Andrea Köhler interviewed me for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.
You can read the interview here.
Radio interview with Joachim Scholl at Deutschlandfunk Kultur
Scholl: Sie haben, wie ich finde, eine ganz intensive Sprache gefunden. Ich lese mal einen Satz vor, es ist mein Lieblingssatz. Da erklärt die Erzählerin, dass ihr Hund davongelaufen ist. Sie sucht ihn, findet ihn nicht, kommt dann mit einem anderen, der ihr zuläuft, wieder nach Hause. Und dann heißt es, Zitat: “Und so waren wir heimgekehrt mit einem Hund, einem nassen, hungrigen kleinen Hund, der mit einem tiefen, erschöpften Seufzer in meinen Armen zusammenbrach, als ich sein klatschnasses Fell mit dem Handtuch trocknete.” Ich weiß jetzt nicht, ob es daran liegt, dass ich mit jedem Jahr sentimentaler werde, aber ich habe so entzückt und tief geseufzt, als ich diesen Satz sah, diesen wunderschönen Satz. Ich habe mich gefragt, wie haben Sie diese Sprache gefunden?
Scrima: Das kann ich nicht beantworten. Man schreibt nicht mit einer Schreibstrategie im Hinterkopf. Ich glaube, es geht vielmehr darum, dass man versucht, den Zugang zu sich selbst möglichst intensiv zu ermöglichen. Und ich kann das selbst nicht unbedingt sagen, wie ich das gemacht habe. Das ist für jeden anders. Für jedes Buch ist es anders. Ich arbeite noch an einem Roman, der mir das Leben sehr schwer macht.
Scholl: Sprachlich kann ich mir das nicht vorstellen bei Ihnen, Frau Scrima. Vorhin sagten Sie kurz, dass Sie das Buch geschrieben haben, als Sie Ihr Baby gerade hatten. An einer Stelle, glaube ich, zieht das Baby unterm Tisch den Stecker aus dem Computer, und dann schreibt sie “Alles ist verloren”. Da dachte ich, ist das hoffentlich erfunden, oder war das so?
Scrima: Das ist sozusagen die Metapher für die Mutterschaft in den ersten paar Jahren. Wie das Kind einem immer einen Strich durch die Rechnung macht. Das ist in erster Linie auch als Metapher zu verstehen.
Wonderful words by writer Lance Olsen:
“Fantastic reading/conversation last night with the ever thoughtful, existentially attentive, compassionate, wise, wildly talented, & fascinating Andrea Scrima about her post-genre autre-biography, A Lesser Day, its just-released German translation, Wie viele Tage, the spatial dimensions of memory, her use of the slippery ‘you’ in the text, the problematics of helping bring one’s own work over into a second language in which one is fluent, & so much more.”
April 12, 2018
Moderated by Rebecca Rukeyser.
It’s the small observations that make life what it is, because these are the things that determine our subjective perception of reality—and not the momentous events of history, the outside world. The aesthetic at work here lies in the ordinary, the everyday. In one of the novel’s most poetic sections, the protagonist becomes witness to the moment before the coffee trickling out of a discarded paper cup and a thin stream of dog urine converge on the street, in the precise spot where a slip of paper with an address on it has fallen, which she salvages in time. The thought that she was the only one to perceive the magic of this moment, these “three factors mysteriously interconnected in an equation meant for me and me alone,” induces a kind of vertigo—“and yet I understood nothing, nothing at all.”
— Isabella Caldart in Novellieren, February 20, 2018 (in German)
Read the full review here.
March 15, 2018
The wonderful Daniela Fürst interviews Andrea Scrima on her book “Wie viele Tage,” Literaturverlag Droschl. Live at the Leipzig Book Fair.
Listen here at Literadio
Bedford Avenue; ich stand vor dem U-Bahn-Plan, sprach die Namen aus und spürte den Nachgeschmack, den sie auf meiner Zunge hinterließen. Wie weit entfernt sie schienen, wie aus einer anderen Welt, einer anderen Zeit; wie unwahrscheinlich, dass ich mit diesem Plan in der Tasche hinausgehen und tatsächlich in einen Zug steigen könnte. Und dann überwand ich schließlich meine Lethargie, ging die Bedford Avenue hinunter und stieg die Treppe zur U-Bahn hinab, während mir der Schweiß zwischen den Brüsten hinunterrann; wie ich ohne einen klaren Plan im Kopf in einen klimatisierten Zug stieg, mich oben an der Haltestange festhielt und die Gänsehaut betrachtete, die sich auf meinem nackten Arm bildete, als der Schweiß auf meiner Haut kalt wurde. Ich stieg mehrmals um, zuerst am Union Square, dann an der Grand Central, betrachtete beim Einfahren des Zuges in jeden Bahnhof flüchtig die wartende Menge, meine Augen huschten von einem Gesicht zum anderen, suchten nach jemandem, den ich vielleicht kannte, irgendjemandem, unvorstellbar, in einer Stadt aufgewachsen zu sein und niemanden wiederzuerkennen, absolut niemanden. Meine Augen glitten vom Fenster des U-Bahn-Abteils und dem Strom der draußen vorbeihastenden Menschen nach oben, zu den Streifen Plakatwerbung, Hotlines für misshandelte Frauen, misshandelte Kinder, Zentren für kosmetische Chirurgie, Zahnchirurgie, mit einem Bild von Dr. Soundso und seiner Unterschrift darunter, gekrönt von einem irgendwie medizinisch aussehenden Schnörkel. Und dann stellte ich plötzlich fest, dass ich mich auf dem Weg zur Bronx befand, und beschloss, an der 149th Street auszusteigen und nachzuschauen, ob das alte Gebäude noch dort stand, wann war ich zum letzten Mal hingefahren, ich muss noch ein Kind gewesen sein. Ich ging die Brook Avenue hinunter, ohne ein einziges Gebäude wiederzuerkennen, einen einzigen Baum, bog an der 148th Street ab und ging in Richtung St. Ann’s, begann die geraden Nummern auf der Südseite der Straße abzuzählen, hin zur Nr. 516, dem Haus, das meine Urgroßeltern nach ihrer Ankunft in diesem Land gekauft hatten, dem Haus, in dem meine Mutter aufwuchs, meine Großmutter aufwuchs, zwei lange Reihen fünfgeschossiger Gebäude zu beiden Seiten der Straße, mit zwei ausschließlich aus Durchgangszimmern bestehenden Wohnungen auf jedem Stockwerk und Frauen in langen Röcken und Schürzen, die Abend für Abend den Bürgersteig fegten. Hier war Nr. 514, ein etwas zurückgesetzt stehendes, zweigeschossiges Haus; ein Dreirad lag auf einem kleinen betonierten Vorplatz, aus dessen Rissen Unkraut hervorspross. Ich ging weiter zum nächsten Haus und sah die ins Holz über der Tür genagelten Ziffern 518, und dann blieb ich stehen und ging noch einmal zurück; ich muss daran vorbeigegangen sein, dachte ich, doch es gab keine Nr. 516, nur ein Gebäude mit der Nummer 514 und ein anderes mit der Nummer 518, beide aus einem vergleichsweise jüngeren Baujahr, doch keine 516, und ich stand da, starrte Nr. 514 an, dann Nr. 518, und begriff, dass das Haus bereits vor langer Zeit abgerissen worden sein musste, nachdem sich das Viertel in einen Slum verwandelt hatte. Und später, nachdem im Zuge einer Stadtteilsanierung die Grundstücke neu gezeichnet und andere Häuser errichtet worden waren, war die Nummer 516 einfach aus der Reihe der Adressen in der East 148th Street komplett verschwunden, und ich stand da, wo die Eingangstür zum Haus gewesen sein musste, und stellte mir vor, wie meine Mutter als Kind auf der Vortreppe gesessen hatte, meine Großmutter, ein Kind, hier, genau an diesem Fleck, wo das Haus einst gestanden hatte, jetzt nur mehr manifestiert durch eine Lücke in einer numerischen Folge. Ich stand eine ganze Weile da, betrachtete die Häuser und die Größe der Grundstücke, außerstande zu erklären, wie eine Adresse verschwunden sein konnte, die neueren Häuser waren nicht größer, nicht breiter als die älteren es gewesen waren, sie hätten nicht so viel zusätzlichen Platz in Anspruch genommen, um ein ganzes Grundstück einfach verschwinden zu lassen, dachte ich und ging die Straße hinunter und bog an der Ecke ab, an der meine Mutter ihre ganze Kindheit hindurch jeden Tag abgebogen war auf dem Weg zur Grundschule gegenüber dem Park, wo die wilden Jungs auf Pappkartons die großen Granitsteine hinunterrutschten und hohe Bäume aus den Spalten dazwischen wuchsen, jetzt zugemüllt mit alten Zeitungen und zerdrückten Bierdosen und im Unterholz verstreuten kleinen Haufen gebrauchter Spritzen.
In the booth of Literaturverlag Drochl, Leipziger Buchmesse, March 15, 2018
Die Gegenstände werden das Ich überdauern, „nichts ist so ephemer wie ich selbst“, weiß die Erzählerin, die ihre Ambivalenzen, ihre „Schwierigkeit mit dem Präsens“ zum Ausgangspunkt ihrer Suche macht und sich im Schreiben mit ihrem Leben verbündet. Sie muss in Gedanken nur eine Schublade des alten Küchenschranks auf Staten Island öffnen oder die italienischen Lesefibeln vor sich sehen, oder sich daran erinnern, wie sie „in diesem riesigen Königreich unserer Kindheit“ für den Bruder „wissenschaftliche Tatsachen“ über das Universum erfand, und es ist, als würden die Figuren sich in Bewegung setzen, als könnten sie der Erzählerin sogar ins Wort fallen, so lebendig werden sie im Bild dieser Sprache.
Das ist hohe Kunst und beweist den Reichtum dieses Buchs, dem es gelingt, sich von allen Belangen der Selbstbehauptung zu lösen und einen Raum zu schaffen, in dem man als Leser tatsächlich den Eindruck hat, genauer denken, deutlicher sehen zu können. Empfindsamer zu sein.
— Elisabeth Wagner in der taz, Wochenendausgabe, 10. Februar 2018
“Everything I see around me, everything I touch: the chair I am sitting in, the paper I am writing this on, none of it is as ephemeral as I.” The narrator of Wie viele Tage takes her ambivalence, her “difficulty with the present tense” as the departure point of a quest in which writing becomes a means of merging with life. In her mind, she need only open a drawer in the old kitchen cabinet on Staten Island or imagine the Italian language primers from school or remember how, “in this vast empire of our childhood,” she invented “scientific facts” about the universe for her brother, and already the figures are set into motion, and it’s as though they could interrupt the narrator at any moment—that’s how alive they become in this writing’s imagery. This is a high art, and it testifies to the richness of a book that succeeds in freeing itself from any concerns of self-assertion to create a space in which the reader indeed begins to think more precisely, see more clearly—and become more receptive and sentient.”
— Elisabeth Wagner in the taz, weekend issue, February 10–11, 2018
Excerpt from my essay, (Re)Reading Don DeLillo in Dark Times:
“Are we more similar to animals than we care to admit, caught in vast murmurations and blind herds that obey some ancient code humming in our DNA? Or have we merely gotten used to believing our own stories? I mean not only to celebrate the work of one of our most influential, prescient, brooding, analytical minds but to comb it for clues, metaphors, a vocabulary and a language that can somehow explain us to ourselves. What can literary fiction achieve in a culture that has itself surrendered to fiction? That is more comfortable with make-believe than with doing the tedious work of trying to figure out why things are the way they are? Americans are addicted to fun—it’s what makes the U.S. so charismatic, and so good at popular culture, and enviable in so many ways, but it’s at the heart of a breakdown in discourse and a disassociation from reality that has us, literally, making things up as we go along. Americans want to be fired up, engaged emotionally—they want to get teary-eyed, earnestly confess, make solemn avowals. Does our literature help us to dig deeper, does it peel away the lies we tell ourselves, or does it perpetuate the problem through a self-celebration and nostalgia that reinforce the myths we’ve created about ourselves?”
Watch the full panel here:
The conference title, “The Body Artist,” refers not specifically to DeLillo’s 2001 novel, but to DeLillo himself, an artist who has spent a career dramatizing personal encounters with impersonal systems, the human body facing the inhuman machine. The event will feature panels and presentations predominantly by literary artists, fiction writers thinking about this fiction writer’s work—what it is, what it has meant, and what it means now.
— Scott Cheshire, “Don DeLillo’s Gods: A Taxonomy”
— Tyler Malone, “‘You Have Not Convinced Me’: David Markson, Don DeLillo, and the Narcissism of Minor Difference”
— Fred Gardaphe, “Masquerade Americana: Don DeLillo’s ‘Italianitá’ in a Minor Key”
— Andrea Scrima: “(Re)reading Don DeLillo in Dark Times”
The conference will consider not only DeLillo’s themes—paranoia, global terrorism, underground conspiracies, consumerism, digital technology, media, gender, and race—but also his craft, humor, language, style, spirituality and Catholicism, Italian-American identity, and his representations of New York, the city in which the conference will take place.
The New School | http://newschool.edu
Location: The Auditorium, Alvin Johnson/J.M. Kaplan Hall
66 West 12th Street, New York, NY 10011
Saturday, April 29, 2017 at 9:00 am to 4:30 pm
Is there a way to live between the lines, to suspend time? You would remain in Manhattan with your wife and son, I’d stay in Berlin, but there could be a sliver of space we’d inhabit together, a shelf where you’d place the things you still have and I’d place mine between them, like the small objects in tarnished teapots and carved wooden boxes we used to give each other as presents: the dried end of a vine branch tapering to a perfect spiral; a thin slice of sedimentary rock interlaced with transparent hues of violet, perfect haikus in lieu of the more sentimental declarations we shied away from. I still have a collection of bellybutton lint, numerous tiny balls I imagine to be baby blue from a sweater I gave you, a color that matched your eyes. When I check to see, I discover they’re all in shades of gray with the exception of two, which are dark pink.
I remember the blisters on each of your knuckles from stretching canvases for that elderly painter—what was his name?—who was finally, towards the end of his life, having a major exhibition of his work. I remember standing on the sidewalk on Westervelt Avenue after the building almost burned down, the dogs on leashes and the cat on my shoulder, or on yours, and I was suddenly infused with a sense of joy and limitless potential—the joy of sheer survival, no doubt, because I can still see you heating up a can of Campbell’s Mushroom Soup and stirring in pepper and maybe chives and all at once the kitchen filling up with white smoke, it took a moment to understand that the soup and the smoke were entirely unconnected, and we had just enough time to grab the animals and run, a matter of seconds—and I said if we can’t live here anymore, let’s move to Europe. I remember a night you didn’t come home; I stayed up late working on something and cut myself with an X-acto blade and had to go to the hospital for stitches, and when I returned early the next morning you still weren’t there, you hadn’t had a chance to be alarmed by the drips in the sink, by the bloody gauze, I had nearly cut off my thumb by mistake and left behind what looked like a crime scene, the kind of thing we do when we need to externalize something, to make a thing obvious that we already know inside, but you hadn’t had a chance to see it and feel sorry. These were the things we never talked about.
I remember sitting in a bathing suit on a craggy shore in the Peloponnese, turning my head and suddenly seeing you instead of the man beside me, my first real relationship seven years after I’d left. It was as close to a hallucination as I’ve ever experienced.
The first time I came back to New York I walked around the old neighborhood like a Rumpelstiltskin; I stood across the street from that pub—was it Third Avenue?—where you’d rented a studio on the second floor from a man who was a friend, but who’d charged us fifty bucks to drive a few paintings downtown, a man who let us do all the carrying, whose jaw shifted as his expression turned smug and he decided to rob us, but you no longer lived in our apartment and you no longer worked in that studio, you’d packed my things into boxes and taken our cats and moved to the west side, and it was my first experience with returning to a former life and finding the vital parts missing, like being back from the dead and discovering oneself invisible.
What was possible, you ask? In the end, is it only what we choose to do? Would I have stayed, would I have come back if you’d asked me to—back in the time before cell phones and email, Facebook and Twitter, the distance unimaginable by today’s standards and a telephone call to London far too expensive. I still have them somewhere: letters and postcards and a photo of you with a bandaged thumb, an odd parallel, now that I think of it.
These are the objects I choose to put on the shelf today: a baseball you kept in a box of old stuff; a sepia drawing your brother had made. An old Polaroid of a sweet kid with a sideways grin, leaning on the arm of a chair next to a handsome and valiant hound dog named Red, the picture you sent me a duplicate of after I’d come across it in a box of old photographs. And a faded green canvas bag among the tools in my studio, the bag you carried your laundry in even before I knew you.
An email notification—is it a coincidence that you’ve begun following my blog?
What can I tell you, now that I know you’re here? You were young, as sure of your brushstroke as a lean boy hungry for experience can be, and I’d loved you for so long already, since the first time I saw you in P.’s class. Did I never tell you that? I see us standing on a corner on Second Avenue, the sun so bright it blinded me, the fiercest squint serving only to make my eyes tear. I pressed my face into you, wishing I could become small enough to fit in your pocket, to stay with you and never leave your side again, even if I was only headed to the studio. That’s how I was back then, licking my wounds as my mind curled increasingly inward, and yet just as cocky as you, just as certain.
I see us on a downtown train, striking up a conversation for the first time, our heads resting on our arms as we clutched the bars overhead, swinging slightly with the movement. I didn’t think to tell you I had to change at Brooklyn Bridge. When the conductor announced the station, I jumped off the train and looked back and laughed at your consternation. I leaned in and gave you a quick kiss, and when the subway doors closed, you stared at me through the glass, looking almost annoyed. I smiled, and then I swiveled around and sauntered away, just long enough until I was out of view. I kissed him! I thought as I skipped across the platform to catch the local. I made sure to ignore you after that, just long enough for you to begin following me around. This is one of the moments that surfaces in my mind when I think of you.
Another: we are walking in Central Park, me in a pleated burgundy skirt I wore for a job interview, you in your pea coat with the collar turned up. The side of your face, the long neck and slightly protruding lower lip was an image I drew again and again after you left me that first time. You didn’t want me anymore, but it always takes me some time to realize these things and it took me some time that day as well, trying to catch up with your long-legged gait, trying to tell you what it felt like looking for a job somewhere on Wall Street, a former math wiz turned art school dropout—I wasn’t yet nineteen, but already the first sense of a decision’s irreversibility had instilled itself, of life being a board game in which you could miss your turn and wind up too far behind.
I showed you an abstract painting I’d made, and I see your mouth pucker in scorn. You asked if it was about anything, if I had any ideas; evidently, you considered me capable of engaging in meaningless activity. I’d been the class genius, had never been exposed to that kind of thing before, the way dudes think that girls are somehow less smart. As always, it took some time for this to sink in.
These are the things I see; that, and how innocent we were.
I see us at P.’s, cat-sitting, living in one of the tin-ceilinged lofts we’d missed by a decade, we whose lot it was to gentrify the roach-infested, rat poison-reeking tenements of the East Village. The Grand Street pediment of the Bowery Savings Bank, its reclining classical figures and domesticated lions: this is what we saw from the windows as we lay in bed, the female figure holding a mirror, the male a hammer: it was everywhere, of course, and I was only beginning to understand.
I see us in our apartment on Ninth Street, after we’d already been living together for several years: I tell you that I might take the apartment upstairs, and I see your eyes moisten, see how this stings you. It was one of the few times I became aware that you loved me.
And later, how many years later, P. drooling over his dinner, but as sharp as ever, as ornery and stubborn as ever. I was drained of emotion; I’d begun mourning him months before, when the illness hadn’t yet devoured his head, the tumors hadn’t yet begun to distort his face. Later, after we’d put everyone in a taxi, you walked me downtown, and I could have talked with you all night if I hadn’t been exhausted from lack of sleep. You brought me to the Neuhaus installation at Times Square, where we stood above a subway grate enveloped in a space of sound that initially seemed mechanical, plausible, but gradually induced a subtle disjunction between sight and sound that was sufficient to suspend time and elevate perception, render the reality around us cinematic. Later, further downtown, you told me you’d Googled me, tracked down my address and seen the semicircle of flagstones in front of our building from above. I was moved beyond words to learn that I continue to live on in your mind.
P. was the only father you’d ever known. When we gathered at the Grand Street loft one last time for Thanksgiving, he was still contrary enough to reprimand my son, who hadn’t been doing anything wrong besides wander a bit too close to the paintings. The tipsy joy I felt after closing the door to the tiny loo, the time-travel voodoo only physical surroundings can induce, when paint on a pressed tin wall and the crunchy pull of a ball chain hanging from a light bulb can transport you back to paradise. I’d forgotten how happy I was back then. But then, at the dinner table, there it was again, that sense of banishment from the magic circle: P. with his boys around him, speaking the P. language and not the least bit curious about my achievements. And I, after all these years, still needy enough to notice. I’d told this to you years before, after you came to my opening on Broadway; you said I shouldn’t pay it any mind, that P. was set in his ways, that there were certain things he’d never understand. I, who had been my father’s rightful son, but was a girl and hence had never been given that rite of passage; who had been born in a sadly Amazon-deficient world, a sorely Amazon-deficient time, felt the snub once again. These things are difficult to explain, but you, O fatherless friend, must surely understand. Later that evening, on our way to your studio nearby, where I saw that self-portrait of yours with the lines drawn on an orange ground—a painting you made when we were together, a painting I still love enough to steal—I turned around and saw that P. had made the journey downstairs after all, and the sight of him lugging a garbage bag to the corner filled me with grief as I stood there, overwhelmed by conflicting emotions and feeling foolish, a grown woman crying there in the middle of the Bowery.
Excerpt from the article in The American Reader:
This year, apocalyptic books seemed to have touched upon a collective nerve. In an introductory clip, festival curators Susan Bernofsky (author, teacher, and acclaimed translator of Robert Walser and numerous other German-language authors) and Claudia Steinberg (author, journalist, and co-star of Rosa von Praunheim’s celebrated films “Survival in New York” (1989) and “New York Memories” (2010)) talk about the various dynamics dystopian and apocalyptic thinking adopt in contemporary literature—ranging from the disturbed relationship between the individual and society and between the individual and the self to the manner in which impending catastrophe creeps into and poisons even the closest and most intimate human relationships.
This is how Bernofsky described Austrian author Clemens J. Setz’s novel Indigo (2012): “You have an illness, and this is what the illness is: you walk around, and everyone around you gets sick. Like, very sick.” As it turns out, children born with a mysterious syndrome are sent off to an Austrian institute, where their “indigo potential” is exploited for shady purposes. When a protagonist with the author’s name, a former tutor to the children, begins researching their disappearance, he stumbles upon a secret subterranean world. Setz’s novel was shortlisted for the German Book Prize; his collection from 2011, Love in Times of the Mahlstadt Child, won the 2011 Leipzig Book Fair Prize and prompted comparisons to Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace. It is a kind of spooky-smart science fiction novel, a post-modern montage of reality and fiction based on existing phenomena and trends in which illness becomes the metaphoric obsidian mirror held up to a society plagued by its own darker forces.
Ulrike Ulrich, author of Staying Gone, 2010
And Z. is in love with the owner of the deli next door, gives him hand jobs every once in a while, has managed to make it clear that she is not after free groceries. He is 47, has a form of Parkinson’s, she thinks; she massaged his feet and he fell asleep, right there in his swivel chair. He looked so peaceful, she says, these are the moments I give my morning away for, I’m in love, what can I say? He’s got five kids. He’s an Aquarius Dragon. They’ve been hugging and flirting and drinking for the two years she’s been living there. She’s always having dreams that he loves her. Just the other day he chased a crackhead away for her; he keeps an eye out for her, acts protectively towards her. And she finds him hot. Really, really, really hot. She says she can smell him. She says they respect each other, that she respects his actions and way of being in the world. She doesn’t know if he’s in love. She thinks he tries not to be. But he’s always hard when she’s around.
I tell Z. about V. I don’t yet know that it will end soon, I still have hopes, but have grown wary, suspicious that V. was mainly after sex: something better than suburban sex, pajama sex, something more exciting, more passionate than toothpaste-breath sex. Whiskey-breath sex? Artist sex, maybe, writer sex? I am a stand-in for an idea, a fantasy, and this unsettles me, makes me question everything else about V. But Z. says we’re all motivated through the filter of our own experience. It’s never about you or me, she says. No one is ever really known by another. Or very rarely. She says she was feeling very sad about this one time as she thought about her current boyfriend. She realized he had no idea who she was; he downplayed her, doubted her ambitions. It wasn’t that he didn’t think she could do it, she says, but he was always offering more sane, stable, ultimately misery-making alternatives to her desires. This is a man who will always have sex the same way, Z. says, and although she loves having sex with him his way, she’d like to try other things sometimes. She’s tried other boys. She still does, if she feels like it. Z. says she grabbed her married deli man’s cock in the back office, and then ran away laughing. Occasionally she’ll open up her black book and call up her 28-year-old Nigerian hottie. The point she is trying to make is that perfect communion, the idea of knowing another perfectly, is a myth. No matter who we are, how close we get, we are alone at birth and at death and throughout most of our lives. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. I think we should try, she says. It’s awesome to get that close. But just keep in mind your man may not know you perfectly. He may just want the awesomest sex of his life. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Because he has to project his idea of you onto you, there’s no other way. How would he truly know?
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.
I receive an email from you that my package has arrived. Your mother steamed and puréed the Jerusalem artichokes with soy cream and served it over pasta; as instructed, you laid the Selaginella lepidophylla in a bowl of water and watched its desiccated spikemoss leaves unfurl.
We speak on the telephone for three hours. You ask me how many I’ve written so far, and how many I’m still planning to do, and when I say “Seventy, maybe eighty,” you sigh with relief. “So we’re only a quarter of a way there.” Your fear is that my interest in you will end with the completion of a book; mine is that a seduction has taken place purely through words, and that my person can only be an awkward disappointment. But you’ve found some part of yourself in me, and I in you, and for the first time I realize how wrong I was about V., now that I know what it means to be heard, what it’s like for someone to remember the things I’ve told him and to fit the pieces together, to care enough to do that. V. deleted each of my messages for fear of being discovered: imagine that! What could be worse than erasing a writer’s words?
Where were you the day he and I met in Soho for a late breakfast with a hotel reservation hanging in the air between us, the things we’d said we would do to one another? Had you come soaring through the window in a full-body leotard and cape and landed in the hotel room with a dapper swoop, would I have allowed you to stop me? I can still see him lying on his back, slick with sweat; I was kissing his chest softly, we were whispering to one another, and all of a sudden he asked, Why are we whispering? and we both laughed. And at that very moment, the very moment we had become most tender with one another, he checked his watch, cleared his throat, and said it was time to go. Time to what? After telling so many lies, was he unable to make up a story, explain to his wife that he’d run into a high school friend and had decided to stay in the city a few more hours, drink a beer or two to catch up?
If I could make a film, this is what you would see:
(Pennsylvania Station, just outside the Eighth Avenue entrance on the corner of 34th Street)
1. A woman, no longer young, but more beautiful than she’s looked in a long time because a man she once knew as a cocky kid who’d moved into her cousin’s old house has made her feel absolutely gorgeous;
2. A man standing next to her, glancing around fretfully, afraid, no doubt, that someone might recognize him and blow his carefully constructed cover.
A last kiss, and then another, and then she watches him enter the building with his backpack slung over his shoulder, step onto the escalator, and disappear from view. He doesn’t look back: this should tell her everything she needs to know, but for some reason her mind doesn’t go “ding.” A moment ago they were licking the salt off each other’s skin, and the next thing she knows, her lover has transformed from a reverent troubadour into an emotionless automaton with a forward-slanting, harried gait, a button-punching robot.
(She doesn’t know what to do with herself; she wanders toward the corner crossing in a daze. Suddenly, she turns around, struggles with a violent urge to run after him, and then feels herself go limp, like a doll.)
She surveys the lights and advertisements around her as though she were seeing them for the first time; she enters a stream of people headed downtown, picks up her pace, and is quickly carried away as electronics stores and fast-food joints blur by. She is in love, or at least she thinks she is; she should be happy, but she feels she is about to cry out. She walks faster, she will walk all the way down to Tribeca, anything to keep the feeling of loss, of fear and dread from overtaking her.
At one point she stops to sit on a bench; she can’t quite understand where she is, or why. They should be nibbling softly at one another now, groggy from the day’s intoxication, their thoughts drifting to food, to restaurants, a dinner of pungent, interesting tastes. Instead, he is crammed into a seat on a crowded Amtrak train, pulls out his iPhone, and texts his wife that he’ll be home in an hour and fifteen minutes. Because he is a chronic worrier, he double-checks MoMA’s website and bolts upright when he discovers that the museum isn’t open on Tuesdays—to think that he could have blown it over something so obvious! Luckily, he has enough time to fabricate a new alibi. To him, it is a misdemeanor that will cause him an occasional twinge of guilt: a minor infraction he will get away with. To her, it is like a movie scene in which all of a sudden a knock comes at the door and police or gangsters burst in and wrench one of two lovers away, hauling him off shouting, arms and legs flailing, leaving the other behind with a bedsheet pulled up to her chin, shivering uncontrollably. It should have told her everything, everything there was to know about their story, but for some reason, her mind didn’t go “ding”—and she would go on imagining, month after month, for a long time.