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You sent me a jpeg of a drawing you made several years ago, a self-portrait sketched in pencil during a difficult time. The forehead and hair, nose and ears are all laid out in expert, economic strokes on lightly textured paper, the eyebrows a bit darker, with overlapping lines none of which, however, was reconsidered. The eyes alone were a struggle; it’s difficult to see if you smudged them with a finger, or if their darkness derives from erasure. A conflict emanates from them. You and your mirror image: it wasn’t enough to capture a likeness; you searched for something in those eyes, stared into them until everything around them began to blur. You gazed, waiting for the familiarity of your face to gradually dissolve into something else, waiting for the eyes to reveal themselves, these eyes that gaze and do not gaze, look back at their observer as though in some ontological loop. You appealed to them as to another: see me, give me a sign of recognition, but they met you with a blank stare until slowly, slowly you began to see a flicker of something in them, and what you saw was the look of a wounded animal.

You dialed her number—your number—but she didn’t answer, she let the machine pick up instead; you hung up and dialed again. Answer this time—answer, verdammte Scheisse. The phone rang, and rang, and then the machine came on. You pictured her standing next to the phone, staring at it in horror, unable to move. The sound of her recorded voice filled your ear, softening the hard edges inside you; you held your breath and waited for the tone.

— It’s me again. Please pick up.

You waited.

— Liebchen, please. I have to talk to you.

All at once, there came the sound of a sharp beep, followed by a busy signal: the machine had cut you off, and the line had become disconnected. You must have been speaking too softly, you thought; you hung up and dialed again, waited through the message, twisted the phone cord around your wrist. You closed your eyes: you’d always loved this voice, it had always been so familiar, so intimate. And then your heart contracted: this is the sound of her voice recorded in another time, you thought, a time that no longer exists: her voice, recorded in the time before she fell in love with someone else. And then came the beep, and again, you pleaded with her to pick up, trying to speak a little more loudly this time, a little more clearly, trying not to shout into the receiver. Once again, the machine beeped and the connection was lost; there must have been a disturbance with the international lines. You held onto the kitchen counter to keep yourself from crying out; you hung up and dialed again. When you heard the sound of her recorded voice repeating the outgoing message yet again, you had to stop yourself from flinging the telephone across the room.

You close your eyes and turn away. When you open them again, you see a curtain billowing slightly behind you. You look out the window and see a faint yellow glow spread over the façade of the building next door: a reflection of the light in the western sky. The sun will be setting soon, you tell yourself, and then you wonder what part of your mind understands that it’s light, and what part senses the darkness hiding just behind it. Your body aches, all its muscles are tense in unanimous rigidity: she doesn’t love you anymore, she loves someone else; she doesn’t love you anymore, love you anymore, love you anymore. You can no longer breathe; your lungs have made their decision. They want no more movement, they choose stillness, cessation. Your blood agrees, has stopped in its tracks, and all the winding veins and arteries have stiffened into a complex of interwoven iron rods and wires, like the skeleton of a taxidermist’s specimen, sealing your entrapment, rendering you immobile, and out of this prison, this hardened shell, you hear your mind cry out: my God, I’m dying, I’m turning into stone.

 

Ready!

 

On a whim, I sent you a recipe for cauliflower and fennel in a coconut curry sauce; you diligently shopped for the ingredients and prepared a perfect meal. Tonight it was turnip and green beans, grated carrot and chicken with turmeric over which your mother voiced her enthusiastic approval. I am not trying to win her over, but she is under the mistaken impression that these recipes are for her, and so she is slowly beginning to like me.

I wake up early; there are so many things I still need to understand. We’ve been playing the game of where-were-you-when: where was I when you were in Athens? In Saudi Arabia? In Paris? When you returned to New York, I was checking coats uptown, waiting to hear whether or not I would be moving to Berlin to do graduate work, waiting to hear my fate. It’s not impossible that you had lunch there one day, a small midtown restaurant for the martini lunch crowd consisting almost exclusively of men in suits. They’d arrive in a bluster of back-patting joviality and hand over their coats, which had cost them the equivalent of six months’ rent on my railroad apartment; they’d inquire after the book I was reading, and sometimes, rarely, there would be a glint of recognition in someone’s eye, something beyond a patronizing expression of approval or amused surprise that a young thing like me could be tackling the likes of Dostoyevsky—some sign of recognition, of yearning.

I used to freeze in that booth because it was next to the outside entrance, separated from the restaurant by a swinging door. After my shift was over, I was allowed to come inside and eat a meal. I remember a waitress there, a woman several years older than myself; she had been an aspiring actress, like all the girls who worked there, but then she’d gotten pregnant and had the child, a little girl, strange that I’ve forgotten their names, but I still remember visiting them somewhere in an apartment tower on the upper West Side, still remember the tiny bed with the frilly pink bedspread and my friend explaining that she’d changed, saw everything differently now that she had someone to take care of. She’d found new meaning in life, no longer needed to chase after the next role, and she pitied the girls at the restaurant checking their make-up every fifteen minutes and striking poses for the customers in the hopes of making an impression on a director or producer. While I could sympathize, I wasn’t ready to give up yet; I was just starting out, I had places to go, languages to learn, paintings to paint. The other waitresses treated her like an outsider, although she wasn’t yet thirty. Weeks turn into years / how quick they pass / and all the stars that never were / are parking cars and pumping gas: when I hear this song I think of her. Time was a currency in this business, and you had to be quick: auditions and dance lessons and photo sessions for promotion shots, it all cost money, and more than once I saw them run after a departing group of men too drunk to remember to leave a tip. Was there something wrong with the service, the worried girls would inquire tactfully, waiting for the men’s glazed eyes to focus in realization. And when they did, it wasn’t embarrassment they revealed, but a kind of fatherly indulgence: of course, of course, they’d say as they pulled out their wallets, there you are, Sweetheart, this is for you, and they’d press a crisp bill in her hand and close her fingers over it and hover several inches too close with both hands clasped over hers, and she would smile brightly, hoping it was a twenty.

I’d always found the act of accepting cash—of holding out your hand to have someone else place money in it—to be unbearably vulgar. I imagine myself standing in that coat check booth, with a little basket of dollar bills resting on a shelf below the dividing wall. I imagine you coming in with someone, in the middle of a conversation, perhaps; I imagine myself slipping a bookmark into a dog-eared paperback and taking your coats. There is no way for us to recognize each other, our trajectories are still too far apart, yet we will smile and then, for a moment, our eyes will lock, and all at once there will be that invisible tunnel between us that shuts everything else out, and the person accompanying you will hold the door open and chuckle, because he will think you’re flirting with the coat check girl, but it won’t be flirting, it will be something else entirely: it will be the look of someone who understands in some distant part of his disembodied consciousness that he is looking into the eyes of a woman whom, twenty-nine years and countless appointments and disappointments later, he is destined to meet again.

Me:       The supermarket!  I’ve got to run back before they close.  Please, can you call her for me?

Mother: You must be out of your mind to be thinking I’d call her.

Me:        Why?

Mother: She’s fine, she’s out, she’s having dinner, leave her alone. She’s going to think you’re suffocating her.  Don’t do it. Look at you, you’ve gone mad!

Me:       (calmly) I am not nuts. We have been writing every day since early November. Every day…  you understand?  She doesn’t just drop out.  She’d tell me if she so much as had to go to the bathroom.  No emails from her all day today.  It’s past 8 p.m. now in Berlin.  OK, if she was out, she’d have her mobile, but I also texted her, no reply, nothing, so something’s wrong now.  Please… just call, will you?  This is her land line.

Mother: I’ve never seen you like this, your eyes are bloodshot.  Call her when you come back.

Me:        I’ll do that anyway, just help me get it off my mind for now.

Mother: Look at you.  How can you be like this, you don’t even know her. Meet her first.  Then go crazy.

Me:        Please.

Mother: No.

Me:        Yes.

Mother: No. Besides, what would I tell her? What if I get a man at the other end?

Me:        You’re a woman on the phone.  Just find out if she’s OK, that’s all.

Mother: And if it’s her, what am I supposed to say?

Me:        Like that’s a problem for you.  Tell her how much you loved her recipe last night.  You raved about it to Ilse.  So, rave again.

Mother: (beat) Take back that wok, it’s too big.  Get me a large frying pan instead.  My old one’s finished.

Me:        Done. Tell me when I get back.

A Lesser Day in the Book Notes series at the blog “Largehearted Boy.”

In A Lesser Day, the language is firmly rooted in the physicality of things; it takes location in space as its point of departure, as opposed to location in time, the other part of our wearisome ontological dichotomy. When I first began listening to Christian von der Goltz’s CD of solo piano improvisation, really listening to it, I was living in an eighth-floor loft on the Brooklyn waterfront with an amazing view of the Manhattan skyline; I was also in a state of semi-panic half the time, with the neurons in my brain zigzagging in unpredictable lightning bolts of recollection. Fleeting bits of remembered things were assaulting me everywhere I went; here I was, after a decade and a half in Berlin, reestablishing myself in the city of my birth, gradually peeling off the linguistic layers concealing my native accent, unraveling the German inflections that had crept in, and grappling with all manner of cultural shock—in short, I felt like an alien and was taken for the proverbial ride by the taxi drivers of my own home town.

 

Read the Book Notes to A Lesser Day and listen to an MP3 from Christian von der Goltz’s CD Wheels of Time:

http://www.largeheartedboy.com/blog/archive/2010/03/book_notes_andr_8.html

 

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Dom Perignon -cork 2

 

What made her want to open that 36-year-old bottle of Dom Pérignon? She gazed at the tobacco-brown label and the words Moët et Chandon as you loosened the oxidized wire and pulled out the disintegrating cork; she remembered the mahogany liquor cabinet it once stood in, the life it belonged to. I wonder if she was planning to release a genie. Shrill and acidic, but with a deep note of nectar that tasted strange and precious: you drank it, but she declined. She anticipated the hangover in store for you today, prescribed sugar and Angostura. It worked for her husbands, surely it would work for you, and it did.

I sit in the psychiatrist’s office, open the laptop, and brace myself for a long wait. The room is full of people bundled into their coats and slumped in their seats with their eyes downcast, whereas I am damp with sweat and can’t peel my coat off quickly enough. Some of us feel cold when we go crazy, and some of us perspire: the body reacts differently to stress, to medication. My shirt is wet; I have a fresh one in my backpack, but there’s still the trip to the studio in the overheated U-Bahn as my own porous state absorbs meaningless newspaper headlines and advertising slogans and all the unkind, impatient, desperate thoughts of passersby.

Can you implant an on-off switch, I want to ask her, at least a volume-control knob, but I refrain because she wouldn’t understand my humor; she will interpret it as a symptom. For the time being we are operating with the diagnosis “clinical depression.” I do not want to hear the words manic or paranoid or any of these things. None of them comes close to accurately assessing the human condition; they pretend they don’t know this, but they do. In other words I can read minds, Frau Doktor, but of course one mustn’t say things like that to people with the legal power to commit you. And I’ve just met a man who can see into the future.

I’m doing fine. I know who I am, and it no longer feels like I’m weathering an invisible storm. I understand full well how I got myself into this mess, but the question is how to avert the danger next time, how to steer clear of whatever it was that flipped a switch and played havoc with my circuitry. Awful, these electronic metaphors for the brain. But where is that interface between the emotions and the nervous system, and what are the first signs: a tingling of the left earlobe? A twitch in the eyelid, accompanied by a foreboding sense of impending catastrophe and a steadily increasing sensitivity to color, sound, motion, smell—danger lurking everywhere, ready to pounce on the weak and unsuspecting. For just as then a great fearful astonishment had seized me, so now I was gripped by terror at everything that, as if in some unspeakable confusion, is called life.

What was your mother thinking when she decided to open the champagne she’d been saving for so many years? Is it possible to be happy with someone, with you? Your assurances will have to be extra-strength, your declarations incessant enough to penetrate a resistance I have no control over. A patient enters the waiting room and murmurs Guten Tag; everyone mumbles Guten Tag in return. Another leaves and murmurs Auf Wiedersehen, and everyone mumbles Auf Wiedersehen in return in imperfect unison. It’s mind-boggling how quickly people will relinquish their independence and self-reliance. I will say Tschüss next time; after all, I’m not a robot with no more recourse to language than to repeat what I hear.

Doctors are rational people, they tell you that the secret of life is to enjoy everything in measure, but there are situations that require excess. Love is a situation that requires excess. She smiles and nods, she knows this, I can see that she knows this; it’s her luck that she’s the one with the license to practice because this lends her version of reality more authority. Frau Doktor’s vision is to settle for a stable life, to find someone sensible and reliable, to accept that passion is a fleeting emotion destined to consume itself. To my mind, that means to accept, even strive for, mediocrity. No, I can’t do that, not if I want to keep that part of me alive, but I remain quiet for now. Do you think we can go down another 75 milligrams? I sit across from her in our strange little doctor-patient piece. How effortlessly power is established: it’s all a matter of roles. She decides to remain at 225 mg. for now. It’s winter in Berlin, winter is always a bad time for melancholics—better to wait until March or April to reduce the dosage.

Love never really repeats itself; it’s different every time. But I was kerplunked by something I never saw coming, and I am no longer normal. Now, each step I take is like testing a minefield, each advance carries with it a creeping dread, a feeling that I’ve been here before. The time, months after it was over, after the worst winter of my life and an agony of emails that said nothing, asked nothing, when I entered passport control at Kennedy Airport and reactivated my American cell phone to find eleven undeleted text messages from V., sent to me the previous fall as I was struggling through check-in, through security, leaving the country, leaving him.

The last of the messages: It won’t be long.

... from the moment I sat down and began the first text segment of A Lesser Day, which opens with a father dying and ends with the sounds of a distant television drifting down a hallway to the ears of a frightened child in bed, I was working strictly from my own memory. And the interesting thing was, the closer I adhered to what I remembered, the freer I felt to focus on the words themselves, their rhythms and repetitions. It enabled me to develop the book in a formal sense: with its fragmented narratives, recurrent leitmotifs, and negative spaces or gaps in the narrative that seem to resonate with the unarticulated.

 

3. this small sacrifice detail

 

The interview is no longer online—here it is in full:

 

THINGS I’D RATHER BE DOING — INTERVIEW WITH ANDREA SCRIMA  

John Kenyon, June 10, 2010

 

J.K. Reading this, I assumed it was nonfiction, but it is listed as fiction. Does either designation do justice to the story being told, or is a different classification required to accurately describe its contents?

A.S. Most of the material in A Lesser Day is autobiographical, although I’ve found the nature of autobiography to be a slippery one. I’m not even sure it’s correct to equate autobiography with nonfiction, given its subjective nature. Although I have some difficulty with the category “memoir”—to my mind memoirs are written by public personalities with eventful, tumultuous lives bent on setting the record straight or exacting revenge—I made the decision at some point to call A Lesser Day a memoir. Despite this, the Library of Congress has catalogued A Lesser Day as a work of fiction. Spuyten Duyvil Press responded by listing the book both on their fiction and their nonfiction pages.

Actually, A Lesser Day is my second book; the first book is an unfinished novel. In writing it, I was concerned with revealing as little as possible about the people I’d based my characters on—people I care about and whose feelings matter to me—and as a consequence, much of the task entailed inventing settings and essentially lives to explore the psychological phenomena I was obsessed with at the time. But then a strange thing happened. The more I strove for fiction, the more revealing the writing seemed, the more naked, even—and it made me increasingly uncomfortable. I was never able to resolve this, and I abandoned the work after three or four hundred pages.

On the other hand, from the moment I sat down and began the first text segment of A Lesser Day, which opens with a father dying and ends with the sounds of a distant television drifting down a hallway to the ears of a frightened child in bed, I was working strictly from my own memory. And the interesting thing was, the closer I adhered to what I remembered, the freer I felt to focus on the words themselves, their rhythms and repetitions. It enabled me to develop the book in a formal sense: with its fragmented narratives, recurrent leitmotifs, and negative spaces or gaps in the narrative that seem to resonate with the unarticulated.

And so, in answer to your question, I really don’t know what classification best applies to this book. In any case, the closer I stuck to my own memory, the more “fictional” the writing became, while the further I delved into fiction, the more revealing and autobiographical it seemed. But I can imagine that many writers experience this; the existing categories don’t really approach the true nature of writing, as far as I can tell.

 

As a visual artist, you communicate one way. Now, with the written word, you must communicate in a different way. How did that shift affect the story you were able to tell? Could you tell this story through visual art, and how would what is communicated differ?

No, there are things I’ve found I’m only able to do in writing. I’m seeking answers to some basic questions, and this process takes place in language as opposed to color or line or compositional form. I’ve discovered something odd, something I’m almost embarrassed by: I don’t seem to be able to think very clearly in words. I have to write to fully understand what I think, which is very different from the artistic process, in which I need to turn off the inner noise and empty my mind as much as possible.

Each discipline carries with it its own available content. In my writing I’m interested in exploring memory, family relationships, childhood, the lonely inner space of the self. It would never occur to me to explore these themes in my art; for me, art doesn’t need to be “about” anything. The formal language of the medium carries with it its own inner logic and manner of storytelling, which remain largely abstract.

 

The passages, though brief, are rich with detail. Was that your visual artist’s eye at work?

I think my visual sense informs my writing to the extent that in seeking to create mental images in the mind of the reader, I try to be as precise as possible about how these images unfold, how they follow one another in sequence.

2. this small sacrifice

Installation view of This small sacrifice, museumakademie berlin, 1998.

At some point in my artistic work, I had arrived at a synthesis of word and image in the form of text installations, which were essentially stories I’d written and painted onto the walls of exhibition spaces, thousands of letters wrapping around walls, running in and out of window wells and doorways and composed such that the period of a sentence would end at a light switch, for instance. It was a way of choreographing the reader/viewer through a space. This period culminated in an installation I did in Dresden about a woman’s recollection of a man she once loved. She realizes that she’s begun to forget him; she scours a photograph for any power it might still possess to conjure his living image. It was a visual work that consisted entirely of writing which sought to convey the fugitive nature of the remembered or imagined image.

I don’t think, in referring to myself, that I can speak of an artist’s eye or a writer’s mind or sensibility; it’s all interwoven, in the way that all human beings speak and see and think in terms of words and images. It’s only different in that I actually use these various disciplines in an active way.

 

The oft-quoted knock against music criticism is that it is like dancing about architecture. In similar fashion, it is difficult to accurately convey the depth of a work of visual art through words. You were trying to do so to some degree with your own work here. Did that give you a different perspective on arts criticism and reportage?

In A Lesser Day, I describe several newspaper photographs I’ve incorporated in my work. I was interested in what kind of parallel mental image I’d arrive at through sheer description: this is happening in the foreground, this is happening in the background; people’s arms are raised in a certain way, their bodies are positioned in a certain way. I wondered whether a ghost of the original image might result, or a shadow; how far from the original image the description would take me in spite of my efforts at neutrality, at accuracy. There are also passages in which I’ve described the painting process — but this is all very different than trying to describe a work of art. To my mind, the descriptions here are analogous to the process of writing itself, of making sense out of non-sense. Art criticism is another task entirely, with a stake in power relations and an object’s relative value as a commodity on the art market — or, often enough, the relative commodity value of the artist herself.

I’ve written about art on a number of occasions, most recently for the website of A Gathering of the Tribes, a small arts organization on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. A few friends of mine had a show of drawings and asked me to write a review. I enjoy doing this on occasion, although I prefer to write essays and not criticism per se. I’m not interested in judging art or in promoting anyone; I’m only interested in trying to think my way inside the work, to adopt its logic as a set of cognitive parameters and understand it from within, as it were.

 

The shifting “you” in the text is jarring at times as the reader must work to determine which “you” is being addressed. This confusion shifted the context on a given page, adding layers to what was being shared. Was that your intent, or is that a happy accident of the more minimalist narrative structure?

I’m glad you’re asking this. Actually, the entirety of A Lesser Day is addressed to one or another “you.” It’s a book written in the first person singular and addressed either explicitly or implicitly to an unnamed person I’ve felt emotionally close to at various points in my life—my father, a series of lovers, or a version of myself at some particular age. The shifting “you” is a construct I happened upon very early in the book; it reflects the sense that so much of what we tell ourselves when we’re alone is actually directed at a specific recipient, and that while this person might change periodically, the inner monologue carries on, like an ongoing appeal or tribunal.

 

It seems this same story told in a different way could have been a much different book, placing much more direct emphasis on inter-personal relationships and socio-political issues. You touch on things tangentially that in a more conventional book would be addressed head-on, seemingly intentionally focusing more on “lesser days” than on those that were monumental. Was that the intent from the beginning or was there a process of stripping things away at any point?

I agree, there were a number of potential books to be had from the same subject matter: the events in Berlin immediately after travel restrictions were lifted and East Germans began pouring into the city; the dismantling of the GDR I’ve alluded to, for instance in the segment about the former East German state circus, which was bought up by an entrepreneur less interested in the circus’ history or the welfare of the animals than in making as much money as possible. Or the East Village of the ’80s: the danger we lived in at the time; the drug deaths and this collision with inner city brutality and poverty. Or, I could have developed each of the characters and then let them interact with one another to reveal their natures, as in a novel. But I wasn’t interested in writing a novel; I was more concerned with the way life leaves a kind of sediment in the places we’ve lived—the way location encapsulates memory—and I sought to express this through the book’s structure and form, as well. And so it wasn’t as much a paring down as a formal choice to restrict myself to a particular narrative structure in which the larger historical reality hovers on the periphery, ominous but still extraneous to the workings of the inner self.

 

Everything from the book’s size and layout to the name of the publisher had me thinking this was an import from some small European press, something the sections set in Berlin helped to reinforce. Yet, at its heart, this is an American story about identity, loss, creativity and travel, though one told in a non-traditional way. In a way this feels like a genre of one, but in another it is very much of a piece with contemporary American literature. What space does A Lesser Day occupy on the literary continuum to you?

That’s an interesting question. I’m gratified that you recognize A Lesser Day’s place in contemporary American literature. Identity, especially cultural identity, cuts close to the core of what it is to be American, whether we’re the descendents of slaves or relative newcomers, second-generation Italian or Irish or whatever. At one point in the book, the narrator—who has her possessions crated and shipped following the loss of her childhood home—ponders the odds that the overseas trunk accompanying her immigrant great-grandparents during their original sea voyage to New York, where they settled in the Bronx 117 years previously, might have actually departed from the very same port in Hamburg. We are always looking for home, it seems. And so maybe it’s this sense of loss that makes the writing of American exiles so urgently, paradoxically American—Gertrude Stein comes to mind in this regard.

Yet for an exclusively American sensibility weaned on colloquial language and its self-referential manner of plugging into collective TV history and the like, the minimalist narrative structure of A Lesser Day might present a problem. If you look at the past century of works written in the English language, however, you find Virginia Woolf constructing fragmented narratives 80 and 90 years ago—not to mention Joyce, of course. Personally, I feel a strong kinship with Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights and Christine Schutt’s Nightwork. European literature has also had a deep impact on my writing—Natalia Ginzburg and Marguerite Duras in particular; Thomas Bernhard and W.G. Sebald as well. But there are so many German authors that have either never or only scarcely been translated into English, like Marie-Luise Kaschnitz, who wrote a book titled Orte (English: Places or Locations) that was published in 1973, the year she died. It’s a beautiful book somewhat similar in structure to A Lesser Day.

It bears mentioning that only a small press would have given me the freedom to cultivate each individual aspect of this book—from the cover design, photography, size, and typography to my decision to put an excerpt on the back cover and not a string of redundant blurbs. Nava Renek and Tod Thilleman, themselves authors, have joined forces to make Spuyten Duyvil one of the most inspiring publishers on the independent scene. I feel a true affinity with Thilleman’s Gowanus Canal, Hans Knudsen and Renek’s No Perfect Words, two exceptional novels that undermine narrative structure to reveal the deeper meaning inherent in form—and so this, too, has become a context for me, a literary home. It’s not about a niche or an experimental ghetto, however; it’s about contemporary literature as it survives within or in spite of the shifting priorities of present marketplace conditions: what we expect of our literature as a culture—and where we want to take it as writers, as critics, as publishers.

To my mind, American literature must be evaluated in a broader context. Important contemporary writers like Anne Enright and Colm Tóibín should be included in our literary discourse—but because they’re Irish, they’re considered foreign, which is absurd. The same goes for the Scottish writer James Kelman. Compounding this is the short shrift given to translation, a vital task left to smaller presses like Dalkey Archive, Spuyten Duyvil, and Twisted Spoon, who were one of the first to publish Andrzej Stasiuk in English. This has isolated American literature from the rest of the writing and thinking world, which is not, I believe, where we want to be.

 

Having completed a significant writing project like this, is there anything you’ll take back from it creatively to your visual art? Is there more writing in your future?

I write because there are things that can only be expressed in words, or because language is required to fully explore something I need to understand. And when I make art, it’s because words fail to express everything we’re capable of experiencing or perceiving. I try to identify the medium that is most conducive to a particular aesthetic or emotional concern, although this is not the cleanly organized conceptual approach it might sound like. On the contrary: it’s largely aleatory. It’s difficult for me to negotiate these different processes and states of mind; for the most part, I’m governed by gut instinct. Often enough, I find myself working in the one and longing for the other, hard-pressed to distinguish between my own limitations as a writer or visual artist and the limitations of the medium itself. I’m a purist by nature, I long to do one thing only, and so perhaps I’m working towards that, one day.

I believe writing has become for me what painting used to be: a kind of being-in-the-moment process that connects me to my own thought patterns and associations as they surface in my mind. Writing is the most difficult thing I’ve ever tried to do, yet I seem to be moving more and more in this direction.

I suspected I was a writer when I realized that the books I was reading had a far more profound impact on the development of my painting than anything else. Literature peels away the layers of my stupor and makes me alert to myself. It seems obvious, but it was like a miracle for me when I discovered what it means to share a language—the fact that words are, despite all their vagaries, a common currency.

A Lesser Day was rejected at least 75 times until Spuyten Duyvil Press took it on board. So my threshold for pain is considerably higher now, my faith in the way a book eventually finds the right people to support it has increased, and my determination to see my literary works through to publication has only grown. I guess we’ll just have to see. In any case, John, I’d like to thank you for your insightful questions and observations—it’s been a pleasure to have this conversation.

 

 

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Dom Perignon Vintage 1976

 

A £700 bottle of vintage Dom Pérignon your mother had been saving since your stepfather died; I barely heard the cell phone ring over the fireworks. Happy New Year!—an hour too early for London, but Berlin already aflame with Roman candles and bottle rockets and Bengal fires and those eerie red lights drifting across the sky like distant planes, their course curiously wiggly: yuan xiao lanterns pulled along by a southwesterly wind, a few weeks ahead of the Chinese New Year. And then you called again an hour later and we celebrated in your time zone, I in the quiet room this time and the magical hour striking elsewhere, for you. We absorbed each other’s voices, a sudden, startling intimacy that required periods of silence in between, and in the background of that crackling static I heard a siren, an ambulance with someone inside somewhere in London on the last day of the year, struck ill and raced to the hospital, entering my consciousness 930 kilometers away as the crow flies not as a person’s life in the balance—this only occurs to me now—but as peripheral noise. Did that person survive? And why does my mind stray this way, like a shopping cart with a sluggish wheel always pulling me off to the side; it takes effort to keep it on track, to complete the sentences I cast out like nets to collect my scattered thoughts, my mixed metaphors.

I had been wondering what the chances were that you were real, that we could face each other free of our phantom film loops, memory fragments repeating themselves over and over in the spinning vacuum of the otherwise erased. Until V. came along, I’d carried on too many loves in the echo chamber of my imagination, but now there were two components that joined to produce an explosive mix that sputtered and sparked and blew me right out of my own unsuspecting mind. It took me a year to find all the pieces, and then, when I’d glued them all back together, I discovered that it leaked, that the goo was everywhere, that I’d made a mistake somewhere and had to begin again from scratch.

And then it was all darkness and cosmic wind and meteorites flying around. Duck! Sit down, find a bench. Close your eyes. I couldn’t look at the world anymore, the colors were hurting me, piercing my eyes and drilling right through to the nerves. I was porous, tuning in to the frequencies of other people’s inner voices and unable to shut off the transmitter. Is that what it’s like to go mad? Panic-stricken, I called T., but T. didn’t pick up and so I squeezed my eyes shut and listened to teenagers gathered around the bench nearby, hoping their shrill braggardly voices, their spasmodic, hormone-induced laughter would beckon me back to Earth, but no, not this time, and I began to worry: what if they notice me, that strange woman over there pulling her coat around her, what if they look across the grassy triangle we’re sharing, a gathering of three benches wedged between two sides of a street and a cross-street with a few empty bottles on the ground and a trash receptacle overflowing with little plastic bags of dog poop—what if they decide to have a little fun?

How far can you walk blindfolded until you topple over that cliff? I never heard myself hit the bottom, perhaps I was asleep, or caught myself in time, but I’d still like to know what that is, why that sweet, sweet force does its Möbius-strip twist into blind annihilation, why the loss of love can bring down a kingdom, close the curtain on a thousand-year dynasty, extinguish a galaxy for all we know—what is that? I don’t want to imagine this time, I want to smell it, I want the Velcro on your jacket to catch onto my stocking and make it run, I want to sneeze at your aftershave, feel the discomfort and the nervousness and everything that goes along with bringing your own awkward existence before the other and whispering: Here, this is me, will you take me as I am?

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.

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.

(Pause)

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.

Mother: Hey!  Who is this? Severin??

Me:         No, look again. Don’t you recognize her?

Mother:  No… I don’t. Who is it?  She looks intelligent.

Me:         Think so?

Mother:  Yes, it shows on her face. She looks kind, too.  So, who is it? I don’t remember.

Me:          I was teasing you. It’s that new friend in Berlin.  We talk on the computer.

Mother:  You were laughing with her?  I thought it was Severin.

Me:         No, it wasn’t Severin.

Mother:  And… she wants to see you?  Are you going there?

Me:         No. She just wants to talk.

Mother:  Oh. Is that all?!

Me:         Uh-huh.

Mother:  You’re being stupid… She looks like my friend Mildred.

Me:         No way. Just the glasses, maybe.

Mother:  Who was that girl in New York?

Me:          Who?

Mother:   You know, what’s-her-name, the one you almost married.

Me:          (Pause.) Juliette? Kathleen? Jennifer?

Mother:   Juliette!  She looks like Juliette.

Me:          That was over thirty years ago!  How would you remember her?

Mother:   It just came back to me.

Me:          Well, her name is A. Juliette is older than me. And she doesn’t look the same today.

Mother:   Maybe not now.

Me:          A.’s an artist.

Mother:   So was Juliette, wasn’t she?

Me:          A. wrote a book.

Mother:   And? You read it?

Me:          I’m not done yet. I’d have to read it again though, in one shot.

Mother:   Why?

Me:          Because it’s a whole.  I was interrupted a hundred times and I had to put it aside.

Mother:   It’s a hole?

Me:          A whole, Mother, something that’s entire, like a painting, sculpture, music.  You don’t listen to music in bits and pieces, you know.

Mother:   That’s a lot of music.  First book?

Me:          First published book.  She’s got other stuff in the works.

Mother:   And she wants to talk… ?

Me:          Ya.

Mother:   Can you open the wine?