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What does it matter what you say about people?
-From Orson Welles' A Touch of Evil
It must have been the movie. Afterward, New Yorkers did a dumb show, and the city was silent, except for its special effects. But she heard the sinister soundtrack. Especially the hissing. Everything, everyone, was out of synch. A man with two lit cigarettes in his mouth gazed ahead, stupefied. He must've seen the movie, too.
Now it was noisy. Her head hurt in the late afternoon, when she walked up Broadway to the green market at Union Square. The fruit and vegetables looked good, but she knew she wouldn't buy any. They'd just rot. She waved her hands in the air, fending off an imaginary object or punctuating her unspoken utterances with a familiar futility. Her right hand hit a man in the shoulder. He had a stud in his ear and was carrying flowers, one of which fell to the ground. He bent to pick it up.
Charles shoved the flower into the bunch, embarrassed as hell, and the woman, whoever she was, also seemed embarrassed. He said he was sorry, though it wasn't his fault, but he always said he was sorry, and she said she was, and it was her fault, so that was right, and he walked out of the market, abandoning the profusion of ruddy people and green and yellow vegetables. Carrying flowers embarrassed him, also, as if he were in an ad for romance or Mother's Day. He touched his earring, took it out of his ear, shoved it into his pocket, annoyed about everything suddenly, noticed a cute guy on the street carrying flowers also, wondered who for, and hailed a cab.
Emma had never seen him before. He seemed to recognize her-he looked at her in the skewed way people do when they think they know you-and was gallant about being hit hard in the shoulder. But her sense of ridiculousness overcame her, and with even this brief, awkward attention, she plunged into the imaginary conversation she could fashion at the drop of a flower.
You're Emma, right?
Emma Green. Have we met?
At a party. Real name: Emerald Green?
My father was a painter and an accountant.
Yes, Emma said, he sometimes stained his accounts.
Don't we all, she continued to herself, while the man walked off too quickly. She was a little hungry, or peckish, her English friends would say. She had not even a crumb of fantasy, not of hell or heaven, to sustain her.
Hospitals are diseased. Charles stood at the elevator, inhaling and exhaling heavily. Any elevator in a plague, he thought, and noticed three elegant male junkies-Armani suits, good haircuts encircling a fourth, a beautiful girl they guarded like perishable treasure. The almost-dead protecting the near-dead, he thought, what Poe wished for drop dead gorgeous. The elevator took forever. You could die waiting, someone said to someone else. Death was a grotesque punch line to this hairy ape story, an endless joke with no punch line. It had a name, but he couldn't remember it. No one ever told that kind, except his father. A shaggy dog story. He remembered the ancient phrase now, as his father's face plummeted before him, an apparition or a curtain. Next to it, a fat, wet dog shook itself violently. His father's face was wet, transparent. Rain, sweat, tears; blood, sweat, rain. The elevator arrived and two people wrapped in bandages-heads only-got off. He laughed stupidly. Couldn't help himself.
The beautiful junkie couldn't hold herself up. Without her friends, she would have gone spineless and collapsed on the floor. Third floor-drug rehab. Her friends said she had to turn herself in, be an inpatient. Hang with the in-crowd, one said drily. His eyes were tiny points. She couldn't focus. She nodded. Her body was weight. She wanted to die and had, nearly, yesterday. Or maybe it was before, in bed, but then she didn't know what time it was or care. She wasn't thinking, she wasn't actually anything. Each one of the men holding her up, pushing her body along, had been the object of a frail feeling, like lust but not as energetic. Lust was dust. She hated the thick, windowless doors that divided rehab from whatever wasn't.
Emma had seen two movies in two nights, sort of the same movie, and afterward thought the same thought: I need a drink. This afternoon, she went to a local bar, but a different one because she didn't want to be seen as a woman-alone, an alcoholic, or any of the variations or alternatives, when there were none, really. She smiled and ordered a meal of peanuts, pretzels, and Stoli on the rocks. A second drink produced the sensation she wanted, a dull happiness or absence of affect, and she left, singing, not loudly and more or less to herself, she believed. When she reached her corner, she stepped down from the sidewalk onto the street and into a hole. She heard a pop, began to fall, found herself on the ground, and had to be lifted off the street by a man she didn't know. He accompanied her to her door. Put ice on it, he advised, keep it in the air. Maybe he was a doctor.
She didn't feel any pain, but momentarily her foot and ankle throbbed, along with her bothersome head. Her ankle blew up. She struggled out again, down the stairs, to the street, and pathetically hailed a cab. NYU, emergency entrance, she told the driver.
The doctor's waiting room itself wanted. Anything might enliven it, but probably not for long. A confession from the lips of someone in much worse shape than Charles. That always gave relief. But the air was heavy with anxiety and a damp, communal sweat. Green walls and orange furniture. Magazines about health or fame. He had been waiting for two hours-his doctor had been called to an emergency operation. But when the doctor walked in, finally, he'd tell Charles, I have good news. Your test result was negative. Then Charles would smile, laugh, maybe cry too. He practiced his reactions, unaware that others followed his face crumpling and relaxing. In a kind of revolving-door fantasy, the other verdict spun out: Charles, the result was positive, but don't give up hope. There are many treatments. Charles would cry then, and the doctor would offer him a tissue from a box on his desk. Charles would read the brand name and look to see if they were single or double-ply tissues. He noticed those things.
Emma hated people more today than she ever had. Her ankle pulsed, throbbed, and her heart didn't, it sank, and she was surrounded, in an ugly emergency room, by unexciting strangers. Triage meant that she wasn't a most-favored candidate for treatment, and while in most cases she'd want to be low on that list, Emma envied, in a perverse way, the startling emergencies who were taken quickly by semi-anxious professionals in white. Emergencies like the woman who'd fallen facedown on a crystal vase. Most of the professionals wore sweaters or something with a color so that the uniform wasn't uniform, and there wasn't even order to admire. Emma hated any disorder that wasn't hers. Meanwhile, with mean thoughts her company, she listened to the TV's drone; sometimes it screamed, and people paid it that curious inattention the smaller screen fosters, which, when she was feeling better or more herself, which might not be better, she liked. The new, old man next to her smelled, so she limped over to a chair near a talkative younger coot. She liked his cowboy boots.
Maggie's doctor wanted to know how she had let herself sink so low. The doctor was bald, avuncular. He followed orders and a technique meant to shake her to her senses. Boring. She looked down. Her sweater was filthy, it stuck to her body like a snake's shed skin. She was a snake. Did she really want to die? he asked. She didn't know. Probably not, she said. She didn't think she could kick, she didn't want to. Her friends were hanging around somewhere, she figured, for some news, or until it became too disgusting or sad, or they became too depressed or sick to stay. They'd split, cop, return, split, cop, return. Her parents might show up. Her mother, anyway. The same boring, angry story. She heard herself talk: I like drugs, and I'm not exceptional.
Cancer-free, Charles had himself now and no disease to battle or worry about to make his shallow life precious. He rubbed the earring he'd replaced, once he'd had the good news. He couldn't leave the hospital. It was where his father had died of cancer. Charles had an awful compulsion to stay inside the scene of his former fear and misery. He entered the dismal cafeteria, because he was hungry, he told himself, and grabbed some junk food, because he was going to live, he told himself, and sat at a table with the three elegant, druggy men, who weren't speaking and looked shaken. Stirred not shaken, he thought. Charles was content or calm. He could study, at a small distance, the faces of people like himself, who were condemned to more life.
The cowboy wasn't a cowboy, he worked in advertising, probably on that Ralph Lauren campaign, she thought. Emma's broken ankle was only a bad sprain. She was given an ace bandage, bought an aluminum cane, and her sole desire was to have her hair washed and cut. She wanted to enter the salon, don a black robe, lie down, and hear Yoji say how important hair is. Listless, she reflected for a while, then gathered her strength, rose and, balancing incorrectly on the cane, hobbled out of the hospital.
What's my name? Maggie repeated the nurse's question but thought, Turkey, cold turkey, though said, Margaret Adams. She was lying in a fog on a bed in a yellow room. She had to leave. Her friends had told her she could not sing in their group, she could not live in their loft, unless she cleaned up her act. Her mother would pay for it. Hypocrites, all of them. The nurse gave her something for the pain, and Maggie floated someplace. She noticed another person on another bed, shut her eyes again and saw a bloody hell through her eyelids. Showtime, she thought.
For a hospital cafeteria, the food wasn't bad. Charles was glad to be eating. The druggy guys interested him, as did drugs, moderately, all things in moderation. He hadn't done the hard ones, hadn't injected himself, anyway. But the lanky men barely acknowledged each other and didn't look at him. One of them finally muttered something about the beautiful, near-dead one. She was something-he couldn't catch the words-waxy, wasted, wack, worked up. The other two grunted or nodded. He supposed he wouldn't ever be even a nodding acquaintance. That amused him. Charles rubbed the ring in his ear, shook his head, and hoped to appear exotic. When no one glanced his way, he stood up, lifted his tray, as if he were partnering a great ballerina, and laughed. Then he made a slow exit. What's he on? one of the guys asked, almost interested.
It was raining hard, everyone wanted a cab, desperately. Emma didn't have an umbrella and, temporarily crippled, couldn't race for any that pulled up. She waved her cane in the air, standing on one leg like a wounded bird. It was 7:15. Maybe the salon would be open. They did models. Her hair was wet, her clothes soaked, but it didn't matter; her slight infirmity was no selling point, compared with the stricken in wheelchairs whose attendants vied near her. Suddenly a man sidled up, nodded at her with a kind of recognition-the man from the market, she remembered almost instantly-and said, I'll hail us one, how about that? Charles raced into the street and plundered the next, indifferent to the maze of wheelchair-bound. Bright eyes, a ring in his ear, he might be all right. He carried a gray attaché case and told her he made films sometimes and did PR. She'd begin with her sprained ankle.
Maggie's mother called and woke her. Though half-dead, Maggie heard the drug-induced non-anxiety coating her mother's voice.
I'm OK, Mom, she said, alive and kicking.
Very funny, her mother said.
Maggie's mother doctored film and TV scripts, especially comedies. She was not fun to live with, even when she was funny.
You mean, Maggie said, I'm not your heroine du jour.
You're not funny, her mother said.
And I'll have whatever you're having.
Her mother said she'd call later when Maggie could control herself, and Maggie rolled over, wondering if the next call would be from her father, whoever he was. Her mother, ever independent, claimed it was the man who called himself Dad, but Maggie didn't believe her. He was just her putative Pop. Pop goes the weasel.
There was an air of perfect, impossible contentment in the salon. No sound or muzak sullied the salon's minimal aesthetic. Emma and the others-men and women-received not just the salon's great cuts, but also its persuasive, osmotic sensibility. Beauty and style, like stillness, were in the air. Japanese men and women shaped and colored hair, blessed hair, of which Emma now had little. She was shorn like a sheep. Yoji colored what remained aubergine, while she contemplated Charles and their cab ride. She'd told him she was a horse trainer and had hurt her ankle in action; he'd accepted this and talked about his experience in the hospital, his relief, the junkies. Terrible crosstown traffic allowed for a long, even intimate, cab conversation. When Charles dropped her at the salon, he said he'd call-after all, they'd bumped into each other twice accidentally, didn't that mean something? She nearly said no. Now they might see each other on purpose, if he liked women, or her, which was more complicated. And now she had aubergine hair. She looked like an eggplant. Maybe he was partial to vegetables.
Maggie's father didn't call, until later, when Maggie was inside private hospital hell. He didn't like the idea, he told her, that she was in any institution, didn't she have friends to help her.... He hated hospitals, he was sick about it, her, sick sick sick. She learned he'd called her mother, to complain that Mom had driven her to drugs. Their usual fight, she told the shrink, making some inane comment about Mom having shrunk her first. Pop's involvement made her think he really was her father, but who knew. She disliked the psychiatrist, structurally speaking, but less than she had. She told him a friend of hers had OD'ed, slipping into that indefinite sleep, and she longed to have nothing to worry about, too. Her mother would say, What have you ever had to worry about?
Charles' father had been a shrink. But no talking cure for Charles-there was no talking to his father when alive, impossible dead. He threw his earring onto the dresser and lay down on the floor. He stretched idly. He masturbated and thought afterward about the first time he'd had an erection-sitting on the chair his mother loved. That was such a dopey memory, he wept. He ordered Chinese food, watched Bill Murray in What about Bob? and fell into a comfortable nostalgia. His father had never had a stalker patient like Bob.
Excerpted from This Is Not It by LYNNE TILLMAN Copyright © 2002 by D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, Inc.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Come and Go||7|
|To Find Words||41|
|Living with Contradictions||79|
|Madame Realism: A Fairy Tale||85|
|Pleasure isn't a Pretty Picture||107|
|A Picture of Time||119|
|Ode to Le Petomane||125|
|Lust for Loss||137|
|This is Not it||151|
|Madame Realism Lies Here||167|
|Madame Realism Looks for Relief||195|
|The Lost City of Words||221|
|Madame Realism's Torch Song||225|
|Thrilled to Death||251|
Posted October 21, 2009
... probing and daring, Tillman moves beyond expectancy, to formulate an honest look into how we collect our thoughts, our selves, as well as how we loose track of them ... with fluid and brilliant flashes of wit, charm, and insight throughout, it's worth a good go.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.