed by your head and the sheets wrinkled from your body. I lay down on the bed where you were lying just minutes before and realized that I wasn't angry and I didn't want to cry. I just felt amazed. When you said that you had to go back to your old life for Mark's sake, you said it so simply and sadly that I couldn't argue with you or ask you to change your mind. You were resolved. I could see that, and I doubt whether tears or words would have made any difference.
"Six months isn't such a long time. That's how long it's been since I came to see you in May, but the fact is it's been much longer than that. We've spent years living inside each other. I've loved you since the first second I saw you, standing at the top of the stairs in that ugly gray T-shirtwith black paint on it. You stank of sweat that day, and you looked me over like I was some object you were about to buy in a store. For some reason that cold, strict look in your eyes made me crazy with love for you, but I didn't show you a thing. I was too proud."
"I think about your thighs," she wrote in the second letter, "and the warm, moist smell of your skin in the morning, and the tiny eyelash in each corner of your eye that I always notice when you first roll over to look at me. I don't know why you are better and more beautiful than anybody else. I don't know why your body is something I can't stop thinking about, why those little flaws and ridges on your back are lovely to me or why the pale soft bottoms of your New Jersey feet that always wore shoes are more poignant than any other feet, but they are. I thought I would have more time to chart your body, to map its poles, its contours and terrain, its inner regions, both temperate and torrid--a whole topography of skin and muscle and bone. I didn't tell you, but I imagined a lifetime as your cartographer, years of exploration and discovery that would keep changing the look of my map. It would always need to be redrawn and reconfigured to keep up with you. I'm sure I've missed things, Bill, or forgotten them, because half the time I've been wandering around your body blind drunk with happiness. There are still places I haven't seen."
In the fifth and last letter, Violet wrote, "I want you to come back to me, but even if you don't, I'm in you now. It started with the paintings of me that you said were of you. We've written and drawn ourselves into each other. Hard. You know how hard. When I sleep alone, I can hear you breathing with me, and the funniest part of it is that I'm fine alone, happy alone, able to live alone. I'm not dying for you, Bill. I just want you, and if you stay with Lucille and Mark forever, I will never come and take back what I gave you the night when we heard the man singing about the moon behind the trash cans. Love, Violet."
Bill's separation from Violet lasted five days. On the fifteenth, he moved in upstairs and resumed his marriage. On the nineteenth, he left Lucille for good. Both Bill and Violet called on the first day to tell me and Erica what had happened, and neither one of them betrayed any emotion when delivering the message. I saw Violet only once during thattime. On the morning of the sixteenth, I met her in the hallway at the bottom of the stairs. Erica had been trying in vain to reach Violet since she'd called with the news. "She sounded calm," Erica had said, "but she must be devastated." But Violet didn't look "devastated." She didn't even look sad. She was wearing a small navy blue dress that hugged her body. Her lips were shining with red lipstick and her hair had been artfully touseled. Her high-heeled shoes looked new, and she gave me a brilliant smile when she saw me. In her hand, she was holding a letter. When I asked her how she was, she responded to the sympathy in my voice with a cool, crisp tone that warned me I had better remove all traces of pity from mine. "I'm fine, Leo. I'm delivering a letter to Bill," she said. "It's faster than the post office."
"Speed is important?" I said to her.
Violet fixed her eyes on mine and said, "Speed and strategy. That's what matters now." With a single, emphatic gesture, she dropped the letter on top of the mailbox. Then she swiveled on her high heels and walked toward the door. I felt sure that Violet knew she was living one of her finest moments. Her straight posture, her slightly elevated chin, the sound of her heels as they clicked on the tile floor would have been wasted without an audience. Before she left, she turned around and winked at me.
Bill had never told me that he was reconsidering his marriage, but I knew that after he told Lucille about Violet, Lucille began to call him more often. I also knew that they had met several times to discuss Mark. I don't know what Lucille said to him, but her words must have reached both Bill's guilt and his sense of duty. I felt sure that if he had abandoned Violet, he had done it because he truly believed it was the only path he could take. Erica thought Bill had lost his mind, but then Erica had taken sides. Not only did she love Violet, she had turned against Lucille. I tried to articulate to Erica what I had long sensed in Bill--a rigid current in his personality that sometimes pushed him toward absolute positions. Bill had once told me that by the age of seven he had adopted a strict but private code of moral behavior. I think he recognized that it was somewhat arrogant to hold himself to higher standards than he did otherpeople, but for as long as I knew him, he never let go of the idea that he lived with special restrictions. I guessed that it came from a belief in his own gifts. As a child Bill could run faster, hit harder, and play ball better than any other boy his age. He was handsome, good in school, drew like a wizard, and, unlike many other talented children, was acutely aware of his own superiority. But for Bill, heroism came with a price. He would never blame others for wobbling indecision, ethical weakness, or muddy thinking, but he wouldn't allow it himself. Faced with Lucille's willingness to try the marriage again and Mark's need for a full-time father, he obeyed his inner laws, even when they told him to act against his feelings for Violet.
Bill and Violet liked the story of their brief crack-up and reunion. They both told it in the same way, very simply, as if it were a fairy tale, without ever mentioning what was in the letters: One morning, Bill woke up and told Violet he was leaving her. She walked him to the subway and they kissed each other good-bye. Then, for five days in a row, Violet delivered a letter to 27 Greene Street, and every day Bill carried the letter upstairs and read it. On the nineteenth, after he had read the fifth letter, he told Lucille that the situation between them was hopeless, left our building, walked to Violet's apartment on East Seventh Street and declared his undying love for her, after which she burst into tears and sobbed for twenty minutes.
I've come to see the five days they were apart as a battle between two strong wills, and now that I've read the letters, it's clear to me why Violet won. She never questioned Bill's right to do whatever he felt he had to do. She argued persuasively that he should choose her over his wife without appearing to argue this at all and by mentioning Lucille's name only once. Violet knew that Lucille had time, a son, and legitimacy on her side, all reinforced by Bill's unflinching sense of responsibility, but she never tangled with Bill's moral code. She wore him down with the only truth she had to offer him, that she loved him fervently, and she knew that passion was exactly what Lucille lacked. Later, when Violet spoke about the letters, she made it clear that she had written them carefully. "They had to be sincere," she said, "but they couldn't be maudlin. Theyhad to be well written, without a shred of self-pity, and they had to be sexy without being pornographic. I don't want to gloat, but they did the trick."
Lucille had asked Bill to come back. He told me this openly, but I think that as soon as he returned to her, the desire she had felt for him began to wane. He said that after only a couple of hours, she had criticized both his dishwashing and a story he was reading to Mark--Busy Day, Busy People. Lucille's coolness and unavailability had been her most alluring features for Bill, particularly because she seemed oblivious to the power they had over him. But nagging is a strategy of the powerless, and there is nothing mysterious about it. I suspect that Violet's cause, set forth with blazing awareness of purpose in the letters, was helped along by the dreary sound of Lucille's domestic complaints. I never heard Lucille talk about those days, so I can't be sure of what she felt, but I suspect that whether she knew it or not, a part of her pushed Bill away, a possibility that made Violet's victory a little less remarkable than she may have supposed.
Violet moved into 89 Bowery with Bill, and as soon as she arrived, she started cleaning. With a zeal that must have come from a long line of Scandinavian Protestants, she scrubbed and bleached and sprayed and polished until the loft took on a foreign, naked, almost squinting appearance. Lucille remained our upstairs neighbor, and the four-year-old Mark, whose divided life had been given a five-day reprieve, resumed his back-and-forth existence. Bill never spoke to me of his relief and joy. He didn't have to. I noticed that he started slapping my back again and affectionately grabbing my arm, and the odd thing was that not until he began touching me again did I realize that he had stopped doing it.
The days came and went with an almost liturgical dependability, incantations of the ordinary and intimate. Matt sang to himself in the mornings in his high, tuneless voice while he dressed himself very, very slowly. Four days a week Erica sailed out the door with her briefcase and an English muffin in her hand. I walked Matt to school and then took the IRTuptown. On the subway I composed paragraphs in my head for my chapter that focused on Pliny's Natural History, while I half-saw the faces and bodies of other riders. I felt their bodies pressed against mine, smelled their tobacco, sweat, and cloying perfumes, their medicinal creams and herbal remedies. I took the Columbia boys and a few Barnard girls through a survey course on Western art and hoped some of those images would stick with them forever--the gold-and-blue abstraction of a Cimabue or the estranging beauty of Giovanni Bellini's Madonna in a Meadow or the terror of Holbein's dead Christ. I listened to Jack moan about the docile students. "I never thought I'd find myself actually longing for those characters from SDS." After work Erica and I found Matt and Grace at home. He was often in her lap by then, a place he had named "the soft house." We fed him and bathed him and listened to his stories about Gunna, a wild redheaded boy from a country called "Lutit" that was somewhere in the "north." He fought us, too, especially when he metamorphosed into Superman or Batman and we had the gall to challenge his omnipotence with directives about teeth brushing and bedtime. Erica helped edit Violet's dissertation. Ideas flew between them and they excited each other, and sometimes at night I would rub Erica's back to ease the tension that made her head ache after long talks on the telephone with Violet about cultural contagions and the problem of the subject.
When he didn't have Mark with him, Bill worked far into the night on the hysteria constructions. Violet was often asleep by the time he finished. She told me that he rarely sat down to eat, and when he did, he would sit with the plate on his lap in front of the piece and say nothing. Neither Bill nor I had much time for coffees or lunches that year, but I also knew that Violet had altered the outlines of our friendship. It wasn't that Bill actively neglected me. We spoke on the phone. He wanted me to write about the hysteria works, and whenever I saw him he brought me something to read--a Raw Comics or a book of medical photographs or an obscure novel. The truth was Violet had opened a passage in Bill that had taken him further into his own solitude. I could only guess at what had passed between them, but I sometimes felt that their intimacyhad a courage and fierceness that I had never known, and the awareness of this lack in myself made me vaguely restless. The feeling lodged itself in my mouth as a dry taste, and I suffered from a longing that nothing could satisfy. It wasn't hunger or thirst or even sex that I wanted. It was a dim but irritating need for something nameless and unknown that I had felt from time to time since I was child. There were a few nights that year when I lay awake beside my sleeping wife with that emptiness in my mouth, and I would move into the living room and sit on the chair by the window to wait until morning.
For a long time I thought of Dan Wechsler as another missing man in a family of missing men. Moishe, the grandfather, had disappeared. Sy, the father, had stayed, but had sprinted away emotionally. Dan, the youngest of these three generations of men, had been hidden away in New Jersey, the phantom resident of either a halfway house or a hospital, depending on his state of mind. That year, Bill and Violet hosted a small Thanksgiving dinner on the Bowery, to which Dan was invited. For days Dan called Bill. One day he canceled. The next day he reinstated himself. The day after, he called again to say he wasn't coming. But at the last moment, Dan found the courage take the bus to the Port Authority bus terminal, where Bill picked him up. We were seven, altogether: Bill, Violet, Erica, Dan, Matthew, Mark, and I. Regina had gone to Al's family for the day, and the Bloms had felt it was too far and too expensive to travel to New York for the holiday. Dan's craziness wasn't hidden. His fingernails were heavily rimmed with dirt, and his neck was thickly covered with ash-colored flakes of drying skin. His shirt had been buttoned wrong, giving his whole upper body a lopsided appearance. At dinner I found myself seated beside him. While I was still unfolding my napkin and putting it on my lap, Dan had already picked up his dessert spoon and was pushing turkey and stuffing into his mouth at an astonishing speed. His ravenous eating lasted for about thirty seconds. Then he lit a cigarette, sucked on it deeply, turned abruptly to me, and said in a loud excited voice: "Leo, do you like food?"
"I do," I said. "I like most foods."
"That's good," he said, but he sounded disappointed. With his free hand he began to scratch his forearm hard. His nails left red stripes on his skin. Then he fell silent. His large eyes, which looked very much like his brother's except that their irises were darker, suddenly withdrew from me.
"Do you like food?" I said to him.
"You were eating crackers when I called you yesterday, Dan," Bill said, interrupting us.
Dan smiled. "That's right. I was!" He said this happily and then stood up from the table and began to pace. With his shoulders hunched and his head lowered toward the floor, he made a curious gesture with his left hand as he walked. He turned his thumb and index finger into an O, then closed his hand into a fist, and after a second of clenching repeated the O sign again.
Bill ignored his brother and continued his conversation with Erica and Violet. Matt and Mark sat for a few minutes longer and then jumped up from the table and began to run, announcing loudly that they were "superheroes." Dan paced. The warped floorboards creaked as he trod back and forth, back and forth. While he paced he muttered to himself and interrupted his own monologue with short bursts of laughter. Violet glanced at him repeatedly and then looked at Bill, but Bill shook his head at her, telling her not to interfere.
When we had finished dessert, I noticed that Dan had retreated to the far end of the room and was sitting on the stool near Bill's worktable. I stood up and walked toward him. As I came closer, I heard him say, "Your brother won't let you go back to that stinking joint. Mother's old now. She just pretends to like you anyway."
I said his name.
The sound of my voice must have startled him, because I saw his whole body jerk to attention. "I'm sorry," he said. "I hope it's okay to be here. I had to think. I've been thinking pretty hard."
I sat down beside him. I could smell him. Dan reeked of sweat, andthere were big wet patches under the arms of his shirt. "What are you thinking about?"
"Mystery," he said. He pulled at several hairs on his forearm and began to twist them into a small knot. "I told Bill about it. It's funny, because it has two sides--male and female."
"Does it?" I said. "In what way?"
"It's like this--it can be Mr. Ree or Miss Tery. You see what I mean?"
"Yes, I do."
"They're the hero and heroine of the play I'm writing." He gave the hairs on his arm a severe wrench, lit another cigarette, and stared at the ceiling. Dan's eyes were circled with blackness, but his gaunt profile resembled Bill's, and for a moment I imagined the two of them as small boys standing in a driveway. Dan lapsed into his own thoughts and the O sign reappeared, his fingers going through the motions urgently and rapidly. He stood up and paced again. Violet interrupted us.
"Would you like to join us at the table for a cognac?" she said.
"Thank you, Violet," Dan said politely. "But I'd rather smoke and pace."
After several minutes Dan did come to the table. He seated himself next to Bill, leaned close to his brother, and vigorously began to pat his shoulder. "My big bro," he said. "Big Bill, old B.B., the Big Boom Bill ..."
Bill stopped Dan's patter by putting his arm around him. "I'm glad you decided to come. It's good to have you here."
Dan grinned hugely and took a sip from the snifter that was standing in front of him.
An hour later, the dishes had been washed and put away. The two boys were playing with blocks near the windows while Violet, Erica, Bill, and I stood over the mattress where Dan had fallen into a dead sleep. He was curled up into a tight ball, hugging his knees as he wheezed softly with his mouth open. A broken cigarette and his lighter lay on the blanket beside him. "I probably shouldn't have let him have that brandy," Bill said. "It might have interacted with the lithium."
Dan didn't come often to the Bowery, but I know that Bill spoke tohim on the telephone regularly, sometimes every day. Poor Dan was all cracks. His life was a daily struggle to ward off a breakdown that would land him in the hospital again. Wracked by bursts of paranoia, he would call to ask Bill if he still liked him or, worse, if Bill was out to kill him. And yet despite his illness, Dan had traits that linked him to his brother. They both coursed with emotions that weren't easy to contain. In Bill that potent feeling found an exit in work. "I work to live," he once told me, and after meeting Dan I understood far better what he had meant by those words. Making art was necessary for Bill to maintain a minimal equilibrium, to keep himself going. Dan's plays and poems were mostly unfinished, the tattered products of a mind that ran in circles and could never leap out of itself. The older brother's brain and nerves and private history had given him the strength to withstand the strains of ordinary life. The younger brother's had not.
I heard Lucille walking above us every day. She had a particular step, light with a little drag to it. When I met her on the stairs, she would always smile self-consciously before we began to talk. She never mentioned Bill or Violet, and although I always asked her about her work, she never asked me to read her poems again. At my urging, Erica invited Lucille and Mark for an early dinner that spring. She put on a dress for the occasion, an odd beige sack that was very unflattering. Although her body was hidden under it, the badly chosen dress touched me. I read it as yet another sign of her unworldiness, and rather than repelling me, I found its ugliness poignant. As she sat across the table from me that evening, I wondered at the strict composure of her pale oval face. Her restraint gave her an aura that was almost inanimate, as if by some supernatural fluke she were a painting of herself made centuries before she was born.
That night Mark and Matt dug out their Halloween costumes and roared about the room. Mark wore a thin nylon skeleton suit, black with white bones printed on it, and Matt was a skinny midget Superman in blue pajamas with a red felt S sewed onto the chest and a cape in thesame material. Matt began calling Mark "Skeley-man" and "Boney-head." After a couple of minutes, the nicknames turned into a loud chant: "Bones bones dead down." The two little boys tromped in a circle near the windows of our loft. Like two mad grave diggers, they repeated the chant over and over again: "Bones! Bones! Dead! Down!" Erica watched them, and I turned my head several times to make sure they were not working themselves up into a frenzy that would end in tears, but Lucille didn't seem to notice her son or hear the song Matt had made up for their game.
She told us that she was considering taking a job she had been offered teaching creative writing at Rice University in Houston. "I have never been to Texas," she said. "I hope that if I take the job, I will meet a cowboy or two. I have never met one." Lucille often avoided contractions in her speech, a small tic I hadn't noticed until that dinner. She went on. "Cowboys have interested me since I was a child, not real ones, of course, but the ones I invented for myself. The real thing might disappoint me terribly."
Lucille took that job and left for Texas with Mark in early August. By then she and Bill had been divorced for two months. Five days after the divorce was final, Bill and Violet were married. The wedding was held in the Bowery loft on June 16th, the same day Joyce's Jewish Ulysses had wandered around Dublin. A few minutes before the exchange of vows, I noted that Violet's last name, Blom, was only an o away from Bloom, and that meaningless link led me to reflect on Bill's name, Wechsler, which carries the German root for change, changing, and making change. Blooming and changing, I thought.
Bill and Violet had wanted to be married in Paris away from family and friends. That is what they had told Regina and Violet's parents they were doing, but the romantic fancy was stymied by a tangle of French laws, and they married quickly before they left for France. The only people who actually witnessed the event were Matt and Dan and Erica and I. Mark and Lucille were on Cape Cod with her family. Regina and Al were on a cruise somewhere, and the Bloms planned a reception for the couple in Minnesota later that year.
The six of us sweltered as the temperature rose to near a hundred degrees. The ceiling fan pushed the sultry air round and round, squeaking as it turned through the short ceremony conducted by a small bald man from the Ethical Culture Society. After saying a few words and reading "The Good-Morrow" by John Donne, he pronounced Bill and Violet husband and wife. Only minutes later, the wind rose and blew in through the windows and it rained. It rained in sheets and it thundered while we danced to tapes of the Supremes and drank champagne. We all danced. Dan danced with Violet and Erica and with Matt and with me. He pounded the floor with his feet and let out a low rumbling laugh every now and again, before he was lured away by the desire to pace and smoke in a corner alone. Erica had dressed Matt in a blazer with a bow tie and gray pants, but he danced barefoot in nothing but his white shirt and underpants. He wiggled his hands over his head and swayed back and forth to the music. The bride and groom danced, too. Violet shimmied and kicked and threw her head back, and Bill moved with her. On a sudden impulse, he picked her up, carried her through the loft's door, out onto the landing, and then returned with her.
"What's Uncle Bill doing to Violet?" Matt asked me.
"He's carrying her over the threshold." I crouched down beside him to explain the symbolism of doors. Matt stared at me with wide eyes and wanted to know if I had done it to Mommy. I hadn't, and when I looked in his face, I felt my masculinity pale a little beside vigorous Uncle Bill's.
Bill hadn't wanted Lucille to leave New York with Mark, but the more he'd insisted that she stay, the more stubborn Lucille had become, and he'd lost that first battle over his son. Bill kept the loft that had been bought with his inheritance. His truck, his savings account, the furniture he and Lucille had bought together, and three portraits of Mark disappeared in the agreement. By the time Bill and Violet returned from France, Lucille and Mark had flown off to Texas, and the loft above us had been stripped bare except for Bill's books. Violet cleaned it hard and then they moved in. But in late September, only weeks after her move toTexas, Lucille called Bill and told him that she was unable to take care of Mark and teach her classes. She put Mark on a plane and sent him home to his father. Mark landed back on Greene Street with Bill and Violet, in the same place where he had lived with his mother for a couple of years. It must have looked very different to him. Lucille was an indifferent housekeeper. Although not as slovenly as Bill, she had lived with piles of books on her floor, toys underfoot, and a large family of dust mice. Violet inhabited the new apartment with typical zeal. The largely empty rooms sparkled from her severe purgings. The day I first saw it in its new incarnation, a clear glass vase had been placed on a simple new table that Bill had built and Violet had painted a deep shade of turquoise. The vase was filled with twenty brilliant red tulips.
By the time the hysteria pieces were up for exhibition in late October of 1983, the SoHo Erica and I had moved to in 1975 was gone. Its mostly vacant streets and quiet dumpiness had been replaced by a new sheen. One gallery after another opened--their doors stripped and freshly painted. Clothing stores popped up suddenly to display seven or eight dresses, skirts, or sweaters in huge pale rooms, as if those garments were also works of art. Bernie renovated his large, white second-floor gallery on West Broadway into a smoother, larger, whiter second-floor gallery, and as his art sales mounted, Bernie ran faster and bounced higher. Whenever I bumped into him on a corner or in a café, he rocked and jiggled and rattled on about this new artist or that one, grinning broadly about sold-out shows and rising prices. Bernie wasn't queasy about money. He embraced it with an exuberance and immodesty I couldn't help but admire. Booms and busts have come and gone in New York with rhythmical succession, but I have never felt so close to large sums of money as I did then. Those dollars pulled hordes of unfamiliar people into the neighborhood. Buses made stops on West Broadway and unloaded tourists, most of them female and most of them middle-aged. These women padded around the neighborhood in groups, visiting one gallery after another. They were usually dressed in running suits, a fashion thathad the distasteful effect of making them look like aging infants. Young Europeans arrived and bought up lofts. After decorating their new digs according to the minimal fashion of the time, they headed for the streets and restaurants and galleries, where they loitered for hours, as shiftless as they were well-dressed.
Art is mysterious, but selling art may be even more mysterious. The object itself is bought and sold, handed from one person to another, and yet countless factors are at work within the transaction. In order to grow in value, a work of art requires a particular psychological climate. At that moment, SoHo provided exactly the right amount of mental heat for art to thrive and for prices to soar. Expensive work from every period must be impregnated by the intangible--an idea of worth. This idea has the paradoxical effect of detaching the name of the artist from the thing, and the name becomes the commodity that is bought and sold. The object merely trails after the name as its solid proof. Of course, the artist himself or herself has little to do with any of it. But in those years, whenever I went for groceries or stood in line at the post office, I heard the names. Schnabel, Salle, Fischl, Sherman were magic words then, like the ones in the fairy tales I read to Matt every night. They opened sealed doors and filled empty pouches with gold. The name Wechsler wasn't fated for full-blown enchantment then, but after Bernie's show, it was whispered here and there, and I sensed that slowly Bill too might lose his name to the strange weather that hung over SoHo for a number of years before it stopped, suddenly, on another October day in 1987.
In August, Erica and I were invited to look at three of the finished hysteria pieces on the Bowery. Dozens of smaller works on the same theme, paintings, drawings, and little constructions, were still under way. When we entered the room, I saw three huge shallow boxes--each ten feet high, seven feet wide, and a foot deep--standing in the middle of the room. Canvas had been stretched across their frames, and the material glowed, lit by electric lights sealed inside the boxes. At first, all I noticed were their surfaces: hallways, stairs, windows, and doors painted in muted colors--browns, ochers, deep greens, and blues. Steps led to a ceiling with no access to another floor. Windows opened onto brickwalls. Doors lay on their sides or were tilted at impossible angles. A fire escape seemed to crawl through a hole from a painted outside to a painted inside, bringing a long cluster of ivy with it.
A covering that reminded me of Saran Wrap was pulled tightly over the fronts of the three painted boxes. Texts and images had been impressed into the plastic, leaving an imprint but no color. The effect of these words and pictures was more subliminal than anything else, because they were hard to make out. Near the bottom of the right-hand corner of the third box was a three-dimensional man, about six inches tall, dressed in a top hat and a long coat. He was pushing on a door that appeared to be ajar. Looking closer, I saw that the door was real. It opened on a hinge, and through the crack I could see a street that looked like ours--Greene Street between Canal and Grand.
Erica found a door in the first box and opened it. Drawing close to her, I peeked into a small room, harshly lit by a miniature ceiling lamp that shone on an old black-and-white photograph that had been pasted to the far wall. It showed a woman's head and torso from behind. The word SATAN had been written in large letters on the skin between her shoulder blades. In front of the photo was the image of another woman kneeling on the ground. She had been painted on heavy canvas and then cut out. For her exposed back and arms, Bill had used pearly, idealized flesh tones reminiscent of Titian. The nightgown she had pulled down over her shoulders was the palest of blues. The third figure in the room was a man, a small wax sculpture. He stood over the cutout woman with a pointer, like the ones used in geography classes, and seemed to be tracing something onto her skin--a crude landscape of a tree, a house, and a cloud.
Erica withdrew her head and said to Violet, "Dermagraphism."
"Yes, they wrote on them," Bill said to me. "The doctors traced their bodies with a blunt instrument and the words or pictures would appear on their skin. Then they took photographs of the writing."
Bill opened another door, and I looked into a second room in the same box. Its back wall was covered with the painted image of a woman looking out a window. Her long dark hair had been pulled to one sideto bare her shoulders. The style of the painting was straight from seventeenth-century Holland, but Bill had complicated the image by lightly drawing over it in black. The drawing was of the same woman, but the style of the rendering was different, and the sketch on top of the painting made me feel that the woman was standing with her own ghost. Written twice on her arm, once with red paint and once with black crayon, was: T. BARTHÉLÉMY. The letters appeared to be bleeding.
"Didi-Huberman mentions Barthélémy," Violet said. "He was a doctor somewhere in France who wrote his name on a woman, and then commanded her to bleed from the letters at four o'clock the same afternoon. She bled, and according to the report, the name remained visible for three months." I continued to look into the small illuminated room. On the floor in front of the painting of Augustine were tiny articles of clothing--a petticoat, a miniature corset, stockings and tiny boots.
Violet pulled open a third door. This all-white room was lit from above by a small electric chandelier. A tiny painting in an ornate gold frame had been propped against the back wall. The canvas showed a fully dressed man and a naked woman in what appeared to be a hallway. You couldn't see the woman's face, but her body reminded me of Violet's. She was lying on the floor as the young man straddled her back. Gripping a large pen in his left hand, he appeared to be writing vigorously on one of her buttocks.
The middle box had two doors. Behind the first was a small doll who made me think of Goldilocks--long blond curls, checkered dress, and white pinafore. The little figure was having a tantrum. Her eyes were screwed shut and her mouth was stretched wide in a silent scream as she clamped her arms around a pole that divided the little room in half. In her fit she had contorted her body to one side so that her dress had twisted up around her waist, and when I scrutinized her little face more closely, I saw that a long bloody scratch ran down one of her cheeks. On the walls that surrounded her, Bill had painted ten shadowy male figures in black and white. Each man was holding a book and had turned his gray eyes toward the howling girl.
The second door in the middle box contained a black-and-white painting that resembled a photograph from the Salpêtrière. Bill had used one of the photographs of a woman in a crucifixion pose to render his version of Genevieve, a young woman whose medical ordeals had mimicked the trials of saints--paralysis, seizures, and stigmata. Four Barbie dolls were lying face-up on the floor in front of the photo-painting. Blindfolds had been tied around their eyes and their mouths were taped. As I studied the dolls, I noticed that words had been printed on the mouth tapes of the three first dolls: HYSTERIA, ANOREXIA NERVOSA, and EXQUISITE MUTILATION. The fourth tape was blank.
The third box, with its lone figure at the bottom pushing open a door, contained two other well-hidden doors. I found the first one, its knob disguised among a dozen others that had been painted in a trompe l'oeil style. I looked into a brightly lit room that was much smaller than the others. On its floor lay a miniature wooden coffin. That was all. Erica opened the last door to reveal another nearly empty room. It had nothing in it except a dirty, ragged piece of paper with the word key written on it in a tiny cursive hand.
Erica bent down to examine the little sculpture of the man in the top hat walking out the door to Greene Street. "Is he a real person, too?" she said.
"She," Violet said. "Look closely."
I crouched down beside Erica. I could see the figure's breasts underneath the jacket. The suit looked large. It bagged at her ankles.
"It's Augustine," Violet said. "That's the end of her story--the very last entry in her observation: "9 septembre--X ... se sauve de la Salpêtrière déguisée en homme."
"X?" I said.
"Yes, the doctors shielded their patients' identities by using letters and codes. But it was definitely Augustine. I've traced it. On September ninth, 1880, she escaped from the Salpetriere dressed as a man."
It was early evening by then. Erica and I had both come straight to the Bowery from work. Hunger and weariness had begun to weigh onme. I thought of Matt at home with Grace, and I wondered how to write about these boxes as I watched Bill put his arm around Violet, who was still talking to Erica. "They turned living women into things," she said. "Charcot called the hypnotized women 'artificial hysterics.' That was his term. Dermagraphism makes the idea more potent. Doctors like Barthélémy signed women's bodies just as if they were works of art."
"It smacks of fraud," I said. "Bleeding names. A mere touch of the skin and drawings appear."
"They didn't fake that, Leo. It's true that the whole scene was pretty theatrical. Charcot had his study done completely in black. He was fascinated with historical accounts of demonism, witchcraft, and faith healing. I suppose he thought he could explain it all through science, but the dermagraphism was real. Even I can do it."
Violet sat down on the floor. "It takes a little while," she said. "Be patient." She closed her eyes and began to breathe in and out. Her shoulders sank. Her lips parted. Bill glanced down at her, shook his head, and smiled. Violet opened her eyes and looked straight ahead. She held out her forearm and traced the inside of it lightly with the index finger of her free hand. The name Violet Blom appeared on her skin as a pale inscription, which at first was the color of a pink rose and then deepened slightly. She closed her eyes, breathed again, and an instant later, she opened her eyes. "Magic," she said. "Real magic."
Violet rubbed the looping letters with her fingers as she held her arm out for us to examine. While I continued to look at the words on the flushed skin of her inner arm, the distance between me and the doctors in the Salpetriere closed. Medicine had granted permission to a fantasy that men have never abandoned, a muddled version of what Pygmalion wanted--something between a real woman and a beautiful thing. Violet was smiling. She lowered her arm to her side, and I thought of Ovid's Pygmalion kissing, embracing, and dressing the girl he had carved out of ivory. When his wish comes true, he touches her new warm skin and his fingers leave an imprint. The name inscribed on Violet's arm was still visible as she sat cross-legged on the floor with her arms in her lap. The hypnotized women had obeyed every command: Bend over, kneel, liftyour arm, crawl. They had dropped their blouses over their shoulders and turned their naked backs to the physician's magic wand. Only a touch was needed and the words in his mind became words in flesh. Omnipotent dreams. We all have them, but usually they live only in stories and waking fantasies, where they have license to roam. I thought of one of the little paintings I had just seen, now hidden behind a closed door--the young man presses the nub of his fountain pen into the soft buttock of the reclining woman. It had seemed comic when I'd looked at it, but remembering it caused a warm sensation in me that ended with Bill's voice. "Well, Leo," he said. "Any thoughts?"
I answered him, but I said nothing about Violet's arm or Pygmalion or the erotic pen.
By abandoning the flatness of painting, Bill had leapt into new territory. At the same time, he continued to play with the idea of painting by opposing two-dimensional images with three-dimensional spaces and dolls. He continued to work in contrasting styles, to refer to the history of painting and to cultural images in general--including advertisements. I discovered that the plastic "skin" on the boxes had been densely printed with old and new ads for everything from corsets to coffee. Among the ads were poems, by Dickinson, Hölderlin, Hopkins, Artaud, and Celan--the lonely poets. There were also quotations from Shakespeare and Dickens, mostly ones that had entered the language, like: "All the world's a stage" and "The law is a ass." Over one of the doors, I found Dan's poem "Charge Brothers W," and near the poem I deciphered the title of another work I recognized: "Mystery: A Play Cut in Half by Daniel Wechsler."
For several weeks, I abandoned my book to write a short essay--seven pages. Again my piece was xeroxed and put out on a table in the Weeks Gallery, this time accompanied by postcard-sized reproductions of the boxes and a few of the smaller works. Bill was pleased with the short essay. I had done all that I could reasonably do under the circumstances, but the truth was that I needed years, not a month, to think throughthose pieces. At the time I didn't understand what I do now. The boxes were like three tangible dreams Bill had dreamed when his life split between Lucille and Violet. Whether Bill knew it or not, the little figure of a woman dressed like a man was another self-portrait. Augustine was the fictional child he and Violet had made together. Her escape into that familiar street was also Bill's escape, and I have never stopped thinking about what Augustine left behind her in the rooms of that same box--a tiny coffin and the word key. Bill could easily have put a real key into that white room, but he had chosen not to.
Erica and I both wondered if we hadn't been wrong to take Matt to the gallery to see the hysteria boxes. After his first visit, he begged for more excursions to "Bernie's house." A bowl of tin-foil-wrapped chocolates that lay on the front desk was partly responsible for luring Matt back to the gallery, but he also liked the way Bernie talked to him. Bernie didn't modulate his voice into the condescending tones grown-ups usually adopt for children. "Hey, Matt," he would say, "I've got something in the back room you might like. It's a cool sculpture of a baseball mitt with some hairy stuff growing out of it." After one of these invitations, Matt would straighten himself up and walk in a slow and dignified manner behind Bernie. He was only six years old and already he had pretensions. But more than anyone or anything in the Weeks Gallery, Matt loved the monstrous little girl in the second hysteria piece. A hundred times, I lifted him up so that he could open the door and peek in at the screaming child.
"What is it you like so much about that little doll, Matt?" I finally asked him one afternoon after I set him down on the floor.
"I like to see her underpants," he said matter-of-factly.
"Your kid?" a voice said.
When I looked up, I saw Henry Hasseborg. He was wearing a black sweater, black pants, and had tossed a red scarf around his neck and over one sloping shoulder in the manner of a French student. This overt touch of vanity made me pity him for a moment. He squinted down atMatt, then up at me. "Just making the rounds," he said in a voice that was unnecessarily loud. "I missed the opening, but I certainly heard about it. Made a dull roar among the cognoscenti. Good piece of writing by the way," he continued casually. "Of course, you're just the man for it with all your training in the old masters." He drawled out the last two words and made quotation gesture with his fingers.
"Thank you, Henry," I said. "I'm sorry I can't stay and talk, but Matthew and I were just leaving."
We left Hasseborg with his red nose inside one of Bill's doors.
"That was a funny man," Matt said to me on the street as he took my hand.
"Yes," I said. "He's funny, but you know he can't help the way he looks."
"But he talks funny, too, Dad." Matt stopped walking and I waited. I could see that he was thinking hard. My son thought with his face in those days. His eyes narrowed. He screwed up his nose and tightened his mouth. After several seconds, he said, "He talks like me when I'm pretending." Matt deepened his voice, "Like this--I'm Spiderman."
I stared down at Matthew. "Well, you're right, Matt," I said. "He is pretending."
"But who is he pretending to be?" Matt asked.
"Himself," I said.
Matt laughed at this and said, "That's silly," and then he burst into song. "Ha, Ha," he sang, "Rumpelstiltskin is my name! Rumpel, Rumpel, Rumpel, Rumpel, Rumpelstiltskin is my name!"
From the time he turned three, Matt had been drawing every day. His egglike people with arms that sprouted from giant heads soon gained bodies and then backgrounds. At five, he was sketching people in profile walking down the street. Although Matt's pedestrians had oversized noses and appeared to be moving stiffly, they came in all sizes and shapes. They were fat and thin and black and tan and brown and pink, and he dressed them up in suits and dresses and the motorcycle garb he musthave noticed on Christopher Street. Bins overflowed with litter and soda cans on his street corners. Flies hovered over the debris, and he etched cracks into the sidewalks. His bulbous dogs peed and shat as their owners stood ready with sheets of newspaper. Miss Langenweiler, Matt's kindergarten teacher, reported that she had never seen such detail in a child's drawings in all her years of teaching. Matthew balked at letters and numbers, however. When I showed him a b or a t in the newspaper, he ran away from me. Erica bought elaborately illustrated ABC books with large colored letters. "Ball," she would say and point to the picture of a beach ball. "B-A-L-L." But Matthew wanted nothing of balls and B's. "Read the Seven Ravens, Mommy," he would say, and Erica would put down the tedious new alphabet book and pick up our tattered copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales.
I sometimes thought that Matt saw too much, that his eyes and brain were so flooded with the world's astounding particularity that the same gift that had made him sensitive to the habits of flies, to cracks in cement, and the way belts buckled made it difficult for him to learn to read. It took my son a long time to understand that in English words moved from left to right on a page and that the gaps between the clusters of letters signified a break between words.
Mark and Matthew played together every afternoon after school while Grace handed out carrot sticks and bits of apple, read them stories, and negotiated the occasional dispute. That daily routine was broken in February. Bill explained to me that Mark had been "very upset" after his mother's Christmas visit and that he and Lucille had decided together that Mark would be better off with her in Texas. I didn't press Bill for details. The few times he spoke to me about his son, his soft voice would tighten and his eyes would settle somewhere beyond me--on a wall or a book or a window. Bill made three visits to Houston that spring. During those long weekends, he and Mark holed up in a motel, watched cartoons, took walks, played with Star Wars men, and read "Hansel and Gretel." "That's all he wants to hear--over and over and over again," Bill said. "I know it by heart." Bill had to leave Mark with his mother, but hetook the story with him and began to work on a series of constructions that would become his own version of the tale. By the time Hansel and Gretel was finished, Lucille and Mark were living in New York again. She had been offered another year of teaching at Rice but had turned it down.
Not long after Mark left for Texas, Gunna died. The death of this imaginary boy, who had been around for two years, was followed by the arrival of a new person Matt called "the Ghosty Boy." When Erica asked Matt how Gunna died, he told her, "He got too old and couldn't live anymore."
One evening after his story, Erica and I were sitting on the end of Matt's bed. "I have the Ghosty Boy feeling," he said.
"Who's the Ghosty Boy?" Erica asked, leaning over him. She put her lips to his forehead.
"He's a boy in my dreams."
"Do you dream about him a lot?" I asked.
Matt nodded. "He doesn't have a face and he can't talk, but he can fly. Not like Peter Pan, just a little bit off the ground and then he sinks down. Sometimes he's here, but other times he's away."
"Where does he go?" Erica asked.
"I don't know. I've never been there."
"Does he have a name," I said, "other than Ghosty Boy?"
"Yes, but he can't talk, Dad, so he can't say!"
"Oh yes, I forgot."
"He doesn't frighten you, does he, Matt?" Erica said.
"No, Mom," he said. "He's kind of in me, you see. Half in me, and half out of me, and I know he's not really real."
We accepted this cryptic explanation and kissed Matt good night. The Ghosty Boy came and went for years. After a while he became a memory for Matt, a personage he would refer to in the past tense. Erica and I came to understand that the boy was a damaged creature, someone to be pitied. Matthew would shake his head when he talked about the boy's feeble attempts at flight, which lifted him only inches off theground. His tone was oddly superior. He talked as if he, Matthew Hertzberg, unlike his figment, were soaring regularly over New York City with a large and highly efficient pair of wings.
The Ghosty Boy was still active when Violet defended her dissertation in May. She and Erica spent hours discussing what Violet should wear for the event. When I interrupted them to say that defense committees never look at a doctoral candidate's clothes, Erica cut me off. "You're not a woman. What do you know?" Violet decided on a conservative skirt, a blouse, and low heels, but underneath she wore a whalebone corset that she had rented from a costume company in the Village. Before she left for her defense, she appeared in our doorway to model herself. "The corset's for good luck," Violet said as she spun around for me and Erica. "It makes me feel closer to my hysterics, but it also squishes me in the right places." She looked down at her belly. "I've gotten kind of fat from sitting on my butt all these months."
"You're not fat, Violet," Erica said. "You're voluptuous."
"I'm pudgy and you know it." Violet kissed Erica and then she kissed me. Five hours later, she returned in triumph. "It must be good for something," she said about the Ph.D. "I know there aren't any jobs around here. Last week a friend told me there were only three positions in French history in the entire country. I'm destined for unemployment. Maybe I'll turn into one of those overeducated, hyperarticulate cabdrivers who whiz around the boroughs singing Puccini arias or quoting Voltaire to their passengers in the backseat, who keep praying they'll just shut up and drive."
Violet didn't become a cabdriver, and she didn't become a professor. A year later, the University of Minnesota Press published Hysteria and Suggestion: Compliance, Rebellion, and Illness at the Salpêtrière. The teaching jobs Violet might have secured were in far-flung places like Nebraska or Georgia, and she didn't want to leave New York. A contemporary art museum in Spain had bought Bill's three large hysteria works, and many of the smaller pieces had sold to collectors. His money worries had lifted, at least for a while. But well before her first book was published, Violet had begun research for a second book about another cultural epidemic.She had decided to write about eating disorders. Although Violet exaggerated her plumpness, it was true that her full curves had come to resemble the rounder movie queens of my youth. She knew her body was unfashionable, particularly in Manhattan, where thinness was a requirement for the truly chic. Violet's work inevitably turned on her private passions, and food was one of them. She cooked well and she ate with gusto--often dribbling in the process. Nearly every time Erica and I shared a meal with Bill and Violet, it ended with Bill, napkin in hand, delicately wiping Violet's face to clean up errant bits of food or spots of juice.
Violet's book would take years to write, and it would be more than a cool, academic study. Violet was on a mission to uncover the afflictions she called "inverted hysterias." "Nowadays girls make boundaries," she said. "The hysterics wanted to explode them. Anorexics build them up." She pored over historical materials. She studied the saints who starved themselves of earthly nourishment in order to taste the heavenly food of Christ's body in their visions--his blood, the pus from his wounds, even his lost foreskin. She dug up medical reports of girls who were said to eat nothing for months at a time, women who sustained themselves on the scent of flowers or from watching others eat. She explored the lives of the hunger artists who performed in cities all over Europe and America in the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. She told me about a man named Sacco in London who fasted publicly in a glass box while hundreds of visitors filed past his wasted body. She also visited clinics and hospitals. She interviewed women and girls suffering from anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and obesity. She spoke to doctors, therapists, pyschoana-lysts, and the editors of womens' magazines. In her small study upstairs, Violet accumulated hours and hours of tapes for her book, and every time we saw her, she had given it a new facetious title: Blimps and Bones, Monster Mouths, and my favorite, Broad Broads and Tiny Teens.
Bill invited me to his studio three or four times while the Hansel and Gretel works were under way. During my third visit, I suddenly realized that the fairy tale Bill had chosen was also about food. The whole story turned on the problems of eating, of not eating, and of being eaten. Billtold Hansel and Gretel in nine separate works. During the narrative, the figures and images grew steadily larger, reaching human scale only in the last piece. Bill's Hansel and Gretel were starved children, famine victims whose frail limbs and immense eyes brought to mind the hundreds of photographs that document twentieth-century misery, and he dressed the children in ragged sweatshirts, blue jeans, and sneakers.
The first piece was a box, about two feet square, that resembled a dollhouse--one wall lifted off for viewing. The cutout figures of Hansel and Gretel could be seen at the top of a stairway. Below them were two more cutouts of a man and a woman sitting on a sofa as a television flickered in front of them--its pulsating light provided by a small bulb hidden behind the painting. I couldn't see the man's face. His features were muted by shadows, but the woman's face, which she had turned toward her husband, resembled a tight, hard mask. The four characters had been drawn in black ink (etched in a style that reminded me a little of the Dick Tracy cartoon strip) and then set into the interior of the house, which had been painted in color.
The three pieces that followed were paintings. Each canvas was framed in the heavy gilt style of museums, and each was a little larger than the one that came before it. The colors and style of the paintings reminded me at first of Friedrich, but then I realized that they bore a closer resemblance to Rider's romantic American landscapes. The first painting showed the children from a great distance, after they had awoken in the forest to find their parents gone. The tiny figures were clinging to each other under a high, eerie moon, its cool light shining on Hansel's pebbles. Bill followed that picture with another landscape of the forest floor. A long trail of bread crumbs glowed like pale tubers under a blue-black sky. The sleeping children were barely visible in this painting--mere shadows that lay beside each other on the ground. In the third canvas, Bill had painted the birds diving for bits of bread as a thin gold sun rose through the trees. Hansel and Gretel were nowhere to be seen.
To depict the candy house, Bill abandoned framed canvases for a larger one that had been cut into the shape of a house. The children wereseparate cutouts attached to the roof. He had painted the house and children with broad, wild strokes, using colors far more brilliant than any that had preceded them. The two starved and abandoned children sprawled on the candy house and gorged themselves. Hansel's palm was pressed tightly against his mouth as he stuffed himself with chocolates. Gretel's eyes squinted with pleasure as she bit into a Tootsie Pop. Every sweet on the house was recognizable. Some were painted. Others were boxes and bags from real candies Bill had glued to the surface of the house--Chuckles and Hershey bars, Sweetarts, Jujyfruits, Kit Kats, and Almond Joys.
The witch didn't appear until the sixth work, also a painting. Inside another house-shaped canvas, painted in colors more subdued than the one before it, an old woman stood over the sleeping boy and girl, who had the blissful, bloated look of sated gluttons. Near the three figures was a table covered with dirty dishes. Bill had painted bread crumbs and bits of hamburger, as well as the red streaks left on their plates from ketchup. The interior of that room was as banal and dreary as any in America, but it was painted with an energy that reminded me of Manet. Again Bill had included a television, and on the screen he had painted an ad for peanut butter. The witch was wearing a dirty brassiere and a pair of flesh-colored panty hose, through which you could see her flattened pubic hair and soft swollen belly. Her shriveled breasts under the bra and the two thin rolls of skin around her waist were unpleasant to look at, but her face was truly monstrous. Distorted by rage, her eyes bulged behind the lenses of her thick glasses. Her gaping mouth looked enormous as she bared her teeth to reveal rows of gleaming silver fillings. In Bill's witch, the fairy tale's literal horror came true. The woman was a cannibal.
In the seventh piece, Bill changed the format again. Inside a real iron cage, he had placed a canvas cutout of Hansel. The flat painted boy was down on his hands and knees, and when I looked through the bars, I saw that he was much fatter than in his earlier incarnations. His old clothes no longer fit him, and his belly hung out over his unsnapped jeans. At the bottom of the cage lay a real wishbone from a chicken--clean and dryand white. The eighth piece showed Gretel standing in front of a stove. The girl was a thick paper cutout that resembled her earlier cartoon self but much chubbier. Bill had painted both sides of her, back and front, because she was meant to be viewed from both sides. The stove she faced was real, and its oven door hung wide open. But inside the oven there was no burned corpse. The back of the stove had been removed, and all that could be seen was the blank wall behind it.
The last work showed two well-fed children stepping out of a doorway that had been cut out of a large rectangular canvas--ten feet long and seven feet high. No longer a candy house, the structure was a classic ranch, borrowed from the landscape of a thousand American suburbs, and it was painted to resemble a fading color photograph. Bill had included a thin white frame around the canvas, like those found on older snapshots. In their flat hands, the children were clutching a real rope. A few feet in front of them was a life-sized, three-dimensional sculpture of a man. He was kneeling on the floor as he gripped the other end of the rope and appeared to be pulling the children toward him and out of the story. Near his feet lay a real axe. The father figure had been painted solid blue. Over the blue, covering his body in white letters, was the complete story of "Hansel and Gretel." "Hard by a great forest dwelt a poor woodcutter with his wife and two children. The boy was called Hansel and the girl Gretel."
Words of rescue, I said to myself when I saw the writing on the man's body. Exactly what I meant by this I didn't know, but I thought it nevertheless. The night after I saw the finished Hansel and Gretel, I dreamed that I lifted my arm and discovered words written into my skin. I couldn't understand how the words had gotten there, and I couldn't read them, but I could identify the nouns, because they were all capitalized. I tried to rub off the letters, but they wouldn't go away. When I woke from the dream, I guessed that it had been inspired by Bill's father figure, but then I remembered the image of the woman with a bleeding inscription and the pale marks Violet's name had made on her skin. "Hansel and Gretel" was a story about feast and famine and childhood fears, but Bill's work, with its skeletal children, had unearthed another association in mydreaming mind--the uppercase nouns of my first language had mutated into the numbers that were burned into the arms of people after they arrived at the Nazi death camps. My Uncle David had been the only member of my family who had lived long enough to be branded with a number. For a long time, I lay awake in bed and listened to Erica's breathing. After about an hour, I quietly left the room, went to my desk, and dug out the wedding photo of David and Marta, which I kept in my desk drawer. At four o'clock in the morning, Greene Street was remarkably quiet. I listened to a few trucks rumble down Canal and examined the picture. I studied Marta's elegant ankle-length dress and my uncle's suit. David had been better looking than my father, but I could see the resemblance between the two, especially around the jaw and brow. I have a single memory of my uncle. I am walking with my father to meet him. We are in a park and the sun that shines through the trees makes patterns of light and shade on the grass. I am looking intently at the grass, and then suddenly Uncle David is there and he has taken me by the waist and lifted me high above his head. I remember the pleasure of sailing up and then down, and that I admired his strength and confidence. My father wanted him to leave Germany with us. I don't remember that they argued that day, but I know there were many fights between them and that David adamantly refused to leave the country he loved.
When the Hansel and Gretel works were shown, they caused a ruckus. The man behind the uproar was Henry Hasseborg, who had written an article for DASH: The Downtown Arts Scene Herald with the headline GLAMOUR BOY'S MISOGYNIST VISION. Hasseborg first accused Bill of adopting "the dressed-down macho look of the Abstract Expressionists to pander to wealthy European collectors." He then blasted the work as "facile illustration" and went on to call it "the most blatant artistic expression of the hatred of women in recent memory." In three tightly packed columns of print, Hasseborg fumed and boiled and spat venom. The article included a large photograph of Bill wearing sunglasses and looking very much like a movie star. Bill was stunned. Violet cried. Ericareferred to the article as an example of "narcissistic hatred," and Jack chuckled, "Imagine that little skunk masquerading as a feminist. Talk about pandering!"
My own feeling was that Hasseborg had been waiting to strike. By the time the article appeared, Bill had received enough attention to be deeply resented by a few people. Envy and cruelty inevitably accompany fame, however small that fame may be. It doesn't matter where it rises--in the schoolyard, in boardrooms, in the hallways of universities, or on a gallery's white walls. Out in the big world, the name William Wechsler meant very little, but in the incestuous circle of collectors and museums in New York, Bill's reputation was getting warmer, and even a dim glow had the power to burn the likes of Henry Hasseborg.
Over the years, Bill would regularly inspire hatred in people who didn't know him, and every time it happened, he felt wounded and surprised. His handsome face cursed him, but far more damaging was the fact that strangers, usually in the form of journalists, dimly perceived his code of honor, that maddening certainty that accepted no compromise. To some, usually Europeans, this made him a romantic figure--a fascinating and mysterious genius. To others, usually Americans, Bill's stringent convictions were like a slap in the face, a frank acknowledgment that he was not "a regular guy." The truth was that much of what Bill produced he didn't show. His exhibitions were the result of severe purgings, during which he edited the work down to what he regarded as essential. The rest he hid. Some of the works he thought of as failures, others as redundant, and still others were pieces he considered unique and isolated, which meant they couldn't be displayed as part of a group. Although Bernie did sell some of the unshown work from his back room, a lot of it Bill simply kept to himself. He didn't need the money, he told me, and he liked having his paintings and boxes and little sculptures around him "like old friends." In light of this, Hasseborg's accusation that Bill styled himself to please collectors was laughable, but it was born of an urgent wish. For Henry Hasseborg, the admission that there were artists who were not driven by a preening vanity to advance their careerswould have amounted to an annihilation of himself. The stakes were high, and the tone of the article reflected the man's desperation.
After the article was published, I asked Bernie to tell me more about Hasseborg. It turned out that before he became a writer, he had been a painter. According to Bernie, Hasseborg had produced muddy, semiabstract canvases nobody wanted, and after years of struggle had finally abandoned the calling and launched himself as an art critic and novelist. In the early seventies he published a book about a drug dealer on the Lower East Side who meditates on the condition of the world between transactions. The book had gotten some good reviews, but in the ten years since its publication, Hasseborg had not managed to finish another. He had written many reviews, however, and Bill wasn't Hasseborg's first victim. In the seventies, Bernie had shown an artist named Alicia Cupp. Her delicate sculptures of fragmented bodies and bits of lace had sold very well in the Weeks Gallery. In the fall of '79, Hasseborg ravaged her work in a review for Art in America. "Alicia was always pretty fragile," Bernie told me, "but that article pushed her right over the edge. She was in Bellevue for a while and then she packed up and went to live in Maine. Last I heard, she was walled up in some little cabin with thirty cats. I called her once and asked her if she wanted to sell some work through me. I said she didn't have to come to New York. You know what she told me? 'I don't do that anymore, Bernie. I stopped.'"
The unintended twist to the story was that Hasseborg's spleen inspired three other articles on Hansel and Gretel--one equally hostile to it and two others that praised it. One of the positive articles appeared in Artforum, a magazine more important than DASH, and the contentious debate brought more and more people to the gallery. They came to see the witch. It was Bill's witch who had ostensibly driven Hasseborg into a fury. Her panty hose had so offended him that he had devoted an entire paragraph to the stockings and pubic hair beneath. The woman who reviewed the work for Artforum continued the panty-hose discursus with three paragraphs defending Bill's use of the garment. After that, several artists Bill had never met telephoned with their sympathies and praisefor his work. Hasseborg hadn't meant to do it, but he had coaxed Bill's witch out into the open, and she, in turn, had cast a spell over the art world through the magic of controversy.
The witch returned in a conversation on a Saturday afternoon in April. When Violet knocked, I was sitting at my desk, looking down at a large reproduction of a Giorgione--his painted door of Judith standing with her foot on the severed head of Holofernes. After Violet dropped a borrowed book on my desk, she put one hand on my shoulder and leaned over me to get a better look at the picture. With her naked foot on the head of the man she has just decapitated, Judith seems be smiling, ever so slightly. The head is almost smiling, too, as if the woman and the bodiless head are sharing a secret.
"Holofernes looks like he enjoyed being killed," Violet said. "The picture doesn't feel a bit violent, does it?"
"No," I said. "I think it's erotic. It suggests the quiet after sex, the silence of satisfaction."
Violet moved her hand down my arm. The intimate gesture was natural for her, but I felt suddenly conscious of her fingers through my shirt. "You're right, Leo. Of course you're right."
She moved to the side of the desk and leaned over it. "Judith fasted, didn't she?" She ran her finger down Judith's long body. "It's like the two of them are mingled, isn't it, mixed up in each other? I suppose that's what sex is." Violet turned her head to one side. "Erica's not home?"
"She's doing errands with Matt."
Violet pulled up a chair and sat down opposite me. She took the book and turned the picture toward her. "Yes, he seems to have gotten it here. It's very mysterious, the mixing thing."
"Is this a new idea?"
"Not really," she said. "It started because I was looking for a way to talk about the threat anorexics feel from the outside. Those girls have overmixed, if you see what I mean. They find it hard to separate the needs and desires of other people from their own. After a while, theyrebel by shutting down. They want to close up all their openings so nothing and nobody can get in. But mixing is the way of the world. The world passes through us--food, books, pictures, other people." Violet put her elbows on the desk and frowned. "When you're young, I think it's harder to know what you want, how much of others you're willing to take in. When I was living in Paris, I tried on ideas about myself like dresses. I was always reinventing who I was. Chasing after the stories about those girls in the ward made me itchy and restless. I used to roam around the streets in the late afternoon, stopping for a coffee here and there. One day, I met a young man named Jules in a café. He told me that he had just gotten out of prison--that very day. He had been serving eight months on an extortion charge. I thought that was very interesting, and I asked him about prison, what it was like. He told me that it was terrible, but that he had done a lot of reading in his cell. He was a very handsome guy with big brown eyes and those soft lips, you know, the slightly bruised kind that look like they're always kissing. Anyway, I fell for him. He had this idea that I, Violet Blom, was a wild young American thing, a late-twentieth-century femme fatale who had been unleashed on Paris. It was all very silly, but I liked it. The whole time I was with him, I watched myself like I was some character in a movie."
Violet lifted her hand off my desk and gestured to her right. "Look, there she is in a café with him. The scene is well lit, but a little fuzzy to make her look better. Cheesy music is playing in the background. She gives him that look--ironic, distant, unknowable." Violet clapped her hands. "Cut!" She looked across the room and pointed. "There she is again. Dyeing her hair in the sink. She's turning around. Violet's gone. It's V Platinum V walks out into the night to meet Jules."
"You dyed your hair blond," I said.
"Yes, and you know what Jules said to me when he saw my new hair?"
"He said, 'You look like a girl who needs piano lessons."'
"Well, you may laugh, Leo, but that's how it started. Jules recommended a teacher."
"You mean you actually went just because he said you needed piano lessons?"
"It was my mood. It was a dare and a command at the same time--very sexy. And why not take piano lessons? I went to this apartment in the Marais. The man's name was Renasse. He had lots of plants, big trees and little spiky cacti and ferns--a real jungle. As soon as I walked in there, I had the feeling that something was going on, but I couldn't tell what it was. Monsieur Renasse was stiff and well-mannered. We started from the beginning. I was probably one of the only children in America who never played the piano. I played the drums. Anyway, I went to Monsieur Renasse every Tuesday for a month. I learned little pieces. He was always très correct, boringly so, and yet, when I sat beside him, I felt my body so intensely that it was like it wasn't mine. My breasts seemed too big. My butt on the bench took up too much room. My new white hair felt like it was blazing. As I played, I squeezed my thighs together. During the third lesson, he was a little fiercer and scolded me a couple of times. But it was during the fourth lesson that he got really frustrated. He stopped suddenly and yelled, 'Vous êtes une femme incorrigible.' And then he took my index finger like this." Violet leaned over the desk, grabbed my hand, then my finger, and squeezed it hard. She stood up, still holding on to my finger, and bent over me. With her mouth to my ear, she said, "And then he whispered like this." In a low, hoarse voice, Violet said, "Jules."
Violet dropped my finger and returned to her chair. "I ran out of the apartment. I almost knocked down a lemon tree." She paused. "You know, Leo, lots of men have tried to seduce me. I was used to that, but this was different. He scared me, because the whole thing was about mixing."
"I'm not sure I understand you," I said.
"When he squeezed my finger, it was like Jules was doing it, don't you see? Jules and Monsieur Renasse were all mixed up together. I was afraid of it, because I liked it. It excited me."
"But maybe Monsieur Renasse was attracted to you, and you to him, and he just used Jules."
"No, Leo," she said. "I wasn't attracted to Monsieur Renasse at all. I knew it was Jules. Jules had set it up, and I was attracted to the idea of acting out one of Jules's fantasies."
"But weren't you already Jules's lover?"
"Of course, but that's just it. It wasn't enough. He wanted a third person in it."
I didn't answer her. I understood the story better than she imagined, and whatever had happened in that plant-filled apartment, I felt as though the story now included me, that the chain of erotic electricity continued unbroken.
"I've decided that mixing is a key term. It's better than suggestion, which is one-sided. It explains what people rarely talk about, because we define ourselves as isolated, closed bodies who bump up against each other but stay shut. Descartes was wrong. It isn't: I think, therefore I am. It's: I am because you are. That's Hegel--well, the short version."
"A little too short," I said.
Violet flapped her hand dismissively. "What matters is that we're always mixing with other people. Sometimes it's normal and good, and sometimes it's dangerous. The piano lesson is just an obvious example of what feels dangerous to me. Bill mixes in his paintings. Writers do it in books. We do it all the time. Think of the witch."
"Bill's witch, you mean?"
"Yes, 'Hansel and Gretel' is Mark's story. It's like his very own fairy tale, the one that speaks to him personally. Bill painted it because of Mark. Sometimes Mark says to me, 'You're my real mommy' and then, two minutes later, he gets angry and says, 'You're not my real mommy. I hate you.' All I can say is that every time I'm with him, she's there. She walks through every game I play with him. She whispers behind me every time I talk to him. When we draw, she's there. When we build blocks, she's there. When I scold him, she's there. Whenever I look up, she's there."
"You mean that you're always moving between good mother and witch in his eyes?"
"Wait and I'll explain," she said. "For over a year now, Mark and Ihave been playing a game after his bath. He lets me see him naked now. He never used to. The game is called Master Fremont. It goes like this. Mark is Master Fremont and I'm his servant. I wrap him up in his robe and carry him out of the bathroom to his bed. I put him down on the bed and then I start hugging and kissing my little master. He pretends to be very angry and he fires me. I promise to be good and never hug him again, but I can't control myself, and I throw myself at him and kiss him and hug him all over again. He fires me again. I beg to be given another chance. I get down on my knees. I pretend to cry. He relents, and the game starts all over again. He could play it forever."
"You're too obscure, Violet."
"It's Lucille, don't you see? It's Lucille."
"The game," I said slowly.
"Yes, it's a mixing game. He gets to reject me, send me away and then take me back over and over again. He has the power. In the game, I play Mark. He plays ..."
"His mother," I said.
"Yes," Violet said. "Lucille's never going to leave us."
A month after that conversation, I found myself alone with Lucille. We hadn't been in touch during her year in Houston, and after she'd returned to the city in the fall, my encounters with her had been limited to chance hellos or short talks in the hallway when she came by to pick up Mark. Violet's stories about "mixing" in the Giorgione painting, in the piano lesson, and in the Master Fremont game have a curious relevance to what happened between me and Lucille. I've come to think that even though she and I were the only people in the room that night, we weren't really alone.
It began on a Saturday evening. Erica and I attended a large party on Wooster Street given for the supporters of a downtown theater group. When I first saw her, Lucille was in deep conversation with a very young man, probably in his early twenties. She had put her hair up, which showed off her slender neck, and she was wearing a gray dress, far prettierthen anything I had ever seen her in before. I noticed that as she talked to the man, she occasionally grabbed his forearm in an emphatic and surprisingly forceful way. I tried to catch her eye, but she didn't see me. It was one of those crowded events, during which most conversation is scattershot at best and the lights are too low to see anyone properly. After a while we lost sight of her.
We had been at the party for about a half an hour when Erica said to me, "See that kid over there?"
I turned around. Across the room I saw a tall thin boy with thick black glasses and a shock of blond hair that stood straight up from the top of his head, a hairdo that looked very much like the straw end of a broom. The boy was hovering near the food table. I saw his hand dart out toward a plate of food. He snatched several bread sticks and stuffed them quickly into the pockets of his long raincoat--an inappropriate garment for a warm spring night with no rain. Within minutes, he had squirreled away rolls, grapes, two whole cheeses, and at least half a pound of ham in various pockets of the coat. Apparently satisfied with his hoard and looking very lumpy, the boy began to make his way toward the door.
"I'm going to talk to him," Erica said.
"No, don't, you'll embarrass him," I said.
"I'm not going to tell him to put it back. I just want to find out who he is."
Not long after that, Erica introduced me to Lazlo Finkelman. When I shook his hand, he gave a strangled nod. I noticed that the coat was buttoned directly under his chin, and he seemed to have stored more food in the vicinity of his collar. Lazlo didn't stay to chat. We watched him lumber toward the door and disappear.
"The boy's starving, Leo. He's only twenty years old. He lives in Brooklyn--in Greenpoint. He's some kind of an artist. He feeds himself by raiding happy-hour tables and crashing parties like this one. I invited him to dinner next week. I want to help him."
"He should last a month on the haul he made tonight," I said.
"I got his number," Erica said. "I'm going to call and make sure he comes."
On our way out the door, we saw Lucille again. She was standing alone and had slumped against the wall. Erica walked over to her.
"Lucille? Are you okay?" she said.
Lucille lifted her face and looked at Erica, then at me. "Leo," she said. Her eyes glittered and her face had a softness I'd never seen before. The joints of her normally stiff body had loosened like a marionette's, and as we stood in front of her, her knees buckled and she began to slide down the wall. Erica grabbed her.
"Where's Scott?" she said.
"I don't know Scott," Erica said gently. Then, turning to me, she said, "He must have ditched her. We can't leave her here. She's had way too much to drink."
Erica walked back to Greene Street and relieved Grace from her baby-sitting duties. I escorted Lucille home in a cab to East Third Street between Avenues A and B. By the time she was fumbling for her keys on the steps to her building, Lucille had sobered up a little. Although her flabby gestures lagged behind her will, I could see a veil of self-consciousness returning as she struggled to fit the key into the lock. The small railroad apartment on the second floor of the building was silent except for a faucet dripping somewhere in a hidden room. There were several pieces of clothing draped over the sofa, a large pile of papers on a desk, and toys scattered on the floor. Lucille dropped down on the sofa and looked up at me. Her hair had come undone and fell in long strands over her flushed face.
"Mark's with Bill tonight?" I asked.
"Yes." She tentatively pushed her hand through her hair, as if she was uncertain about what to do with it. "I appreciate this," she said.
"Are you okay?" I said. "Can I get you anything?"
In an abrupt motion, she grabbed my wrist. "Stay for a while," she said. "Please stay."
I wasn't eager to stay. It was after midnight and the noise of the party had tired me, but I sat down beside her. "We haven't really talked since you came back from Texas," I said. "Did you meet any cowboys?"
Lucille smiled at me. Alcohol suited her, I decided, because its effects continued to relax her features, and the smile she gave me was far less inhibited than usual. "No," she said. "The closest I came was Jesse. Once in a while he wore a cowboy hat."
"And who was Jesse?"
"He was my student, but he was also my boyfriend. It started when I edited his poems. He did not like my suggestions, and his anger interested me."
"So you fell in love with this Jesse?" I said.
Lucille looked me steadily in the eyes, "My interest in him was very strong. I followed him for two days once. I wanted to find out what he did when I was not with him. I followed him without his knowing it."
"Did you think he was with another woman?" I said.
"What did he do when he wasn't with you?"
"He rode his motorcycle. He read. He talked to his landlady, who had blond hair and wore a lot of makeup. He ate. He watched more television than was good for him. One night, I slept in his garage. I liked doing it, because he never knew. I arrived at his house, watched him through his window for a while, and then I slept in the garage and left before he got up in the morning."
"That must have been uncomfortable."
"There was a tarp," she said.
"It sounds like love to me," I said. "A little obsessive maybe, but still love."
Lucille's eyes narrowed as she continued to look at me. Her face was pale and her eyes had dark circles under them. She shook her head. "No," she said. "I did not love him, but I wanted to be near him. Once, in the beginning, he told me to go away, but he did not mean what he said, because he was angry. I went away. He came after me and we were together again. Then, months later, he said it again. That time he was calm, and I knew he meant what he said, but I stayed until he pushed me out the door."
I looked at Lucille in silence. Why was she telling me this? Had she enmired herself in a semantic riddle--what does love mean?--or was she confessing a lack of feeling? Why did she describe deeply personal, even humiliating stories as if they were puzzling exercises in a beginning logic textbook? When I looked into Lucille's clear blue eyes, I found their cold steadiness both fascinating and irritating, and all of a sudden, I felt like slapping her. Or kissing her. Either one would have satisfied the urge that came over me, an intense desire to smash the brittle surface of her impassive face. I leaned toward her, and Lucille responded instantly. She clutched my shoulders, pulled me toward her, and kissed me on the lips. When I returned the kiss, she pushed her tongue far into my mouth. Her aggression surprised me, because it seemed out of character, but I was no longer examining her motives or mine. As I began to unbutton her dress from the back, she moved her mouth to my neck, and I felt her tongue and then her teeth as she nipped my skin. The bite ran through my body like a small shock, and I understood its hint of violence. Lucille didn't want gentleness, and she may have felt all along that my desire for her was very close to anger anyway. I grabbed Lucille by the shoulders, threw her back onto the sofa, listened to her gasp, and then I looked down at her face. Lucille was smiling. It was a dim, barely detectable smile, but I saw it and the look of triumph in her eyes, goading me on. I pushed her dress up around her waist, tugging at her pantyhose and underpants. She helped me pull them down and then kicked the beige mess onto the floor. I didn't undress. I unzipped my pants, seized her thighs, and pushed them apart. When I entered her, Lucille made a small grunting sound. After that, she didn't make much noise, but she was fierce as she dug her fingers into my back and thrust her hips against mine. While I sweated and grunted over her, the air on my skin felt warm and moist and I could smell her perfume or soap, a musky scent that mingled with the dry odor of dust in the apartment. I don't think it lasted very long. She made a throttled cry. I came seconds later, and then we were sitting beside each other on the sofa again.
She stood up and I watched her leave the room. As soon as she was gone, regret settled in my chest like an iron bar. When she returned andhanded me a maroon towel to wipe myself, my body felt heavier than I could remember, like a tank that had run out of gas.
In Lucille's bathroom, I washed my penis with soap. As I dried myself with another maroon towel, I could feel a rift forming between myself and the present moment, as if I had already left the apartment. Only minutes before, my need for Lucille had been furious and real. I had acted on that need, and had taken pleasure from it, but already the sex was becoming remote, like an apparition of itself. When I pulled up my pants, I remembered Jack quoting the artist Norman Bluhm: "All men are prisoners of their peckers." The words rose in my mind as I stood there eyeing Lucille's night creams and an ice-blue streak of toothpaste that had hardened onto her sink.
After staying in the bathroom too long, I returned to Lucille, who was sitting in her partly unbuttoned dress on the sofa. Seeing her made me want to apologize, but I knew that it would have been tactless--the admission of a mistake. I sat down beside her, took her hand and began several sentences in my mind: I love Erica. I don't know what came over me ... Lucille, this was not ... I think we should talk about ... I canceled every hackneyed phrase and instead said nothing.
Lucille turned to me. "Leo." She spoke slowly, enunciating every word. "I will not tell anybody." Her eyes measured mine, and after she spoke those words, her mouth tightened. At first I felt relieved, although I hadn't come so far in my thoughts as to suspect that she might tell other people about the tryst. A second later, I wondered why she had mentioned this before anything else--that she wouldn't tell. Why had 'anybody' popped up as a character in this drama between us? I had been wondering how I might extricate myself from the entanglement without hurting her feelings. All at once I sensed that she had raced ahead of me, that she didn't want more of me at all. She had wanted this time, and this time only.
I said it then: "I love Erica very much. She is more dear to me than anything in the world. I was rash ..." I stopped. Lucille was smiling at me again, more broadly than before, and it wasn't a smile of satisfaction or sympathy. She looked embarrassed. Her face had turned red. "I'msorry," I stuttered, the apology running out from me in spite of myself. I stood up. "Can I get you something?" I asked. "A glass of water? I could make coffee." I was filling the air with speech, rattling on to block out her blush.
"No, Leo," she said. She reached for my hand and examined it, turning the palm toward her. "You have long fingers," she said, "and a rectangular palm. In a book I saw once, it said that hands like yours belong to psychics."
"In my case," I said, "I'm afraid the book was wrong."
She nodded. "Good night, Leo."
"Good night." I leaned forward and kissed her cheek. As I did it, I made a great effort to check my awkwardness. And then, although I wanted to run from the apartment, I lingered, overcome by a feeling that the business between us was unfinished. I looked down at the floor and noticed a toy at my feet. I recognized the black-and-red object, because Matt had several of them. The toy, called a Transformer, could be changed from a vehicle into a robotic creature with more or less human form. The thing was in a half-and-half state--part thing, part man. On a sudden impulse, I picked it up. For some reason, I couldn't leave it untouched. I flipped one side of it downward to finish the change. It became all robot--two arms, two legs, a head, and a torso. I could feel Lucille watching me. "An ugly toy," she said.
I nodded and lay the Transformer on the table. We said good night again and I left.
When I crawled into bed beside Erica, she woke up for a few seconds. "Was Lucille okay?" she said. I told her yes. Then I said she had wanted to talk, and I had stayed with her for a while. Erica rolled over and went back to sleep. Her shoulder and arm lay over the covers and I stared at the thin strap of her nightgown in the obscure light of the room. Erica would never suspect my betrayal, and her trust sickened me. Had she been a woman who doubted my loyalty, I would have felt less guilt. In the morning, I repeated the lie to Erica without flinching. I lied so well that the night before appeared to harden into what should have happened, rather than what had happened. "I will not tell anybody." Lucille's promisewas our bond, one that would help erase the reality of my having had sex with her. As I sat with Erica and Matt at the table that Sunday morning, a basket filled with bagels in front of me, I listened to Matt talking about Ling. Ling had left the grocery next door for another job. "I'll probably never ever see Ling again," he said, and while he continued to talk I remembered Lucille's teeth on my neck and saw her pale brown pubic hair against her white skin. Lucille had not wanted an affair; I felt quite sure of that. But she had wanted something from me. I say something, because whatever it was, it had merely taken the form of sex. The more I thought about it, the more troubling it became, because I began to suspect that the something was connected to Bill.
I didn't see Lucille for months after that. Either I missed her comings and goings in our building or she rarely came for Mark anymore, because she had made new arrangements with Bill. But only a few weeks after I had sex with her, I asked Bill about Lucille's illness, the one he had mentioned to me years before.
His direct answer turned my years of reticence into folly. "She tried to commit suicide," he said. "I found her in her dorm room with her wrists cut, bleeding all over the floor." Bill paused and closed his eyes for a moment. "She was sitting on the floor holding her arms out in front of her, watching herself bleed very calmly. I grabbed her, wrapped her wrists in towels, and started yelling for help. Afterward the doctors said the cuts weren't very deep, that she probably hadn't meant to kill herself. Years later, she told me that she had liked watching the blood." Bill paused. "She said a strange thing about it. She said, 'It had authenticity.' She was in a hospital for a while, and then she lived with her parents. They wouldn't let me see her. They thought I was a bad influence. You see, when she did it, she knew I wasn't far away. She knew I would come looking for her. I think her parents thought that with me around, she might do it again." Bill grimaced for an instant and shook his head. "I still feel bad about it," he said.
"But it wasn't your fault."
"I know. I feel bad because I liked that craziness in her. I found it dramatic. She was very beautiful then. People used to say she looked like Grace Kelly. It's awful, but a beautiful, bleeding girl is more compelling than a plain bleeding girl. I was twenty years old and a total idiot."
And I'm fifty-five, I thought to myself, and I'm still a total idiot. Bill stood up and began pacing. As I watched him move back and forth across the floor, I knew that if I wasn't careful, the secret between me and Lucille could fester like a sore. I also knew that I had to keep it. Nothing would come of confession, except my own relief. "Lucille will always be with us," Violet had said. Perhaps that was exactly what Lucille wanted.
After a month of delays, Lazlo Finkelman finally came for dinner. A good part of Erica's pleasure in his company that evening came from watching him eat. He ingested heaps of mashed potatoes, six pieces of chicken, and smaller but significant amounts of carrots and broccoli. After he had consumed three pieces of apple tart, he appeared to be ready for conversation. But talking to Lazlo was like climbing a steep hill. He was almost perversely laconic, answering our questions in monosyllables or sentences that evolved so slowly I was bored before he managed to end them. Nevertheless, by the time Lazlo went home, we had gathered that he had grown up in Indianapolis and that he was an orphan. His father had died when he was nine, and then seven years later his mother had died. At sixteen he had been taken in by his aunt and uncle, who, in his words, were "okay." When he was eighteen, however, he had left them for New York City "to do my art."
Lazlo had worked many jobs. He had been a busboy, a clerk in a hardware store, and a bicycle messenger. During one desperate period, he had collected bottles on the street for their refunds. At the time, he was a cashier at a store in Brooklyn with the dubious name of La Bagel Delight. When I asked Lazlo about his art, he immediately produced slides from his bag. The boy's work reminded me of the Tinkertoys my mother had bought for me not long after we arrived in New York. As Istudied the oddly shaped sculptures, it dawned on me that these sticks resembled genitalia, both male and female.
"Does all your work have a sexual theme?" Erica said to him. She was smiling as she said it, but Lazlo seemed immune to her humor. He studied Erica from behind his glasses and nodded soberly. His blond broom nodded with him. "It's what I do," he said.
Erica was the one who approached Bill on Lazlo's behalf. For some time, Bill had been talking about hiring an assistant, and Erica was convinced that Lazlo would "be perfect." I was more skeptical about the boy's qualifications, but Bill couldn't resist Erica, and Lazlo became a fixture in our lives. He started working for Bill on the Bowery every afternoon. Erica fed him about once a month, and Matt loved him. Lazlo did nothing to court Matthew. He didn't play with Matt or speak much more to him than he did to us. But the young man's apparent coolness didn't deter Matt in the least. He climbed onto Laz's lap and touched his fascinating hair and rattled on to him about his growing passion for baseball, and every once in a while, Matt would clasp his hands on either side of Lazlo's face and kiss him. During these onslaughts of Matt's passion, Lazlo would sit impassively in his chair, speaking as little as possible, his expression uniformly morose. And yet, one evening as I watched Matt throw his arms around the skinny Finkelman legs as they were about to stride through the door for dinner, I had the sudden thought that Lazlo's lack of resistance to Matt was in itself a form of affection. It was simply the best he could do at the time.
That January, my colleague Jack Newman began his liason with Sara Wang, a graduate student whom he had taught in one of his courses. She was a pretty young woman with brown eyes and black hair that fell to the middle of her back. There had been others before her--Jane and Delia and the six-foot-one-inch Tina, whose sexual appetite had apparently been as large as she was. Jack was lonely. His book, Urinals and Campbell's Soup, which he had been working on for five years, wasn't enough to fillthe evening hours spent in his large apartment on Riverside Drive. The affairs didn't last very long. Jack's love objects weren't necessarily pretty, but they were always bright. He once told me rather sadly that he had never managed to get a stupid girl into bed. But even the smart girls soon tired of Jack. I suppose they understood that he wasn't serious, that he loved the game more than he loved them. Perhaps they woke up in the morning and looked over at the balding character in bed next to them and wondered what had happened to last night's magic. I don't know, but Jack lost them all. Late one afternoon, I walked down the hall to Jack's office. I had stayed on to correct papers and had come across a remarkable little essay on Fra Angelico by a young man named Fred Ciccio that I wanted to show Jack. When I put my eye to the small window of his office, I saw him and Sara in a clinch. His right hand had disappeared inside Sara's blouse, and although her hands were hidden somewhere beneath the desk, the look on Jack's face suggested that they weren't idle. As soon as I understood what I was seeing, I turned around, leaned my head against the window to block the view, and fell victim to a sudden, explosive coughing fit before I knocked. Sara, rebuttoned but red in the face, fled as soon as I walked through the door.
I didn't wait to speak to Jack. I sat down in the chair across from him and gave him my standard lecture. I warned him that his lack of discretion could ruin everything for him in the department. The climate was bad for seducing students. He would have to break it off or hide her.
Jack sighed, looked at me grimly, and said, "I'm in love with her, Leo."
"You were in love with all of them, Jack," I said.
He shook his head. "No, Sara's different. Did I ever use that word before?"
I couldn't remember whether Jack had said he loved Tina or Delia or Jane. I thought of Lucille then and the curious distinction she had made between "strong interest" and the state of being "in love."
"I'm not sure that love is an excuse for everything," I told him.
On the IRT I pondered my own words. They had sprung from mylips without hesitation--a pithy comeback to Jack's confession--but what had I meant by them? Had I said it because I didn't believe in Jack's love for Sara or because I did? Not once in all the years of my marriage had I asked myself whether I loved Erica. For about a year after we met, I had been thoroughly unhinged by her. My heart had pounded. My nerves had tensed with longing until I could almost hear them buzz. My appetite had vanished, and I had withdrawal symptoms when I wasn't with her. That mania had gradually ended, but as I walked up the steps out of the subway and into the cold gray air, I realized that I couldn't wait to see her. At home I found Erica and Grace and Matthew in the kitchen. I grabbed Erica, tipped her backward over my arm, and kissed her forcefully on the mouth. Grace laughed. Matt gaped, and Erica said, "Do it again. I liked it." I did it again. "Now do it to me, Daddy!" Matt cried. I bent down, threw Matt over my arm, and gave him a kiss on his small pursed mouth. These demonstrations amused Grace so much that she pulled out a kitchen chair, fell into it, and laughed for a good minute.
It was a small incident, and yet I have often gone back to that moment in my mind. Years later, I began to imagine the episode from a distance, as though the man walking through the door had been caught on film. I watch him take off his coat and place his keys and wallet near the telephone in the entryway. I see him set his briefcase on the floor and then stride into the kitchen. The middle-aged man with a receding hairline, who is mostly but not entirely gray, grabs a tall, still-young woman with dark brown hair and a little mole above her lip and kisses her. I kissed Erica that day on a whim, and yet my sudden desire could be traced back to Jack's office, where he said that he loved Sara, and, even further, to Lucille's sofa, where she had tied herself into linguistic knots over the same word. No one but I could track that kiss. Its trail was invisible, a muddled path of human interaction that climaxed in my impulsive gesture of reaffirmation. I'm fond of that little scene. Whether my memory is completely accurate or not, it has a sharpness that nothing I look at now can possibly have. When I concentrate, I see Erica's eyes close and her thick lashes brush the delicate skin beneath her eves. I see her hairfall away from her forehead and feel the weight of her body on my arm. I can remember what she was wearing--a long-sleeved striped T-shirt. Its round neck was cut out to reveal her collarbones and the even pallor of her winter skin.
That August was the first of four Augusts the two families spent together in Vermont. Matt and Mark turned eight, nine, ten, and finally eleven in the big old farmhouse we rented every year--a rambling, run-down place with seven bedrooms. At various junctures during its 150 years, additions had made the house larger and then larger again to accommodate growing families, but by the time we saw it, nobody was living there during the other months of the year. An old woman had willed it to her eight godchildren, now older people themselves, and the house languished as a mostly forgotten asset. It lay on top of a hill, which the locals called a mountain, not far from Newfane--a town pretty enough to be obsessively photographed as an archetypal village of cozy New England. The summer days have run together in my mind, and I can't always separate one vacation year from another, but the four months we spent there are now touched by a quality I can only call imaginary. It isn't that I doubt the truth of them. My memory is clear. I remember every room as though I had been in it yesterday. I can see the view from the little window where I used to sit and work on my book. I can hear the boys playing downstairs and Erica humming to herself not far from them. I can smell corn boiling. No, it's that the ordinary comfort and pleasure of that house has been reconfigured in my mind by "the past." Because what was has disappeared, that was has become idyllic. Had it been only one summer, the green mountain could never have held the magic it has for me now. Repetition enchanted it: the drive north in our car and Bill's truck, loaded down with books, art supplies, and toys, the settling into our musty rooms, the cleaning rituals led by Violet, the cooking and the eating and the reading and the bedtime songs, the four adults sitting beside the woodstove and talking into the night. There were warm days, a few sultry ones, and stretches of rain that chilled the house and rattled thewindows. There were nights when we lay on blankets and studied the constellations that shone out as plain and clear as the points on an astronomical map. From our beds at night we heard black bears calling to each other in voices that sounded like owls. Deer came to gaze at the house from the wood's edge, and once a great blue heron landed a foot from the house and peered in at Matt, who was standing near the window. He didn't know what it was, and when he came to me to explain what he had seen, his face was still pale from the sudden apparition of a bird too large to be real.
Bill and Violet and Erica and I worked while the boys attended a day camp in Weston until two in the afternoon, when one of the four parents would take the twenty-minute drive to fetch them. Erica, Violet, and I worked in the house. Bill set up a studio in an outbuilding on the property, a sagging structure he called Bowery Two. Those childless hours when each of us pursued his or her work remind me now of collective dreaming. I heard the soft sound of Erica's electric typewriter as she wrote the book that was eventually published under the title Henry James and the Ambiguities of Dialogue. From Violet's room I listened to the hushed drone of girls speaking on tape. Once, that first summer, I walked past her door on my way to get a glass of water, and I heard a childish voice say: "I like to see my bones. I like to see them and feel them. When there's too much fat between me and my bones, I feel farther away from myself. Do you understand?" From Bill's workplace I heard hammering, the occasional bangs and crashes, and the low and distant sound of music--Charlie Mingus, Tom Waits, Lou Reed, the Talking Heads, arias from Mozart and Verdi, Schubert's songs. Bill was making fairy-tale boxes. Each one contained a story, and because I usually knew the story he was working on, images of impossibly long hair, overgrown castles, and pricked fingers would sometimes float into my consciousness as I bent over a reproduction of a Duccio madonna. I love the flatness and mystery of medieval and early Renaissance art, and I labored over interpreting its didactic codes in terms of the sweep of history. The triptychs and panels of the Passion, of the Virgin's life, of the lives of the saints in all their bloody Christian strangeness sometimes overlapped with Bill'smagical narratives or with Violet's starving girls, young women for whom denial and self-inflicted pain were virtues. And because Erica read to me from her book almost every afternoon, I found that the attenuated sentences of Henry James (with their numerous qualifying clauses, which inevitably cast doubt on the abstract noun or nominal phrase that had come before them) sometimes infected my prose, and I had to revise my paragraphs to rid them of a writer's influence that had drifted onto my page through Erica's voice.
After camp, the boys played outside. They dug holes and filled them up again. They built forts from dead logs and old blankets and caught newts and beetles and several enormous June bugs. They grew. The two small children of the first summer had little in common with the long-legged boys of the last summer. Matt played and laughed and ran like all children, but I continued to feel an undertow in his personality that separated him from his peers, a passionate core that was taking him in his own direction. Because he and Mark had always known each other, because their relation was almost fraternal, a mutual tolerance of their differences lay at the bottom of the friendship. Mark was more easygoing than Matt. After the age of about seven, he'd become an unusually agreeable child. Whatever hardships he had endured, they seemed to have left no trace on his character. Matt, on the other hand, lived intensely. He rarely cried over cuts or bruises, but when he felt slighted or mistreated, the tears rushed out of him. His conscience was severe, even cruel, and Erica worried that we had accidentally created a child with a monstrous superego. Even before a reprimand was out of my mouth, Matt was apologizing. "I'm so sorry, Daddy. I'm so, so sorry!" He meted out his own punishment, and Erica and I generally ended up comforting rather than scolding him.
Matt had learned to read slowly but steadily with the help of a tutor, and at night we continued to read to him. The books grew ever longer and more complicated, and they, along with several movies, strongly affected his imagination. He was orphaned and imprisoned. He led mutinies and endured shipwrecks. He explored new galaxies. For a time he and Mark had a Round Table in the woods. But Matt's overriding fantasywas baseball. He carried his glove everywhere. He practiced his stance and his swing. He stood in front of the mirror in his uniform and caught imaginary balls in his glove. He collected cards, read from The Baseball Encyclopedia nightly, and invented games in his mind that often ended in a suicide squeeze. For Matt's sake, I sometimes wished he were a better player. When he was nine, he started wearing glasses, and his hitting improved, but the progress he made as a Little League player was more the product of his ferocious, indefatigable will than any native talent. When I watched him run the bases--the new glasses strapped to his head, his knees and arms pumping wildly--I could see that his running style had less grace than some of the other boys' and that in spite of his determination, he wasn't all that fast. But then, he wasn't alone. At least in the first years, Little League is a comedy of errors, of children who dream on the bases and forget the rules, who miss balls headed straight for their outstretched gloves or who stumble and fall once the ball is caught. Matt made every mistake except that of flagging alertness. As Bill said, "He has the concentration of a champion." What he lacked was a champion's body.
The intricacies of the game tightened the bonds between Bill and Matt. Like a gnostic priest initiating a young disciple into the sect, Bill fed Matt obscure RBIs and ERAs. He instructed him in methods of decoding the waving, flapping, nose touching, and ear tugging of coaching signs, and he pitched and threw to Matt in the yard until the light faded and the ball all but vanished in the darkness. His own son's interest in the game was lackadaisical. Sometimes Mark joined the two fanatics; other times he wandered off to collect insects in jars or just lie on the grass and stare at the sky. I never detected any jealousy in Mark toward Matt. He seemed perfectly contented with the growing friendship between his father and his best friend.
In a single body, Bill combined Matt's two great passions: baseball and art, and I watched as his affection for Bill gradually turned to hero worship. The last two Augusts we were in Vermont, Matt began to wait for Bill to finish working. He would sit patiently on the wooden steps outside the squat studio building, usually with a drawing on his lap. Whenhe heard footsteps followed by the squeak of the screen door, Matt would jump up and wave the sheet of paper. I often saw this scene enacted from the kitchen, where I was engaged in my assigned task--chopping vegetables. Bill would exit the little building and pause outside the door. On warm days he would wipe his forehead and cheeks with one of the paint rags he carried in his pockets as Matt ran up the remaining stairs toward him. Bill would take the drawing, smile, nod, and often he would reach out and ruffle Matt's hair. One of those pictures was a gift to Bill--a drawing Matt had done in colored pencils of Jackie Robinson at the plate. He'd worked for days on it. When Bill returned to New York in September, he hung it up in his studio, where it remained for years.
Although Matt was always sketching baseball diamonds and players, he never stopped drawing and painting New York City. Over time, these pictures became more and more complex. He painted the city in sunshine and under quiet gray skies. He painted it in high winds and in rain and in whirling snowstorms. He drew views of the city from above, from the side, and from below, and he peopled its streets with sturdy businessmen and chic artists and skinny models and bums and the chattering lunatics we saw every day on the way to school. He drew the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty and the Chrysler Building and the Twin Towers. When he brought me these urban scenes, I would always take my time with them, because I knew that only scrutiny would reveal their details--a couple entwined in the park, a child sobbing on a street corner beside its helpless mother, lost tourists, pickpockets, and three-card monte cheats.
The summer Matt turned nine, he began to include a character in almost all of his urban drawings: an older man with a beard. He was usually seen through the window of his tiny apartment, and like a Hopper recluse he was always alone. A gray cat sometimes prowled on the windowsill or curled up on the floor at his feet, but he never had any human company. In one drawing I noticed that the man sat hunched in a chair with his head in his hands.
"This poor fellow keeps coming back," I said.
"That's Dave," Matt said. "I named him Dave."
"Why Dave?" I said.
"I don't know, but that's his name. He's a lonely guy, and I keep thinking that he should meet somebody, but when I get around to drawing him, he's always by himself."
"He looks unhappy," I said.
"I feel sorry for him. His only friend is Durango." He pointed at the cat. "And you know cats, Dad, they don't really care."
"Well," I said. "Maybe he'll find a friend ..."
"You'd think I could just do it, because I made him up, but Uncle Bill says that it doesn't work that way, that you have to feel what's right, and sometimes what's right in art is sad."
I looked into my son's earnest face and then down at Dave. Matt had included veins in the old man's hands. A coffee cup and a plate lay near his feet. It was still a child's drawing. Matt's perspective was shaky, his anatomy a little askew, but the lines that etched the body of that solitary man affected me strongly, and I began to look for Dave whenever Matt handed me one of his cityscapes.
In the late afternoons we took walks down the mountain on the dirt road. We drove to Dutton's farm stand and picked out tomatoes and peppers and beans for dinner. On sunny days, we swam in the pond that was only yards from the house. Bill rarely accompanied us anywhere. He worked longer hours than the rest of us. He never cooked--he washed dishes. But on a couple of blazing afternoons every summer, he would leave Bowery Two and join us for a dip. We would see him walking across the field and watch him strip down to his boxer shorts by the pond. Bill was ageless then. I couldn't see that he looked a day older than when I had met him. He entered the pond slowly and made shocked noises as he waded farther and farther out. Often he held a cigarette between his thumb and index finger, elevating the smoking butt over the water's surface. Only once in the five summers we were in Vermont did I see him duck, wet his head, and actually swim. On that occasion, however, I noticed that his strokes were both strong and fast.
The summer after I turned fifty-six, I suddenly noticed that my body had changed. It happened the day Bill swam, and I listened to Matt and Mark cheer him on as he moved across the pond. I had been swimming myself and was sitting by the water in my black bathing trunks. When I looked down at myself, I discovered that my toes were gnarled and bony. A long varicose vein had popped out in my left leg, and the wispy hairs on my chest had turned white. My shoulders and upper body seemed oddly diminished, and my pale skin was now marred by red and brown discolorations. But more surprising to me were the soft white folds of fat that had lodged themselves around my middle. I had always been lean, and although I had noticed a suspicious tightness around my waist when I zipped my pants in the morning, I hadn't been particularly alarmed. The truth was that I hadn't kept up with myself. I had walked around with a self-image that was completely out-of-date. After all, when did I actually see myself? When I shaved, I looked only at my face. Occasionally I caught a reflection of myself in a window or glass door in the city. When I showered, I scrubbed myself but didn't study my flaws. I had become an anachronism to myself. When I asked Erica why she hadn't mentioned these unattractive changes in me, she pinched the flesh around my waist and said, "Don't worry, darling. I like you old and fat." For a time, I entertained hopes for a metamorphosis. I bought dumbbells during an outing in Manchester and made attempts to eat more of the broccoli on my plate and less of the roast beef, but my resolve soon vanished. My vanity simply wasn't strong enough to endure deprivation.
The last week of every August, Lazlo arrived to help Bill pack up his work. I can still see him hauling materials from Bowery Two across the field to Bill's truck, wearing tight red pants, black patent-leather boots and a deadpan expression. It wasn't Lazlo's face but his hairdo that gave him character. The blond brush that rose from his head suggested strains of humor hidden deep within the Finkelman persona. Like a silent comedian's prop, it spoke for him--lending him the look of a hapless and naive fictional hero, a contemporary Candide, whose response to the world was one of profound and never-ending surprise. In truth, Lazlo was a mild and diffident person. He would examine a frog carefully whenMatt presented him with one, would make brief pronouncements on any subject when asked, and would dry dishes very slowly and methodically when called upon. It was this evenness of temper that made Erica pronounce him "sweet."
Erica launched every August with a migraine, which often lasted two or three days. The white or pink stars that floated in the periphery of her left eye were followed by pain so fierce she writhed and vomited. The headache stole all the color from her face and turned the skin under her eyes nearly black. She slept and she woke. She ate almost nothing and didn't want anyone near her. Every noise hurt her, and throughout it all she would blame herself and continually mumble to me that she was sorry.
When Erica fell sick for the third summer in a row, Violet intervened. The day the headache hit, the weather was damp and humid. Erica sequestered herself in our bedroom, and early that afternoon I went to check on her. I opened the door and found the shutters closed. Violet was sitting on Erica's back, kneading her shoulders. Without speaking, I pulled the door shut. When I returned an hour later, I heard Violet's voice from inside the room--a barely audible but steady sound. I opened the door. Erica was lying on the bed with her head on Violet's chest. At the sound of the door opening, she lifted her face and smiled at me. "I'm better, Leo," she said. "I'm better." I don't know whether Violet had miraculous healing powers or whether the migraine had simply run its course, but whichever it was, Erica turned to Violet after that. When the pain arrived in the first week of our stay, Violet performed her ritual of whispering and massage. I never asked what Violet said to Erica. The affinity between them had thickened into a relationship I interpreted as darkly feminine--a girlish intimacy between women that included caresses, giggling, and secrets.
There were other intimacies in that house as well--most of them entirely banal. I saw Violet in her pajamas and she saw me in mine. I discovered that bobby pins helped along the tousle in her hair. I noticed that although Bill always washed with turpentine and soap before dinner, he bathed infrequently, and that he was sullen before his cup of coffee inthe morning. Erica and I heard Violet moan to Bill about housework he didn't do and listened to Bill complain about Violet's impossible domestic standards. Bill and Violet heard Erica accuse me of forgetting groceries and of wearing pants I "should have thrown away years ago." I picked up Mark's socks that had turned stiff with dirt and his frayed underpants along with Matt's. One evening, I saw spots of blood on the toilet seat and knew that it wasn't Erica who was menstruating. I took a sheet of toilet paper, wet it, and wiped away the stains. At the time, I didn't know that those spots were important, but that same night, Erica and I heard Violet sobbing from the bedroom down the hall, and through the crying, we heard Bill's low voice.
"She's crying about the baby," Erica said.
"The baby she can't have."
Erica had been keeping a secret. For over two years, Violet had been trying to get pregnant. The doctors hadn't found anything wrong with either her or Bill, but Violet had started fertility treatments, and so far they had failed. "She got her period today," Erica said.
Just as Violet's crying stopped, I remembered Bill saying that he had always wanted children--"thousands of children."
There was no television in the house, and its absence returned us to the entertainments of another era. Every evening after dinner, one of the adults read stories aloud, usually a fairy tale. When it was my turn to read, I would page through one of the many volumes of collected folktales Bill had brought with him and choose a story, carefully avoiding the ones that began with a king and queen who longed for a child. Bill was the best reader among us. He read quietly but with nuance, changing the tempo of his sentences according to their meaning. He paused for effect. Sometimes he winked at the boys or pulled Mark, who was usually leaning on him, a little closer. Bill never tired of the stories. All day he reinvented those tales in the studio, and at night he was ready to read more of them. Whatever Bill's project happened to be, it became the obsessivethread of his existence, one he would follow indefatigably to its end. His enthusiasm was infectious and also a little wearing. He quoted scholarly articles to me, handed over xeroxed drawings, discoursed on the significance of threes--three sons, three daughters, three wishes. He played folk songs that were distantly related to his investigations and put penciled X's by works he thought I must read. I rarely resisted him. When Bill came to me with a new thought, he never raised his voice or showed excitement with his body. It was all in his eyes. They burned with whatever insight he may have had, and when he turned them on me, I felt I had no choice but to listen.
In five years, Bill produced over two hundred boxes. He illustrated a book of poetry written by a friend, continued to make paintings and drawings, many of them portraits of Violet and Mark, and he was usually building some contraption or vehicle for the boys. These brightly colored playthings rolled or flew or spun like windmills. Mark and Matt were particularly fond of a crazed-looking boy puppet who performed a single trick: when you pulled a lever in his back, his tongue popped out of his mouth and his trousers fell to his ankles. Making toys was a vacation for Bill from the grueling work of the fairy-tale boxes. They were all the same size--about three feet by four feet. He used flat and three-dimensional figures, combined real objects with painted ones, and used contemporary images to tell the old stories. The boxes were divided into sections that resembled small rooms. "They're two-D and three-D comics without the balloons," he told me. But this description was misleading. The miniature proportions of the boxes drew on the ordinary fascination people have with peeping into dollhouses and the pleasures of discovering them, but the content of Bill's small worlds subverted expectation and often created a feeling of the uncanny. Although their form and some of the magical content recalled Joseph Cornell, Bill's works were larger, tougher, and far less lyrical. The tension inside each work reminded me of a visual argument. In the early pieces, Bill counted on the spectator's familiarity with a story to retell it. His dark-skinned and dark-haired Sleeping Beauty doll lay in a coma on a bed in a hospital room. IV tubing and the wires of a heart monitor entangled themselveswith elaborate floral arrangements sent by well-wishers--gigantic gladioli, carnations, roses, birds-of-paradise, and ferns that choked the room. Ivy from a pink basket wove itself into her hair and curled into the receiver of the Princess telephone that lay on a table beside her bed. In a later scene, a cutout of a naked man with an erect penis hung in the air over her bed as she slept. The man held a large pair of open scissors in his hand. In the final image the girl was seen sitting up in bed with her eyes open. The man had disappeared, but the flowers, tubes, and wires had all been cut and were lying in a knee-deep mess on the floor.
Later, Bill adapted more obscure stories for the boxes, including one we had read together in Andrew Lang's The Violet Fairy Book: "The Girl Who Pretended to Be a Boy." A princess disguises herself as a young man in order to save her father's kingdom. After numerous adventures, including rescuing a captured princess, the heroine finds that her trials have transformed her into a hero. The final image of nine squares showed the story's protagonist standing in front of a mirror dressed in a suit and tie. At her crotch was the unmistakable bump of manhood.
The summer of 1987, Bill finished a piece called The Changeling. It's still my favorite work of that series. It was Jack's favorite work, too, though for him the piece was about contemporary art--a play on identities, replicas, and pastiche. But I was closer to Bill than he was, and I couldn't help but believe that the artwork with its seven rooms was a parable of sorts taken from his own inner life.
In the first room, a small sculpted figure of a boy stood in his pajamas in front of a window with his hands on the sill. He looked to be about the same age as Matt and Mark were then--ten or eleven. Outside, night had fallen, and three windows from the adjacent building glowed with electric light. On each window Bill had painted a scene--a man talking on the telephone, an old woman with a dog, and two lovers lying naked in bed flat on their backs. The boy's room was messy, strewn with clothes and toys. Some of these things had been painted onto the floor. Others were tiny sculptures. When I moved very close to the box, I noticed that the boy was holding a needle and a spool of thread in his right hand.
In the second room of the box, the boy had gone to sleep. To his right, a paper-doll woman was entering the room through the window. The drawn figure was striking because it was crude. With her big head, short arms, and knees that bent at an impossible angle, she looked like a child's drawing. One of her legs had poked itself through the opening, and I noticed right away that attached to the paper foot was a miniature loafer.
In the third scene, this curious little woman had lifted the still sleeping boy from his bed. The next square wasn't a room at all but a flat painted panel that had been attached to the front of the box. The canvas showed the woman carrying the boy through a Manhattan street, which looked to be somewhere in the Diamond District. In the painting the formerly flat woman had gained the illusion of depth. She no longer looked like a paper doll but appeared to be in three dimensions, like the child she carried. Her back was bent and her knees buckled as she stepped forward with him in her arms. Only the woman's face remained the same--two dots for eyes, a vertical line for a nose, and another horizontal slash for the mouth. Inside the fifth room, the woman had become a sculpture with the same primitive face painted on her oval head. She stood over the boy and looked down at him where he slept inside a glass box, still gripping his needle and thread. Beside her stood another boy with his eyes shut--a figure who was identical in every way to the child who was lying in the transparent coffin. The work's sixth panel was an exact copy of the fourth--stooped woman, sleeping boy, Diamond District. The first time I saw it, I looked very closely at this second painting, searching to find a distinguishing feature, some hint of difference, but there was nothing. The final scene took up the entire bottom of the box. The woman had disappeared. One of the boys, probably the second, was sitting up in bed in a room exactly like the one that began the narrative. He was smiling and had raised his arms to stretch in the well-lit room. It was obviously morning.
I first saw the piece in Bowery Two on a rainy day in late August. Bill and I were alone. The light coming through the windows that afternoonwas weak and gray. When I asked Bill where he had found the unusual story, he told me he had made it up. "There's a lot of folklore about changelings," he said. "Goblins steal a baby, replace it with an identical copy, and nobody can tell the difference. It's just one version of countless doubling myths, which crop up everywhere, from the walking sculptures of Daedalus and Pygmalion to Old English lore and American Indian stories. Twins, doubles, mirrors. Did I ever tell you the story about Descartes? I read it somewhere or maybe somebody told me that he always traveled with an automaton of a beloved niece who had drowned."
"That can't be true," I said.
"It's not, but it's a good story. The hysterics started me on all this. When they were hypnotized, Charcot's women became changelings in a way. Even though they remained in their own bodies, they were like copies of themselves. And just think of all those UFO stories about people inhabited by aliens. It's all part of the same idea--the impostor, the fake self, the empty vessel that comes to life, or a living being that's turned into a dead thing ..."
I bent over and pointed at the loafer. "Is the shoe another double? I said. "Of the one in the painting of Violet?"
For an instant Bill looked confused. "That's right," he said slowly. "I used Lucille's shoe for that picture. I'd forgotten."
"I thought it might have been intentional."
"No." Bill turned away from the box and picked up a screwdriver that was lying on his worktable. He turned it over in his hands. "She's going to marry that guy she's been seeing," he said.
"Really? Who is he?"
"A writer. He wrote that novel Egg Parade. He teaches at Princeton."
"What's his name?"
"It doesn't ring any bells," I said.
Bill rubbed the handle of the screwdriver. "You know, I can hardly believe that I was married to her now. I often wonder what the hell I wasdoing. She didn't even like me, much less love me. She wasn't even attracted to me."
"How can you say that, Bill?"
"She told me."
"People say all kinds of things when they're angry. If she told you that, I'm sure it was just to hurt you. It's ridiculous."
"She never told me directly. She told somebody else who told me."
I remembered Lucille's and Bill's voices through the window on that spring afternoon long ago. "Nevertheless," I went on, "it can't have been true. I mean, why would she have married you? It certainly wasn't for your money. You had nothing then."
"Lucille isn't a liar. I can say that for her. She told a mutual friend--a person who's known for calling people with vicious gossip and then commiserating with them. The irony was that this time the gossip had originated with my own wife."
"Why didn't she talk to you herself?"
"She couldn't, I suppose." Bill paused. "It wasn't until I was living with Violet that I saw how bizarre my life had been with Lucille. Violet's so present, so vital. She grabs me all the time and tells me she loves me. Lucille never said that." Bill stopped talking. "Not once." He looked up from the screwdriver. "For years, day in and day out, I lived with a fictional character, a person I'd invented."
"That doesn't explain why she married you."
"I pressed her, Leo. She was weak."
"No, Bill. People are responsible for what they do. She chose to marry you."
Bill returned his eyes to the screwdriver. "She's pregnant," he said. "She told me it was an accident, but he's going to marry her. She sounded happy about it. She's moving to Princeton."
"Does she want Mark to move there with her?"
"I'm not sure. I've learned that if I insist on having him, she insists that she wants him. When I don't, she's less interested. I think she's willing to let Mark make up his mind. Violet's worried that Lucille will takeMark away from us, that something will happen. She's ... she's almost superstitious when it comes to Lucille."
"Yes, I think that's the right word. She seems to think that Lucille has some vague power over us--not just when it comes to Mark, but in other ways ..."
I didn't pursue this turn in the conversation. I told myself that Lucille deserved happiness, a new marriage, another child. She would finally escape that gloomy apartment on East Third Street. And yet beneath my good wishes lay a turbulent awareness that Lucille was someone I didn't understand.
The very last night we stayed in the house in Vermont, I woke up and saw Erica sitting on the edge of the bed. I assumed she was going to the bathroom and turned over to go back to sleep, but as I lay in bed only half awake, I heard her footsteps in the hallway. She had passed the bathroom. I followed her into the hall and saw her standing outside Matt and Mark's bedroom door. Her eyes were open as she touched the doorknob lightly with her fingers. She didn't turn it. She withdrew her hands and then waved her fingers over it the way a magician might before performing a trick. When I approached her, she looked at me. The boys used a night-light that shone through the crack at the bottom of the door, and her face was barely lit from below. I knew then that she wasn't awake and, remembering the old advice about not waking sleepwalkers, I gently took her arm to lead her back to bed. But at the touch of my hand, she cried out in a loud emphatic voice, "Mutti!" The exclamation startled me. I dropped her arm, and she turned back to the doorknob, touching it once with her index finger and then withdrawing it instantly as if the metal were hot. I began to whisper to her. "It's me, Erica. It's Leo. I'm going to take you back to bed." She looked straight at me again and said, "Oh, it's you, Leo. Where were you?" With one arm around her shoulder, I walked her down the hallway and gently pressed her onto the bed. For at least an hour, I stayed awake with my hand on her back, watching her for signs of movement, but Erica didn't stir again.
I had called may mother "Mutti," too, and the word opened up achasm inside me. I thought of my mother, not when she was old but when she was young, and for a short while as I lay in bed I recovered the smell of her as she bent over me--powder and a little perfume--and I felt her breath on my cheek and her fingers in my hair as she stroked my head. Du musst schlafen, Liebling. Du musst schlafen. There was no window in my room in London. I picked at the peeling wallpaper of looping ivy near my bed until I had exposed a long narrow stretch of bare yellow wall.
When the Weeks Gallery showed Bill's fairy-tale boxes in September, the crash on Wall Street, less than a month away and only a few blocks south, seemed as unlikely as the end of the world. Two hundred or more people pushed their way into the gallery for the opening, and as I looked at them they seemed to merge into one large, giddy mass--a many-headed, many-limbed being driven by a will of its own. I was knocked about that night, jostled, spilled on, elbowed, and pushed into corners. Through the din of the party, I heard prices quoted--not only for Bill's boxes but for the works of other artists that had "gone through the roof"--an expression that made me think of dollars floating over the skyline. I knew for a fact that the woman who claimed to know what a fairy-tale box was selling for had raised its price by several thousand dollars. The cost was no secret; Bernie had a list of prices in his office for anybody who was interested. The woman's inflation probably wasn't intentional. Her sentence began with "I heard ..." Rumor was as good as the truth anyway. As with the stock market, buzz generated reality. And yet few people in the gallery would have connected the paintings, sculptures, installations, and conceptual somethings that were flourishing in lower Manhattan to junk bonds, swollen numbers, and clanging bells on Wall Street.
The last to arrive were the first to go. Little galleries in the East Village vanished and were instantly replaced by boutiques that sold leather clothing and spiked belts. SoHo began to wilt. The established galleries withstood the shock, but they cut back on expenses. Bernie stayed open,but he had to drop the stipends he had been handing out to younger artists, and he quietly sold his private collection of master drawings from the back room. When an English collector cleaned house by dumping the works of several "hot eighties artists," their reputations cooled instantly, and within months their names receded into the nostalgic past and were often prefaced by the word "remember." Others were forgotten. The very famous survived, but sometimes without a house in Quogue or Bridgehampton.
Bill's work dropped in value, but his collectors didn't abandon him. Most of the pieces were in Europe anyway, and there he had gained a singular status because his work attracted young people not normally interested in art. In France, his gallery did a brisk business in posters of the fairy-tale boxes, and a book of reproductions was in the works. During their flush period, Violet had bought some fashionable clothes and pieces of furniture for their loft, but Bill's nonconsumerism had never wavered. "He doesn't want anything," Violet said to me. "I bought a side table for the living room, and it took him a week to notice it. He would put down a book or leave a glass on it, but it was days before he suddenly said, 'Is this new?'" Bill weathered the slump because he had money in the bank, and he had money in the bank because he lived in fear of his past--the grim poverty that had meant plastering and wall painting. He had been married to Lucille then, and I noticed that as time went on Bill talked about that period in his life with increasing gloom, as if in hindsight it had grown darker and more painful than when he was actually living it. Like everyone, Bill rewrote his life. The recollections of an older man are different from those of a young man. What seemed vital at forty may lose its significance at seventy. We manufacture stories, after all, from the fleeting sensory material that bombards us at every instant, a fragmented series of pictures, conversations, odors, and the touch of things and people. We delete most of it to live with some semblance of order, and the reshuffling of memory goes on until we die.
That fall I finished my book. Six hundred pages in manuscript, it was called A Brief History of Seeing in Western Painting. When I'd started it, I had hoped that an epistemological rigor would carry me through, thatthe book would be a synthetic argument about artistic vision and its philosophical and ideological underpinnings, but as I worked, the thing grew longer, looser, more speculative, and, I believe, more honest. Ambiguities intruded that fit no schema, and I let them stand as questions. Erica, my first reader and editor, influenced both the prose and some of my clarifications, which I acknowleged, but I dedicated the book to Bill. It wasn't only an act of friendship but one of humility. Inevitably, good works of art have what I call an "excess" or "plethora" that escapes the interpreter's eye.
On November seventh, Erica turned forty-six. The birthday, which brought fifty into sudden view, seemed to accelerate her. She started taking a yoga class. She lunged and breathed and stood on her head and tied herself into knots on the living room floor and insisted that these tortured exertions made her feel "wonderful." She created a flurry at the MLA convention with her paper "Underneath The Golden Bowl," published three of her finished chapters in journals, and the English department at Berkeley offered her a job at a much higher salary, which she turned down. But the steady diet of yoga, publication, and flattery suited her. Her nerves quieted. She suffered fewer headaches, and I noticed that when she was in repose her forehead no longer looked permanently wrinkled. Erica's libido soared. She grabbed my hips while I was brushing my teeth. She nibbled at my back or slid her hand down my pants in the hallway. She stripped naked in the middle of the room when I was reading, then sidled over to the bed and climbed on top of me. I welcomed these assaults and found that the night tumbles left their traces on the morning. There were many days that year when I left the house whistling.
According to Matt, Mrs. Rankleham's fifth-grade class churned with intrigue. Popularity reigned as the supreme dictate for ten- and eleven-year-olds. The grade had splintered into hierarchical factions that either fought each other openly or employed more subtle cruelties reminiscent of the French court. I gathered that certain boys and certain girls were "going together"--a vague phrase that denoted everything from sharing a slice of pizza to furtive necking. As far as I could tell, these pairingschanged weekly, but Matt was never among the chosen. While he longed for insider status, I sensed that he wasn't prepared to seek it. On a day in October when I picked up Matt after school for a dentist appointment, I understood why. I recognized several girls from Matt's class whom I had known for years, girls who played pivotal roles in the dramas Matt was reporting on at dinner. They looked like women. Many inches taller than when I had last seen them, they had grown breasts. Their hips had widened. I saw lipstick gleaming on a couple of mouths. I watched them as they sashayed past Matt and several other runty boys who were throwing fish-shaped crackers at one another's heads. Approaching one of those girls required either great courage or monumental stupidity. Matt, it seemed, was possessed of neither.
He played with Mark and a couple of other friends after school. He threw himself into baseball and his drawing and the race for good grades. He puzzled over arithmetic and science, composed little essays with painstaking care and terrible spelling, and zealously pursued his at-home projects--a Bookland collage, a Spanish galleon in clay that melted in the oven, and the memorably interminable business of a solar system in papier-mâché. For a week Matt, Erica, and I labored over slimy pieces of newspaper, wrapping and pasting and measuring the dimensions of Venus and Mars and Uranus and the moon. Three times Saturn's ring slumped and had to be redone. When the project was all finished and hung from thin silver wires, Matt turned to me and said, "I like the Earth best," and it was true. His Earth was beautiful.
On Saturdays when Mark was visiting his mother, who now lived in Cranbury, New Jersey, with her new husband, Matt often went to visit Bill at the studio. We allowed him to walk alone to the Bowery and would anxiously wait for him to call us when he arrived. On one of those Saturdays, Matt spent six hours alone with Bill. When I asked what he and Bill had done for all that time, Matt said, "We talked and we worked." I waited for details, but the answer was final. A couple of times that spring Matt exploded at me and Erica for trivial offenses. When he was really out of sorts, he posted a DO NOT DISTURB sign on his door. Without the sign we might not have been aware of the brooding reveriestaking place inside his room, but the message pointed to his seclusion, and whenever I passed it, Matt's defensive solitude seemed to penetrate my bones like a physical memory of my own early adolescence. But Matt's hormonal funks seldom lasted very long. Eventually he would emerge from his room, usually in buoyant spirits, and the three of us would have lively talks over dinner--which ranged in subject matter from the risque wardrobe of an eleven-year old named Tanya Farley to American foreign policy during World War II. Erica and I adopted a parental policy of laissez-faire, rarely commenting on Matt's fluctuating moods. It seemed senseless to blame him for ups and downs he didn't understand himself.
Through Matt I recovered my own days of awe and secrecy. I remembered warm fluid on my thighs and belly that soon turned cold after the dream, the rolls of toilet paper I hid under the bed for evening bouts of masturbation, and my clandestine trips to the bathroom to flush the soiled wads, one breathless step at a time, as if those emissions from my own body were stolen goods. Time has turned my young body into a comic thing, but it wasn't funny then. I touched the three strands of pubic hair I grew overnight and examined my underarms every morning for further growth. I shuddered in arousal and then withdrew into the aching loneliness under my tender skin. Miss Reed, a person I hadn't thought of in years, returned to me as well. My dancing teacher had peppermint on her breath and freckles on her chest. She wore full-skirted dresses with thin straps over her round white shoulders, and every once in a while, during the fox-trot or the tango, a strap would fall. It will all come to Matt, I thought, and there is no way to tell the story so that it becomes easier. The growing body has its own language, and solitude is its first teacher. On several occasions in the spring, I found Matt standing in front of the Self-Portrait that had hung on our wall for thirteen years. His eyes traveled over the plump young Violet and onto the little taxi that rested near her pudendum, and I saw the canvas again as though for the first time--with its full erotic force.
That early painting and the others in the series began to look oracular--as if Bill had known long ago that one day Violet would carryaround inside her the bodies of people who ate themselves to immensity or starved themselves to tininess. That year Violet paid regular visits to a young woman in Queens who weighed four hundred pounds. Angie Knott never left the house in Flushing where she lived with her mother, who was also obese, but not as obese as her daughter. Mrs. Knott had a small business making custom curtains in the neigborhood. Angie did the books. "After she left school at sixteen, she got fatter and fatter," Violet said. "But she was a fat baby and a fat little girl and her mother stuffed food into her from the beginning. She's a walking mouth, a repository for cupcakes and Fudgsicles and boxes of pretzels and mountains of sugared cereal. We talk about the fat," Violet added, showing me Angie's picture. "She's turned her own body into a cave where she can hide, and the strange thing is, I understand it, Leo. I mean, from her point of view, everything outside herself is dangerous. She feels safe in all that padding, even though she's in danger of getting diabetes and heart disease. She's out of the sexual marketplace. Nobody can get through all that blubber, and that's what she wants."
There were days when Violet would leave Angie to visit Cathy, who was being treated at New York Hospital. Violet called her Saint Catherine, after Catherine Benincasa, the Dominican saint from Siena who fasted herself to death. "She's a monster of purity," she said, "fiercer and more righteous than any nun. Her mind moves in these narrow little channels, but it moves well in them, and she spins out arguments for starving like some hermetic medieval scholar. If she eats half a cracker, she feels sullied and guilty. She looks horrible, but her eyes shine with pride. Her parents waited way too long. They let it go. She was always such a good girl, and they just can't understand what happened to her. She's the flip side of Angie, protected not by fat but by her virginal armor. They're worried about her electrolyte balance. She could die." Violet wrote Angie and Cathy into her book along with dozens of others. She gave them different names and analyzed their pathologies as the result of both their personal histories and the American "hysteria" about food--which she called "a sociological virus." She told me that she used the word virus because a virus is neither living nor dead. Its animationdepends on its host. I don't know whether Violet's girls found their way into Bill's new work or whether he was simply returning to an old theme, but as he continued to work on his new piece, I noticed that hunger had once again found a place in his art.
O's Journey was organized around the alphabet. Erica was the first to refer to its twenty-six boxes as "Bill's great American novel." He liked the phrase and began to use it himself, saying that it would take a long time to finish, like a big novel. Each box was a small freestanding twelve-inch glass cube, which allowed the spectator to view it from all sides. The characters inside the clear glass were identified by large letters that had been sewn or painted onto their chests--in the manner of Hester Prynne. O, the "novel's" young painter-hero, bore a striking resemblance to Lazlo, except that he had red hair, not blond, and a longer nose, which I took as a reference to Pinocchio. Bill lost himself in those cubes. The studio floated with hundreds of drawings, tiny paintings, scraps of fabric for miniature clothes, notebooks filled with quotations and Bill's own musings. On a single page, I found a comment from the linguist Roman Jakobson, a reference to the Cabbalists, and a reminder to himself about a particular cartoon featuring Daffy Duck. In the drawings, O grew and shrank, depending on his circumstances. In one of my favorite sketches, an emaciated O was lying on a narrow bed, his feeble head turned toward his own painting of a roast beef.
I made regular visits to the studio that year. Bill gave me a set of keys so that I could let myself in without disturbing him. One afternoon, I found him lying on the floor staring fixedly at the ceiling. Four empty cubes and several small dolls lay scattered around him. When he heard me, Bill didn't move. I took a chair several feet away from him and waited. After about five minutes, he sat up. "Thank you, Leo," he said. "I had to think through a problem with B. It couldn't wait." But other times, I would find him sitting cross-legged on the floor, sewing small clothes or entire figures by hand, and without looking up from his work he would greet me warmly and start to talk. "Leo, I'm glad you're here," he said one evening. "Meet O's mother." He held up a tall thin plastic figure with pink eyes. "This is O's poor mother, long-suffering, kindhearted,but a bit of a lush. I'm calling her X. Y is O's father. He's never going to appear in the flesh, you see. He's just a letter hovering in the distance or over O's head, a thought, an idea. Nevertheless, X and Y begot O. It makes sense, don't you think? X as in former, the once-was ex-wife, or X marks the spot, but also X as in a kiss at the bottom of a letter. You see, she loves him. And then there's Y, the big missing Y as in W-H-Y?" Bill laughed. The sound of his voice and his face made me think of Dan, and I asked Bill about his brother out of the blue. "He's the same," Bill said to me. His eyes clouded for an instant. "He's the same."
Every time I visited, I would find more characters lying out on the desk and on the floor. One afternoon in March, I picked up a two-dimensional figure that had been fashioned from wire and covered with a thin muslin fabric, which looked more like a transparent skin than a dress. The girl doll was on her knees with her arms raised upward in a beseeching gesture. When I saw the C pinned to her chest, I thought of Saint Catherine. "That's one of O's girlfriends," Bill said. "She starves herself to death." Only a minute later, I noticed two small fabric dolls locked in an embrace. I picked up the double figure and saw that the two little boys--one black-headed and one brown--had been attached at their waists and that each child had a letter M sewn to his chest. The blatant reference to Matthew and Mark unsettled me for a moment. I examined the two painted faces for distinguishing features, but the children were identical.
"You've put the boys in it?" I said.
Bill looked up and smiled. "A version of them," he said. "They're O's little brothers."
I carefully lowered them back to their resting place on the glass cube in front of me. "Have you seen Mark's baby brother?"
Bill's eyes narrowed. "Is this free association or are you divining hidden meanings in my M's?"
"I was just wondering."
"No--I've only seen a snapshot of a red wrinkled newborn with a big mouth."
Although O's Journey didn't mirror Bill's life in any of its details, Ibegan to think of the personified letters and their movements from one cube to another as Bill's fabular autobiography--a translation of sorts from the language of the outside world into the hieroglyphs of inner life. Bill told me that by the end of the work O would disappear--not die, just vanish. In the penultimate cube, he would be only half visible--a specter of himself. In the final cube, O would be gone, but in his room the viewer would see a half-finished canvas. What Bill intended to put on that canvas, I didn't know, and I don't think he knew either.
Sometime in December of that year, there was a real disappearance. It was a small one, but mysterious nevertheless. For his eleventh birthday I had given Matt a Swiss Army knife engraved with his initials. The knife had come with a short lecture on its responsible use, and Matt had agreed to every restriction. The most important of them was that he couldn't take it to school. Matt loved that knife. He attached it to a small chain and let it hang from his belt. "I like to have it handy," he said. "It's so useful." Its utility may have been secondary to its symbolism, however. He wore that knife the way some janitors parade their keys, as an emblem of male pride. When he wasn't checking to make sure that his weapon hadn't fallen off him, it was swinging from his belt like an extra appendage. Before he went to sleep he laid it reverently on his bedside table. And then one afternoon, he couldn't find it. He and Erica and Mark and Grace ransacked the closet and drawers and searched under the bed. By the time I returned from work, Matt was in tears and Grace had ripped off the bedsheets to see if the knife had fallen into them during the night. Was he certain that he had put it on the night table? Had he seen the knife that morning? Matt thought so, but the more he thought, the more confused he became. We searched for days, but the knife didn't turn up. I told him that if he still longed for the same knife when his twelfth birthday approached, I would buy him another one.
That year, Matt and Mark decided they wanted to go to "sleep-away" summer camp together. In late January, Bill, Violet, Erica, and I perused a fat book of camp listings. By February we had narrowed our choices and were dissecting the literature sent by seven camps. All our hermeneutic talents were brought to bear on the innocent brochures andxeroxed flyers. What was actually meant by "noncompetitive philosophy"? Did it suggest a healthy lack of a winning-is-all mentality or was it an excuse for laxness? Bill studied the photographs for clues. If their style was too glossy and artificial, he was suspicious. I dismissed two camps because their literature was studded with grammatical errors, and Erica worried about the qualifications of the counselors. In the end, a camp called Green Hill in Pennsylvania won the competition. The boys liked the picture on the cover of its catalogue--twenty boys and girls with Green Hill T-shirts beaming out at the spectator from under a canopy of leafy trees. The camp had everything we had hoped for--baseball, basketball, swimming, sailing, canoeing, and an arts program that included painting, dance, music, and theater. The decision had been made. We sent off our checks.
In April, not long before the Columbia semester ended, Bill, Mark, Matthew, and I drove to Shea Stadium on a Friday evening for a Mets game. The home team came from behind and rallied to win the game in the ninth inning. Matt scrutinized every pitch and every play. After mumbling the statistics for each player aloud, he offered his analysis of the man's prospects at the plate. As the game progressed, he agonized, suffered, and rejoiced, depending on the fate of the Mets at the moment, and because his emotions ran so high, I found myself both exhausted and relieved when it was all over.
It was late when I walked into Matt's room that night with a glass of water to put on his night table. Erica had already left him. I leaned over and kissed his cheek, but he didn't kiss me back. He squinted at the ceiling for a couple of moments and then said, "You know, Dad, I'm always thinking about how many people there are in the world. I was thinking about it between innings at the game, and I got this really funny feeling, you know, how everybody is thinking thoughts at the same time, billions of thoughts."
"Yes," I said. "A flood of thoughts that we can't hear."
"Yeah. And then I got this weird idea about how all those different people see what they see just a little different from everybody else."
"You mean that every person has a different way of seeing the world?"
"No, Dad, I mean really and truly. I mean that because we were sitting where we were sitting tonight, we saw a game that was a little different from those guys with the beer next to us. It was the same game, but I could've noticed something those guys didn't. And then I thought, if I was sitting over there, I'd see something else. And not just the game. I mean they saw me and I saw them, but I didn't see myself and they didn't see themselves. Do you get what I mean?"
"I know just what you mean. I've thought about it a lot, Matt. The place where I am is missing from my view. It's like that for everybody. We don't see ourselves in the picture, do we? It's a kind of hole."
"And when I put that together with people thinking their zillions of thoughts--right now they're out there thinking and thinking--I get this floaty feeling." He paused. "On the way home in the car when we were all quiet, I thought about how everybody's thoughts keep changing. The thoughts that people were having during the game turned into new thoughts when we were in the car. That was then, but this is now, but then that now is gone, and there's a new now. Right now, I'm saying right now, but it's over before I've finished saying it."
"In a way," I said to him, "that now you're talking about hardly exists. We feel it, but it's impossible to measure. The past is always eating up the present." I stroked his hair and paused. "I think I've always loved paintings for that reason. Somebody makes a canvas in time, but after it's made, a painting stays in the present. Does that make sense to you?"
"Yes," he said. "Definitely. I like things to last for a long, long time." Matthew looked up at me. Then he took a breath. "I've made up my mind, Dad. I'm going to be an artist. When I was little I thought I would try for the Major Leagues. I'll always play ball, but that's not going to be my job. No, I'm going to have a studio right here in the neighborhood and an apartment close by, so I can visit you and Mom whenever I want." He closed his eyes. "Sometimes I think I'll make great big paintings, and other times I think I'll make pretty small ones. I don't know which yet."
"You have time to decide," I said. Matt turned onto his stomach and gripped the covers. I leaned down and kissed his forehead.
When I left Matthew's room that night, I stopped in the hallway andleaned against the wall for a couple of minutes. I was proud of my son. Like a rush of air in my lungs, the feeling grew, and then I wondered if my pride wasn't a form of reflected vanity. Matthew's thoughts echoed mine, and that night when I listened to him, I heard myself, and yet as I stood there I knew that I also admired a quality in Matthew that I didn't have. At eleven, he was bolder and more certain than I had ever been. When I told Erica about our talk, she said, "We're lucky. We're lucky to have him. He's the best boy on earth." And after that hyperbolic declaration, she rolled over and fell asleep.
On June twenty-seventh, the six of us crowded into a rented minivan and drove to Pennsylvania. Bill and I carried two leaden duffel bags into a cabin Matt and Mark were going to share with seven other boys and greeted their counselors, Jim and Jason. The pair reminded me of an adolescent version of Laurel and Hardy--one thin, the other rotund--both grinning broadly. We briefly met the camp director, a hairy man with a pumping handshake and a hoarse voice. We strolled around the grounds and admired the mess hall, the lake, the tennis courts, and the theater. We lingered over our good-byes. Matt threw himself into my arms and hugged me. Only at night did I get such affectionate treatment anymore, but he had clearly made an exception for that farewell. I felt his ribs through his T-shirt as he pressed himself against me, and I looked down into his face. "I love you, Dad," he said in a low voice. I answered him as I always did. "And I love you, Matt. I love you." I watched him embrace Erica, and I noticed that he found it a little hard to withdraw from his mother. Erica removed his Mets cap and stroked his hair away from his forehead.
"Matty," she said. "I'll embarrass you with a letter every day."
"That's not embarrassing, Mom," he said. He held her tightly and pressed his cheek into her collarbone. Then he lifted his chin and smiled. "This is embarrassing."
Erica and Violet prolonged our departure with futile reminders that Matt and Mark brush their teeth, wash themselves, and get enough sleep. When we reached the car, I turned around to look at the boys. They were standing on the wide mowed lawn beside the camp's mainbuilding. A large oak tree spread its branches over them, and behind them the afternoon sun shone on the lake, its light catching the ruffle of waves on the water's surface. Bill was driving the first leg of the trip home, and after I had taken my seat beside Violet in the back, I turned again to watch the two figures recede as the van moved down the long driveway toward the road. Matthew had raised his hand to wave at us. From that distance, he looked like a very small boy wearing clothes that were too big for him. I noticed how thin his legs were under his wide shorts and the narrow line of his neck above his billowing T-shirt. He was still holding his cap in his hand, and I saw a tuft of his hair blow up and away from his face in the wind.
WHAT I LOVED. Copyright © 2003 by Siri Hustvedt. All rights reserved. . No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.