You are on a train now, sleeping, on your way to Vienna. You will spend the week there, then travel on to Berlin. You’ve booked a hotel room for two, in both our names. I will arrive at reception and ask for the key. What is the best way for us to meet? Should I come earlier than you, undress, and slip under the crisp white duvet cover? Or should I sit in a corner with my knees drawn up to my chin?
An email from V. arrived in my inbox last night, and I sat at my desk and gazed at his name in a fog of befuddled senses. A first name, a last name, the mere sight of which made my heart beat faster only a year ago, still familiar, but distant now in a nearly amnesiac way. I see it, recognize it, yet I feel nothing—and at the same time my skin prickles at the fact that I feel nothing; I mistrust it, suspect that this name could all of a sudden act in some unexpected way and catch me by surprise, lash out and sting me when my back is turned. Between his mail and your mail is a message from another friend; I’m glad the two are not touching, that W. has wedged himself in between.
V. wants to know how L. is doing. I thought it was okay to write to you about this, he adds. I’d told him I no longer wished to hear from him, then broke the silence a few months later by asking him for information on behalf of L., a friend who was suffering from a dangerous and unpredictable illness. L. is as powerfully anchored to life as any one of us, yet I still found myself consciously refraining from the concerned looks and philosophical platitudes, the “any one of us could just as easily get hit by a car tomorrow” nonsense people resort to when they can’t wrap their minds around the fact that the person they are talking to has looked oblivion square in the eye and stared it down, determined to live. I stayed up entire nights researching alternative treatment methods, learned the medical names, was able to rattle off the procedural strategies; I held onto them fiercely, like strong, well-secured ropes dangling from the side of a cliff I could hoist the two of us up on, to safety. There was promising research being done in Canada, a generic drug that somehow switches off the aberrant mechanism in the tumor cell that prevents it from destroying itself, as it does when the body is functioning properly. How elegant: somewhere, in a parallel universe, cancer is something that self-destructs by virtue of its own corruption. The idea sounds pre-Biblical; I catch myself wondering, like a child, why all the evil in the world can’t self-destruct by virtue of its own corruption. There must be some way to get her into a clinical trial there. Would the insurance matter if they could see the important work she’s been doing, read her remarkable words? I could charter a Cessna and fly her there myself, through a blizzard if necessary.
But I didn’t write to V. about my ineffectual fantasies: what it felt like all those months to live with a death sentence that was not my own. L. was condemned and I was not—how are two people supposed to negotiate that divide? Like speaking to one another through a glass partition in a prison, or in quarantine, fingertips pressed against two sides of a transparent wall, aligned at the fingertips, but with an unbridgeable gap in between. I’d spoken to L. about V. one afternoon, walking up Tenth Avenue after seeing her exhibition in Chelsea. She knew the feelings one can have for a man incapable of embracing emotion himself in all its intensity and dizzying confusion and basic, unshakable knowledge—but how can you reach a person like that, tell him all the things you see, unravel the puzzle and hand him the key? In the end, you can’t tell him that it’s not the emotion, but the idea of a life he’s been clinging to that is the illusion; that the only thing real beyond the fear and the guilt is the inopportune, irksome fact that he loves you.
L. waited for years for her lover to come back, endured a communication by proxy, learned to read the signs he put out into the world for her, oblique answers in the form of a Facebook post or analogies in articles he published that he knew she’d understand; in this way they kept up a kind of dialogue with one another, a secret language that was strong enough to retain a hold over her, that prevented her from opening herself up to anyone else. But then her illness cast everything in a stark and burning brilliance, and she used this shocking new clarity to separate light from shadow, and her heart became a sacred place again, a place called Miraculous Remission, where one enters in reverent silence and with bowed countenance, where there’s no room for her lover lout, her boorish brute and churlish cad, for the shoes he plodded in with that he’d forgotten to take off and leave at the door every time. I was in a different place, but I didn’t wait for V. to trample in on me again, I could see where it would lead and I ended it, but it led me there anyway, I who have not yet learned to stop in time, who always carries things to conclusion.
This name: how it branded itself on my mind in such a way that any name beginning with the same two initials made me look twice, any pair of words beginning with the initials leaped out at me from the page. And now, an automatism that is already fading: how quickly it happens, just when you think you’re lost forever. I think of him, someone on whose account I nearly went mad, and draw a blank, like a form of amnesia. Perhaps the mind is protecting itself from the memory, which I feel quivering just beyond that skin-thin, unbridgeable divide.