Monthly Archives: December 2012

I am supposed to be above the Russian girlfriend and her lingerie, I know, but I nonetheless take a photograph of my own, create a mask in Photoshop, and color correct the bra and panties to go along with the blog entry. I leave one strap unchanged, just to see if you’ll notice. You don’t; you’re busy. I have been distracting you from your work. And so I retaliate with a story about S., a small-time criminal I met in Athens one summer. He’d managed to get out of the Soviet Union, I don’t recall how, but I do remember that he’d procured papers certifying a non-existent Jewish heritage to apply for repatriation to Israel if all else failed. But Athens was fine for S.; he had a small racket, a group of women painting Matryoshkas for him, the little Russian nesting dolls carved from wood. These dolls were different, though: the hollow figures were not of the usual plump, rosy-cheeked women dressed in sarafans and headscarves, but political leaders, the largest and fattest being Yeltsin, inside of whom was a slightly smaller Gorbachev, followed by an ever-diminishing sequence of Brezhnev (Andropov and Chernenko apparently too insignificant to merit inclusion), Khrushchev, Stalin, Lenin, and Nicholas II, and finally Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, and Ivan the Terrible.

We spent the days in a room near Syntagma Square in a hotel left over from an era grander than our own, with green onyx shelving and brass fixtures and a heavy-lidded, sullen staff whose eyes barely moved from the TV screen when we entered the dark lobby from the blinding afternoon sun. The room was cool; the two twin beds kept sliding apart on the polished inlaid marble floor, and so we finally pulled the mattresses off the dusty box springs. It was almost too hot to do anything else but have sex and smoke and trace the contours our bodies drew against the dimming light of the window above. Passing a cigarette back and forth, watching the smoke rise in a lazy swirl, I asked him what he’d done before. He was an engineer, he said, he played the piano, but he seemed indifferent to his past, didn’t mind his new life at all. He blew one small calamari-shaped ring through another that had spread in size, grown fuzzier as it drifted upwards towards its own dissolution. When I told him I was a painter, he offered to let me decorate dolls for him. I declined; we never visited the markets where they were sold. I considered whether this was some special privilege he was offering me, considered whether his women were employed in other ways when they weren’t painting dolls. He asked me if I wanted a set, but I didn’t really have much use for them. I told him I’d been trying to find a grant source to move to Athens for a year; he wondered aloud if my skills could be useful in terms of assessing the relative accuracy of forgeries. But my money was running out, I hadn’t found what I was looking for, and I wasn’t planning to stay in Athens much longer.

Soon afterwards, when the Matryoshka dolls turned up in Berlin in small wooden cases jittery, sideways-glancing vendors spread out on the pavement before them, I bought a traditional set of nine, with the smallest doll shaped like a bowling pin no more than a half-inch high. It was the set I would find empty one day, its progeny pilfered, months after I’d discovered with horror that our babysitter was in fact a kleptomaniac and had stolen an array of small personal items I grieve for even still—including my grandmother’s soup ladle, a fountain pen made of blown glass, and an original copy of Ram Dass’s “Be Here Now,” identifiable as mine by my own fervent, truth-seeking, gullible, adolescent signature—leaving behind only the outer shell, a barren Matryoshka.


Mother:      Why is she in Berlin if she’s an artist.  All artists are in Italy.

Me:              What all artists are in Italy?? Italy’s poor for artists—you have to be rich to live there.

Mother:       Well, isn’t she rich?  You told me she was on television.

Me:               On the radio, I said!  It was an interview—you don’t get paid for interviews. And artists go to Berlin these days, it’s become a big cultural center. Paris is for when you’re dead, for the tourists.

Mother:        Of course Berlin is a cultural center—I know that. Escada!

Me:               That’s Munich.

Mother:        That Russian girlfriend you had, the one in New York, she bought nothing but Escada when she came over.  Escada, Escada.  Why would she buy Escada in Vienna?  You gave her your credit card.

Me:               Because Escada is what they all wore in New York in those days.  And I did not give her my credit card.  She had her own.

Mother:        Yes you did!  I remember!  She also bought lingerie with it.  It was all red! She said they wear red in Russia for good luck. She wanted red for the New Year.

Me:                Really? I don’t remember the red lingerie.

Mother:         Well, she stayed for New Year.

Me:                Maybe it was for Russian New Year.  For after she went back to New York.


Mother:         I won’t let her hurt you.

Me:                A. won’t hurt me at all.  She’s scared stiff. Scared that I’ll hurt her.

Mother:        Ha.  Two kids…  you found each other.


undies 2

How many people have I hurt? And who is the woman I used to be? There was a time when everything that happened to me was new, when the carousel sparkled with tantalizing colors and I hadn’t yet begun noticing things in the background blurring by, the impassive faces of those who watch, but decline to take part. One more time around, and then another, and I began to detect patterns in things: the way I always notice the ring a moment too late to catch it, the way I sometimes remember the giddiness of jumping on and jumping off more vividly than the whirling ride itself: the price I’ve paid for my adventures, my seductions.

flowers cw


And what does this have to do with you? Are you there, just beyond reach, or will you vanish the moment I come looking for you? I write to retain something fleeting, render it real; I shore up sentences like a seawall against the annihilation that swells over me each night, against the panic upon awakening. I can dream, I have become proficient at that, but can I sustain a wakened state? Is there anything I can offer you besides my imagination?

I wrote it in jest: a demand that you come here today, my birthday. I, who am not capricious, actually imagined you would indulge me this one extravagance and appear, genie-like, at my door. You with your elderly mother, working throughout the night towards another deadline; and I, who am behind in everything: time should stop to let us climb the cliff together and duck into our secret magic fort. And already I have crossed a line and entered the land of need, left behind the masquerade to appear naked before you, although you may not have noticed—you who notice so much.

I have missed the cues so many times, a slipping into the past tense as though by chance, a slipping away behind reassurances. And I have been guilty of this too: backing out the door with a cautiously worded promise that collapses in on itself like the empty construct it is, designed to divert attention as I tiptoe away. It’s always so much easier to say what a person expects to hear: attempt the opposite and see how stubbornly they continue to understand what they want to be told.

Is it different this time? You sent me a recording, speaking to me in an Earth-to-A. way: I’m in a spaceship disguised as a coffee shop; there’s music in the background, there’s din all around me. I told you I loved your voice; you wondered if I would consider backspacing to the letter r.  I close my eyes and listen to it again and again, not quite ten seconds long, a digital garbling of an acoustic reality with its abbreviation of sound waves into staggered frequencies and its truncated background blips. All at once, I’m curious. I consult Wikipedia and read up on the physics of digital recording; I learn that sound is transcribed as a stream of discrete numbers representing changes in air pressure, an abstract sequence that is then reconstructed into analogue wave form. In terms of imagining your actual physical presence, this is less than reassuring. As my mind struggles with the concepts of dithering and signal-to-noise ratio, I marvel that a living body nonetheless begins to conglomerate around this information like a cluster of ghostly molecules; that behind this faintly robotic sound is the sonorous, self-assured, practiced voice of a former actor who really exists somewhere in London, who is really caring for his elderly, diva-like mother with a glittering, passionate past and an uncanny instinct for human nature, and my mind backspaces to the letter r for a man who is still licking his wounds over a failed marriage, no doubt giving in to the hope now and again that she, the mother of his child, will suddenly, miraculously change her mind and want him back. How could he not long for that—to be allowed to resume what he thought was a perfect life, with the perfect woman, in good times and in bad, committed and ready to give everything he had?

My mind strays; there’s mail again, an early birthday greeting from you, a declaration of—what? A promise to remember and cherish a “presence I gave you”—and this very act of slipping into the past tense (why not: have given?), this confusion of the preterit, progressive, and perfect, typical for native German speakers, triggers something I am barely aware of—and already I feel the dread in my breast that anticipated the last goodbye, the unfurling of an implosion. Careful analysis informs me that it’s in all likelihood a hallucination on my part, and yet I am afraid. How can we assess where we’ve been damaged when the parts we need to perceive this no longer function as they should?

Me:                   She said OK for London. 

Mother:            She did… Well, OK.

Me:                    Thank you.

Mother:             As long as she doesn’t hurt you.

Me:                    But how will you travel on your own?  I can take you to the airport, we can

book a wheel chair, but Ilse will have to get someone to pick you up.

Mother:             Don’t you worry.  I can travel left, right, and center.  Ilse has Matti.

Me:                    Matti doesn’t drive for her anymore.

Mother:             So I’ll take the coach to the bus station.  Ilse can come there.

Me:                    I won’t let you take some bus.  That’s nuts… What do you mean “hurt me?”

Mother:             Does she know about you??

Me:                    She knows I’m 56, she knows I live with my mother, and she knows

I’ve been out of a job.

Mother:             Good!  (Laughs.)

Me:                    What are you laughing about?

Mother:             Why would she go for you?

Me:                     Because of the man I used to be?  How’s that for an answer?

Does it happen to me too, you ask? How to even begin to approach that space we inhabit when we believe we’re in love. Spongelike, the things around us absorb us, retain the stark sensations that have taken possession of us, pulsate with them for months, for years. How to explain that the place where my bed meets a bookshelf was once a vertiginous ravine I gazed down into and saw the wrong turn I’d taken, realized I was on the wrong path, was meant for someone else.

In the park, in winter, twin leaves clinging to a tree at eye level: brown, as thin as parchment, as thin as skin; curled inwards to form two horn-shaped vessels, snow-filled papooses joined by a brittle twig—not a simile, but two real leaves in a park that had held fast through November as the last of the year’s unfallen finally fluttered and twirled in the cold rain and the ground turned slippery and black; through the snowstorms of a steadily darkening December, nights of sleet and frost and then: a damp, cacophonous, unseasonable dripping thaw. And I, waiting to hear from V., walked to the park and the tree each day, trudging through the slush or the snow, eyes downcast, alert, the ground different each time with its endless vocabulary of surface formations. And one day, preserved in the hardened soil, a pattern I’d never before encountered: there had been a light rainfall throughout the night, then a rapid freeze followed by a sprinkling of fine snow, and what I saw before me was a fragile layer of fine mud cracked in a thoroughly alien, exquisite way. But no: the surface, as it turned out, was unbroken, the mud frozen in a thin, perfectly opaque layer covering the leaves on the ground and adhering to their brittle contours, the leaves’ edges etched in ice and their spidery white lines scuttling everywhere.

Startled by the unexpected deception, I now saw scattered leaves frozen-stuck in a filigree design that crunched underfoot, that I had taken to be evidence of something else altogether. And here and there, individual leaves neatly covered, cookie-cutter-like, in a thin layer of powdered snow that stood out against the mud-colored, warmer ground where the snow had melted more quickly before the early morning frost had set in and arrested the process. And then, one day, the two snow-filled leaves were gone. It was his birthday, a day he’d planned to spend with me in Berlin, and at once I knew it was over.

There are moments with half-lives that exceed our own, that are capable of emitting shock waves well beyond the memory’s duration. I approached the tree and touched it cautiously, thinking I must be mistaken. Perhaps the tree had hidden its two pupa-like leaves to protect their metamorphosis, to allow them to emerge undisturbed? There was the tiny round navel they had been attached to, no more than a hard brown scab now; I pressed my lips to it and closed my eyes. A moment later, frantic, I searched the ground around the tree, and as my eyes wandered beyond it and saw that the entire park was covered in leaves, all of them brown, all of them curled and brittle, I fell to my knees, and though I felt capable of a systematic search, of sifting through thousands, even hundreds of thousands of leaves until I found the unique pair I had paid a pilgrimage to each day for three months, I understood that it would change nothing: that they had held on but had finally let go, and that it was in keeping with the truth of our situation.

I think of you bringing her back to the restaurant she’d met her lover in so many times, searching her face for a telltale twitch, watching it take in the familiar surroundings of her rendezvous, feign pleasant interest. I see you take note of each detail, think of the chilly sting to the spine, the pinprick of pain concealed in your composed features. We are too civilized to kill, it seems, but there are times a glass shattering against a wall is a soothing sound.

How to explain that the betrayal is of another kind altogether? I know the tidal pull of the blood; that a mere glance can send plumes of fire curling through the nerves. After J. arrived: the sudden, mind-controlling molecular saturation of pheromones in the air, a maddening inability to concentrate, to think of anything at all. Intoxication, situational insanity, delusion. An attraction so fierce it made me angry; the almost violent force required to resist it. Focus on what you don’t like—it’s all there, right in the very first moment. Just take a look back and you can see it clear as day: the sober assessment, the critical points like elephants weighing down the wrong side of the scale, and then the sticky-sweet goo of self-deception oozing all over it like an egg cracked atop a skull, the giddy, hypnotic, honeyed brilliance of it—ah, love! How blind does it have to be to erase that immediate recognition of disaster? Men have their siren song to lead them astray, but what about us?

But the betrayal isn’t about that, it’s about the cowardice of pretense, the sideways-glancing mediocrity of the lie. It’s about what you thought your life was, where you were in a given year, a given summer, never suspecting that her momentary absences were furtive opportunities for making phone calls, arranging trysts. Is that the part that aroused her the most? Innocuous code words in her appointment calendar, alibis so close to actual circumstances that the crucial deviance was rendered invisible—it was an art form for all you know, the essential element she needed to survive. But how many knew, and how many situations did she allow you to blunder through unknowingly? That is the deception: subsequent years spent sifting through the evidence, holding each imperfect memory up to a magnifying glass to search for the shadow in the mirror, the shoe poking out from beneath the bed.


(Mother-from-across-the-living-room: “What is it?  Why are you laughing?  Why are you laughing??  I want to know!”)

There’s a pit, an empty spot where we used to put all the perfect things we’d find; we thought they’d be there forever, as shiny as the day we discovered them. A soft exhalation in a quiet laugh and the half-closed eyes that accompanied it; a cell phone ringing in a museum and the delight in the misdemeanor of it, the air of conspiracy. How could anyone wish to give that up for anything else, give up the absolute truth contained in a whisper? The lightness, the humor and playfulness, my voice in his ear and his in mine, all of it dead now, chiseled into my mind like words in stone, but these things once issued their immediate commands. And then, the agony of his withdrawal, the agony of his agony, the awful certainty that he would carry on as usual, sleep next to a woman with her back turned to him each night and wake up with the alarm each morning, day after day, like acting in the same one-man play, performing again and again and calling that life, how is it he doesn’t die from the sheer repetition of it, how is it that some part of him doesn’t announce its blatant refusal? An ear that refuses to hear; an arm that refuses to move until its case is heard, a heart that ceases to beat.

And you? Is the pain of leaving any less? What is it one feels when one feels love? An echo in the mind, the heart, something both deeply familiar and disconcertingly foreign. And just as I feel a cold nothing in the face of cruelty, but break down at acts of kindness, an unexpected gesture of tenderness opens a valve in you, releases a high-pitched trill in your nerves, the frequency of your own pain. Your knees buckle; you grope for a cigarette. I think of nights I woke to go to the bathroom and had to grip myself to keep from shaking. We live as though trapped, frozen in the blind space behind a mirror, waiting for a glance of recognition to climb out and breathe again.

Me:         I think A. wants to see me.

Mother:  (In bed, opens her eyes) Really?

Me:          I may have to go.

Mother:   Go.

Me:          She’s worth it, you know.

Mother:   Go.

Me:          Yeah?  What if I left you for Christmas?

Mother:    Go.

Me:           Nah, I won’t leave you for Christmas. I want my presents.  Maybe New Year.

Mother:    Go.