Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 46 - REAL GIRL

I was working for UPI at night over in Newark that first summer that I had my first place in the city. I was living on 13th Street between First and Second, then 11th between Second and Third, which was really the Bowery. This so long ago it was not called the East Village yet. I was living among people who seemed very much like me, and also actual Puerto Ricans, on what could pass for the Lower East Side.

So I wasn’t merely a wire service reporter. I was really the author of one and a half still unpublished novels, and I was leading this little group who had decided we would start a magazine that picked up from where The New Yorker had once been, which had been on top of its era to the same extent that it was mostly irrelevant now with its stories that usually avoided big themes and that went nowhere.

Then Vannie. I met Vannie at a party near Gramercy Park after my shift, just back to Manhattan via the Hudson tubes, where I had been reading The Myth of Sisyphus. Vannie. It would last, sometimes close, here and also abroad, for a number of years. She fit what I hoped would be the picture. She was an action painter who knew how to be in leotards. She had what seemed to me a face of movie loveliness, framed by soft black hair and with bangs. I thought I had never seen anyone who looked quite so perfect – and so different from the people in the family I came from.

When walking alone in that first year, noticing girls, I was getting competitive about it – for no pretty girl I saw strucke me as being as pretty as this pretty girl who was my girlfriend.

Vannie and my real life, what I really wanted, whereas wire service journalism was something I had to fake. My serious unpublished work, and my plan to unseat The New Yorker. Though overall I felt contempt for it, I still read The New Yorker, and each new Salinger story was like a major event in my life. We were into the Glass family now. But to my horror I saw in a new issue a full page cartoon that showed a couple, a guy who did not have to deal with neckties and a girl dressed like Vannie dressed, sitting on the floor at a smoky bohemian party not unlike some parities we went to – and he was saying “ I have a confession to make. I am a feature writer for Scripps Howard.”

I was given silly assignments, like one to stand all night outside an apartment house on the chance that Charles Van Doren, at the center of the rigged quiz show scandal, would show up. His building was not far from Vannie's. I abandoned my post, and I woke her up. And we were a couple, though we had our problems actually coupling, and I saw no need for loyalty because I had seen in my family how women bully men. Which seemed to me then not so much an excuse for my going after other women as it was an attempt at accuracy. At getting life right.

And it did often feel like I was in real life now. Vannie and I went to museums and galleries and constant parties, which were more my scene than hers. She was constantly in my mind. As was death. Working for a wire service I was always hearing and writing about death, as in plane crashes or murders. And each time I heard about it, just as each time I passed a graveyard, I had this sudden picture of Vannie accompanied with a sexual surge. One of many things I knew I could never completely understand.

One day we were on our way to Washington to see paintings. I had barely made it to Penn station in time to meet her, for I had been held up at UPI. Boris Pasternak was dying and, though he was not dead yet, I was at work on his obituary.

Vannie has brought a picnic lunch for us. The train was not crowded, so we took over two facing seats. As happened sometimes, I was not thinking of anything or anyone beyond this moment. While we were laughing at something, the conductor handed us a folded note. It was unsigned. It said, "It makes me happy to see two young people who are so happy together."

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 45 – GIRL WITH PALE EYES

One day in October in this new time – no more school, no more army – one day thinking I was of New York now and not just in it, I walked along Central Park South and saw the Plaza, and then the horse carriages on the park side of the avenue, something that had not been part of my childhood but still brought on these powerful feelings of nostalgia. And saw, as if it were a part of my actual history, a hotel's doormen and baggage men in what looked like French army costumes. Saw through Rumplemeyer’s plate glass windows people eating big ice cream concoctions beneath large shiny toy bears and dogs and deer and pandas – something else I had never seen when in the city in actual childhood.

At sunset I passed this lovely tall girl who was gliding the other way. Delicate but also statuesque and with a confidence in her bearing that made her foreign to me – from some wondrous sphere – whatever her nationality – very light blond hair that may or may not have been natural and was an erotic touch either way – and very white and perfect skin – high cheek bones – full lips that betrayed no feeling – and eyes so light they had snow from some far northern place in them. All this tinged with the oranges and lavenders of the sunset colors from the sky on the street and in the park.

And suddenly I felt what might, I hoped, be not so much despair as absurdity, something, I hoped, that would be okay with Camus, my current literary hero who had moved absurdity up to the highest level.

But suddenly I knew it was not that easy, knew I would have to fight. The way some people had to fight against suicide. I would have to fight against what seemed all to real now, the proposition that no matter what I did, that nothing in the world I had now could hold together.

Looking at the girl beneath that sky with Rumplemeyer’s behind me I was in the midst of sadness that, if I should ever let myself cry – which I wouldn’t – sadness that would have no end.

Sadness that was worse than feeling nothing.

I moved on to the Oak Room Bar. As I walked, I lit a fresh cigarette from the one I was about to put out, hoping I did it well.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 44 – DANCING GIRL

In that time after Africa, after San Francisco, during and after the Kennedy assassination while I was still with Kim but sometimes with Lottie who danced under the name Princess Aisha at the Egyptian gardens – with Lottie in the Madison Square Hotel where the lobby TV played and replayed assassination details, and deep in the night my sheets were clammy and bright red with her monthly blood – and we made so much noise that the elderly permanent residents left notes under my door about what a nice place this had been until I came to live here – and then Kim was pregnant and I called in sick to Time-Life two days after I’d started there, and we went to Puerto Rico for the abortion but had to stay out of the sun, fearing tans, because she still saw her husband and if he knew about this he would have the upper hand – and at Time-Life I should be pale after telling them my absence was due to flu.

And sometimes ultra-cute Sue, who had been in Athens just after me and dealt with the same expats, so it felt like we had crossed paths already.

In this time after Kim and I got back and everything was going wrong we still met in trysting style. I found a small but pleasing ground-floor apartment on Waverly Place. Lottie danced and disrobed there while I was on the phone to my parents, who were such a threat and an embarrassment to me. As Princess Aisha’s panties landed on the coffee table while my father was telling me that Sandra Donaldson, whom I had known in childhood as a cruel little black-freckled girl on the school bus, had become, in adulthood, a sought-after fashion model.

One morning Kim climbed through my ground-floor window when she suspected, correctly, that I was in bed with Sue.

I would go to the cavernous, Egyptian Gardens, which had a touch of evil, its darkness and its underworld patrons. I would walk in near midnight thinking I could be Humphrey Bogart. From the bar I sent a note up to the stage where when not dancing Lottie sat, almost demure, spangled and as smooth as if her skin were oiled, sitting, when not dancing, in a row of musicians and dancers much older than she was. I had met her when I was doing a try-out for the then liberal New York Post and had been assigned a common tabloid feature – nice Jewish grad student works at night as a belly dancer. In this time when the sixties were about to crest but belly dancing was for tabloid readers akin to stripping. Very late, after her last erotic dance of the night, we would go to an upstairs Greek after-hours place where they looked you over through an opening in the door and you drank ouzo from coffee cups.

But many nights I roamed the Village by myself – Chumley's, the no-name bar, and Julius’s which was still straight, this was so long ago – and the Duplex and the Ninth Circle and some I would not remember the next day, looking for women, sometimes finding one – in this time in which there was still Kim and Sue and Lottie, and the occasional no-name woman from an adjoining bar stool, and those researchers at Time-Life – after the Post fired me, at the instigation of Lottie’s agent, because I’d gotten her name wrong in print. And there was also the girl I had thought I would be with forever, our being together that crucial to my identity, but whom I’d left in Greece, and now she was back – and I was moving around, including to Broadway tryouts in Wilmington and in the Wilton – always in motion but feeling stagnant as if with a hangover that would last forever, exciting as my life was supposed to be.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 43 – ENGLISH GIRL

A graceful cantilever bridge curving upwards from a familiar shore where there are billowing trees – spanning years of longing and places of pleasure and places of battle – then curving downwards to a far shore full of billowing trees, similar but different from what the shore I departed had been.

I was on this far shore now and I did not think anything reminded me of what had been down bellow the graceful bridge. I was on this far shore and the intense green of the early Vermont summer did not – as would happen in novels – take me out of the present and into something remembered, as in electric green rice fields and a water buffalo (a child or a bird likely to be riding on the stolid animal’s back). And neither the slabs of rock on mountain sides nor the sight and smell of clear river water running over smooth stones, neither took me back into Taiwan’s marble Toroko gorge.

A surprisingly friendly very young and eager girl working at a Burger King on Rutland’s strip smiled at me and seemed to have questions and it was almost like I were on the original shore, a child, and falling in love, or maybe something worse and I had to hold myself back from thinking this was what it might seem. And no more than I was led back to water buffalo and the Toroko Gorge did the present lead me to smooth smiling Bangkok bar girls in their strapless gold lamé gowns. Not that I had forgotten. But the life below this graceful bridge had no more connection to the present that did the very different life of the stuffy family I came from.

And yet what was down below would not completely go away. For instance, the English girl.

In Greece two English girls had moved to the a small white-washed house that was cattycorner to our small whitewashed house on one of the paths in Anafiotika that wound up on the city side of the Acropolis – two English girls, one of them, Patti, so smooth and flowing and lazy. They had had no curtains and I was able come up with what I thought were a few good consciously world weary lines, talking the way I though then Evelyn Waugh would talk about English girls fucking practically on my doorstep.

I came upon Patti again, two and a half years later that felt like ten years later. She was at an adjoining table at the Cedar Bar, which was still in full swing in 1964. She was dressed in what looked like filmy drapery. Very much in the swim of things in this place, whereas she had stood out in Athens. She was soft and tall as I remembered her – and all extensions – long, dark arms, long legs seen in shorts slit up the thigh in Anafiotika, and now in the Cedar she stretched and the drapery nearly fell away. She pulled back long straight black hair, bunched it up, her arms raised, soft armpits and shiny, tanned flesh all around, flesh flowing with her lazy movements, breasts partially on view through her garment’s large arm openings.

The next night we met by arrangement. We had hamburgers at the Cedar Bar. A date. I wasn’t the only one who had noticed her. Her last date had been with Mike Nichols, she said, and she did not seem to think that was anything unusual.

We went to look at a huge old loft she shared with what seemed to be a dozen beautiful people. While we were drinking and chatting she suddenly asked, “Why did you want to see me?” And what I had hoped would happen never did.

A possible answer to her question, the chance now to fuck, seemed too easy and obvious and certainly not up to Evelyn Waugh standards. But in fact I had no actual answer – for it was as if she has asked, “Who are you?”

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 42 – FEET

This new time, driving in Vermont, free of the past, it seemed, but mostly staying in the car, this time requiring solitude, perhaps so certain of my course that I could not feel lonely, or perhaps not quite admitting I was lonely again. This time so new it really was as if I had just been born. This time when I had passed 50 and had never been so young. And yet there were these moments in the happy old Mustang when I heard my twin brother Matthew’s voice describing what I saw, such as the new fiberglass farm silos that had come in while I was away from New England, as if I could not see the change from the old more picturesque silos of my childhood until the change had been categorized by that family I so carefully avoided.

And thinking of Matthew’s voice I was remembering when 30 years back Matthew had come to Atlanta to visit me while I was in the midst of an affair with a girl who looked to me like someone in an Italian movie and who had a husband who wanted me dead. I was in Atlanta because I had been drafted, but it was the maneuverable, corruptible peacetime army so, with considerable luck, instead of staying in a barracks I was living in a high-ceiling room I rented in a once majestic Peachtree Street house that had gone to seed. And I was working nearly full time for United Press. I was only 22, but already, and despite four years in the country’s most retrograde college, I had begun the life I planned, partly during summers in Europe but most notably in Cuba where I’d divided my time between life-risking adventure and sweetly slippery episodes with girls of the night. And now Atlanta.

A terrible time for Matthew to visit, for I was floating in what seemed to me the most crucial affair of my life. Matthew had been sent down by our mother for comfort, since his engagement was suddenly off. This was annoying, for I had problems of my own, and I was sure it would be hard on him, so often my rival, to see me with someone so appealing – this smart young woman Susan, this olive-skilled women Susan whose movements were so graceful. And she had a husband, who had been my friend for awhile and now wanted me dead.

With no chance this evening for a real rendezvous, and Matthew anyway in the way, she’d told the husband she was going out for cigarettes. She sped up from the Southside and over to Peachtree Street, where the air smelled like flowers. Over to the big old house on a rise above Peachtree where I rented this musty, very non-Army sort of room. She arrived in front of the old house in time for us to meet for moments at her car. I went out followed by Matthew.
She raised her arms from the wheel and stretched up and out, and I leaned down and in, and we kissed through the open car window. I introduced my twin brother, who was standing behind me. She handed me a love note. We kissed. She sped off.

"What a sweet smile," was what my brother had to say, and he was right and I realized I would have to fight hard to see more than he had seen.

And I wondered if I been romanticizing Susan into a plastic figure the way people in the family always did when confronted with people outside the family – as if all the real world people that they saw were only characters with fixed characteristics that our family members had created. Maybe I was not seeing her but seeing Audrey Heyburn in "Roman Holiday." Or someone with skin like hers on the Via Veneto, or a tawny girl from the summers in Sugar Hill – or Goddard's Anna Karina playing a lovely streetwalkers with angst – or Susan Strasburg
doing Jean Anouhi – or even Ellyssa. Not seeing someone but rather seeing someone that was like someone.

But this was the first time I could fully understand fucking as making love – fucking not upstairs in bars in Havana or in seedy hotel room in the Midwest or South, or with girls from the Tango Palace at the northern end of Times Square, or with that girl who became an obsession who wore a swim suit in the waiting area of a Roman brothel – not those times, those other 1950s times. But this time, the first time, in my room in this big old house on Peachtree Street. Something so new I did not have the word for it yet but it came to me years later. The word was intimacy.

Not only skin on skin when entering her but realizing her feet were naked too. Naked feet in play. Intimacy. This memory now as I drove in Vermont.

After orgasm, we tickled each other’s feet with our toes.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


This is trite, I think, to think of death here where I lie on a raised bed in a curtained off corner of an emergency room. And it is cold. My life’s love is here too, not as a patient but as my life’s love and she is freezing. She is three feet from me, on a metal chair, resting her head on a metal table. For some reason, a nurse explains without explanation, they intentionally keep the place at 60 degrees. Outside it was more like 90. We keep ordering up blankets, which in hospital fashion are more like sheets posing as blankets. At home we never go to bed except on the warmest of mid-summer nights without a sort of ceremony in which I place extra blankets, real blankets, on her side of our bed – our real bed, which bears no relation to these raised hospital beds. The doctor, a youngish woman, appears and pokes around and she hurts me, or anyway stirs up the pain, and I cannot stifle my moans, though I don’t want it known that there is pain. And I am in a timeless place, harsh lights, far away from the world.

But maybe not so far, for there are little dramas. A youngish olive-skinned woman, nicely rounded in places where the doctor is all angles, also makes sounds of pain, and then cheerful chatter, in the next curtained off area. I can see her in a gap in the curtains. There is a young man with a half beard sitting at the end of her bed, another emergency room patient who has just met her. She is telling him that, though she looks young, she has three children. “And I am going to get married,” she says. She is trying to sound convinced. “I am going to get married. I know I am.”

The young man hails each nurse that goes by and the doctor too. He has all these debts, he says, credit cards and delinquent mortgage payments, and now he has hurt himself and they are telling him he must take a break from his work, which is construction. He tries to get the nurses and the doctor to say it is not so bad as it seems.

Now a short, and by God again pretty, and also bouncy Latin-looking girl appears with a wheel chair. She has a bright smile and is wearing some sort of crisp hospital uniform. She tells me it is time to go to radiology.

The moment I am in the wheel chair we set off at great speed
through miles of corridors for my X-ray. This is a race and a game. When we come back, the same way, at top speed, my life’s love says I look like I am having fun, and also that I look just like my late dog Claude, a Bassett hound terrier, who made everything exciting. She says I should be wearing goggles.

Much later it is time for another dash, this time to the CAT-scan place, again pushed by the pretty girl at high speed. And there is something comforting about being surrounded by attractive women – and something sad about it too – an overtone of last times. Or am I being silly?

The pretty girl does everything in radiology, arranging the patient, taking the pictures. It is comforting. I am feeling weak now, for I have not eaten for a day, and my head aches, and there is the pain still, if not so bad as it was, and most of all I feel intensely weary and sad – not sure where the sadness is coming from but clearly sad. And hazy too.

As I lie on this CAT-scan thing that will slide me into the CAT-scan tunnel I feel her hands beneath my head. Then I realize that these are my hands.

I read this piece in a group where I read every week. We read for reaction, not for passive aggressive MFA style criticism. One member who likes the piece says it it is so true that people stay consistent, that even heading into death this particular narrator still notices good looking women!