Over the years I almost forget music, then when settled somewhere – Singapore once, Hong Kong once, London once, though not Beirut – I backtrack, buy something to play tapes, and try to catch up.
Ever since I went up to the Met with a sweet woman named Bonnie one Sunday morning in this same year I am in Vermont and New Hampshire with Gillian, ever since Bonnie and I walked in a way I had almost forgotten with arms stretched down diagonally, making an X behind us as we held to each other’s waists, since then I have been immersed in music once again. And I am thinking I am Rip Van Winkle waking up to find all these things I had missed. Bonnie has earphones around her neck and a Walkman, something I had never heard of, tucked in her jeans. And on the subway we’d passed the music back and forth, and since then I had been catching up again. Mozart this time, not a time for Beethoven, and then all these songs by people I had missed, for it was as if I had been in a deep sleep through the arrival of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, and not really awake for Carly Simon or Carol King. And I was not sure how many decades in the past Ray Charles and Johnny Cash had appeared.
This music streaming through the aqua Mustang wherever I am going this summer – which seems like my first summer if not my last – though hardly seeming my last right now with Gillian, for there is too much to talk about – too much for her to talk about and me to listen to, but also sometimes the other way around, so no time for music, except at this place we are staying, this borrowed Waspy, musty, lake house, called a “camp” by it owner, a childhood friend of mine, this shaky little house on Lake Champlain. The place itself was like a parody of my life. It had been owned by one of those thin-blooded Foreign Service officers, who in retirement decorated it with cheap do-dads – each of the little bedrooms set up to remind him of places he had been in his minor assignments, one of them filled with things like the laughing Buddha’s sold to tourists in Chinatown though I think he really meant it to be something more like actual China, and in the European room, cuckoo clocks and Bavarian figurines, women in peasant dress, men in lederhosen playing tiny accordions (like what I had seen once before when I was in the army and renting a room in a house owned by the sad, boozy widow of a major).
When we were on the thruway going up, Gillian returned to the car from a rest stop with all sorts of stuff from a vending machine – nail clippers and compasses and things – and I remembered being fascinated by this kind of Americana when I had been away a long time. I had been back, except for a last go-round in martial law Manila, back from Asia for several years now, but not long back from a marriage. She was just back herself. And looking younger and happier than I gathered she could possibly have been from her stories in which no one could be young or happy. We had met, as I had met Bonnie, in a place where people found stories, and hers were more horrendous than most. She talked of a boyfriend of her awful mother’s who had fucked her, and her sister too, when she was a child, a man quite famous for whose inherited company I had once worked and whose wife had been a friend of my stately grandmother.
She also talked of appealing things I had missed, such as her time as a regular in the happy sixties scene around Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain.
Gillian spoke with an English accent, which she said she had learned during a time at Cambridge, but it was disconcerting to me, since I was from a family rife with fake English accents. That girl with the scotch bottle I flashed back to had a voice that was sugary Kentucky.
The only music in the lake house was a tape by something that sounded like a loopy version of Musak, played by an outfit called Wyndom Hill that I had never heard of, music billed as New Age, New Age being something else I had slept through. I had very recently heard of it as the name of a magazine in which there was an article about Alice Miller, whom everyone I was dealing with these days was reading because Alice Miller really had the goods on destructive, narcissistic, borderline killer families. I had come back from Asia a few years before Gillian came back from where she was living, a blonde girl who looked younger than her years, alone in a hut in an orchard in Dhamasala among the Dali Lama people. An overtly spiritual approach to Asia such as I had not taken – though she no more looked the cliché version of spiritual seeker than I did. She looked like a girl certain devious old men, and many honest good men too, would like to get their hands on.
We fill the musty little house with balloons we buy from a nearby place called Vergennes, and we dance, so help me, to Wyndom Hill elevator music. And time is all confused in my mind and I am hearing that the prettiest girl I ever saw was sipping Hoffman’s through a straw.
We drove across the border to the land of my childhood and adolescence, and by God the sky did cloud over, and the Green Mountains were still in the aqua Mustang’s rearview mirror as the black granite of New Hampshire’s White Mountains began to surround us.
She told of how her mother, a famous fucker of famous literati, from Charles Adams to S. J. Perelman, how her mother and her father when he was around used to take their kids to Waspy parts of Maine, for unlike you, she said, referring to family houses, although her people were pure Wasp, they did not, like you, she said, actually have what she called a magic kingdom of their own. I told her about Cousin Mimi’s brother’s fucking his little sister, and about further molestation and suicides of people whose childhoods had centered around my magic kingdom She told me about how her parents took their kids out on cold wet sand in Maine and made the little girl suck off her little brother while they cheered them on. I told her about how some horrible kids form those perfect summer communities in the White Mountains would shout anti-Semitic things from their cars as they drove at night through a gentle nearby town called Bethlehem, a town surrounded by orchards, not just granite, a town whose hotels, unlike those in my family’s place, welcomed Jews. Gillian said the kids in Bethlehem should drive over to the Wasp region and shout things like, “Your grandmother overcooks the vegetables.”