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What I Loved
By Siri Hustvedt
Picador Copyright © 2003 Siri Hustvedt
All rights reserved.
YESTERDAY, I FOUND VIOLET'S LETTERS TO BILL. THEY WERE HIDDEN between the pages of one of his books and came tumbling out and fell to the floor. I had known about the letters for years, but neither Bill nor Violet had ever told me what was in them. What they did tell me was that minutes after reading the fifth and last letter, Bill changed his mind about his marriage to Lucille, walked out the door of the building on Greene Street, and headed straight for Violet's apartment in the East Village. When I held the letters in my hands, I felt they had the uncanny weight of things enchanted by stories that are told and retold and then told again. My eyes are bad now, and it took me a long time to read them, but in the end I managed to make out every word. When I put the letters down, I knew that I would start writing this book today.
"While I was lying on the floor in the studio," she wrote in the fourth letter, "I watched you while you painted me. I looked at your arms and your shoulders and especially at your hands while you worked on the canvas. I wanted you to turn around and walk over to me and rub my skin the way you rubbed the painting. I wanted you to press hard on me with your thumb the way you pressed on the picture, and I thought that if you didn't, I would go crazy, but I didn't go crazy, and you never touched me then, not once. You didn't even shake my hand."
I first saw the painting Violet was writing about twenty-five years ago in a gallery on Prince Street in SoHo. I didn't know either Bill or Violet at the time. Most of the canvases in the group show were thin minimalist works that didn't interest me. Bill's painting hung alone on a wall. It was a large picture, about six feet high and eight feet long, that showed a young woman lying on the floor in an empty room. She was propped up on one elbow, and she seemed to be looking at something beyond the edge of the painting. Brilliant light streamed into the room from that side of the canvas and illuminated her face and chest. Her right hand was resting on her pubic bone, and when I moved closer, I saw that she was holding a little taxi in that hand — a miniature version of the ubiquitous yellow cab that moves up and down the streets of New York.
It took me about a minute to understand that there were actually three people in the painting. Far to my right, on the dark side of the canvas, I noticed that a woman was leaving the picture. Only her foot and ankle could be seen inside the frame, but the loafer she was wearing had been rendered with excruciating care, and once I had seen it, I kept looking back at it. The invisible woman became as important as the one who dominated the canvas. The third person was only a shadow. For a moment I mistook the shadow for my own, but then I understood that the artist had included it in the work. The beautiful woman, who was wearing only a man's T-shirt, was being looked at by someone outside the painting, a spectator who seemed to be standing just where I was standing when I noticed the darkness that fell over her belly and her thighs.
To the right of the canvas I read the small typed card: Self-Portrait by William Wechsler. At first I thought the artist was joking, but then I changed my mind. Did that title next to a man's name suggest a feminine part of himself or a trio of selves? Maybe the oblique narrative of two women and a viewer referred directly to the artist, or maybe the title didn't refer to the content of the picture at all, but to its form. The hand that had painted the picture hid itself in some parts of the painting and made itself known in others. It disappeared in the photographic illusion of the woman's face, in the light that came from the invisible window, and in the hyperrealism of the loafer. The woman's long hair, however, was a tangle of heavy paint with forceful dabs of red, green, and blue. Around the shoe and the ankle above it, I noticed thick stripes of black, gray, and white that may have been applied with a knife, and in those dense strokes of pigment I could see the marks left by a man's thumb. It looked as if his gesture had been sudden, even violent.
That painting is here in the room with me. When I turn my head I can see it, although it too has been altered by my failing eyesight. I bought it from the dealer for $2,500 about a week after I saw it. Erica was standing only a few feet away from where I am sitting now when she first looked at the canvas. She examined it calmly and said, "It's like looking at another person's dream, isn't it?"
When I turned to the picture after Erica spoke, I saw that its mixed styles and shifting focus did remind me of the distortions in dreams. The woman's lips were parted, and her two front teeth protruded slightly. The artist had made them shiny white and a little too long, almost like an animal's. It was then that I noticed a bruise just below her knee. I had seen it before, but at that moment its purple cast, which was yellow-green at one edge, pulled my eyes toward it, as if this little wound were really the subject of the painting. I walked over, put my finger on the canvas, and traced the outline of the bruise. The gesture aroused me. I turned to look at Erica. It was a warm September day, and her arms were bare. I bent over her and kissed the freckles on her shoulders, then lifted the hair off her neck and kissed the soft skin underneath it. Kneeling in front of her, I pushed up the material of her skirt, ran my fingers along her thighs, and then I used my tongue. Her knees bent slightly toward me. She pulled down her underpants, tossed them onto the sofa with a grin, and pushed me gently backward onto the floor. Erica straddled me and her hair fell forward onto my face as she kissed me. Then she sat back, pulled off her T-shirt, and removed her bra. I loved that view of my wife. I touched her breasts and let my finger circle a perfectly round mole on the left one, before she leaned over me again. She kissed my forehead and cheeks and chin and then began fumbling with the zipper of my pants.
In those days, Erica and I lived in a state of almost constant sexual excitement. Just about anything could spark off a session of wild grappling on the bed, the floor, and, once, on the dining room table. Since high school, girlfriends had come and gone in my life. I had had brief affairs and longer ones, but always there had been gaps between them — painful stretches of no women and no sex. Erica said that suffering had made me a better lover — that I didn't take a woman's body for granted. On that afternoon, however, we made love because of the painting. I have often wondered since why the image of a sore on a woman's body should have been erotic to me. Later, Erica said that she thought my response had something to do with a desire to leave a mark on another person's body. "Skin is soft," she said. "We're easily cut and bruised. It's not like she looks beaten or anything. It's an ordinary little black-and-blue mark, but the way it's painted makes it stick out. It's like he loved doing it, like he wanted to make a little wound that would last forever."
Erica was thirty-four years old then. I was eleven years older than that, and we had been married for a year. We'd literally bumped into each other in Butler Library at Columbia. It was late on a Saturday morning in October, and the stacks were mostly empty. I had heard her steps, had felt her presence behind the dim rows of books illuminated by a timed light that gave off a low humming sound. I found the book I was looking for and walked toward the elevator. Except for the lamp, I heard nothing. I turned the corner and tripped over Erica, who had seated herself on the floor at the end of the stack. I managed to keep my footing, but my glasses sailed off my face. She picked them up, and as I bent over to take them from her, she began to stand up and her head knocked against my chin. When she looked at me, she was smiling: "A few more like that, and we might have something going — a regular slapstick routine."
I had fallen over a pretty woman. She had a wide mouth and thick dark hair cropped to her chin. The narrow skirt she was wearing had moved up her legs in our collision, and I glanced at her thighs as she tugged at her hem. After adjusting her skirt, she looked up at me and smiled again. During the second smile, her bottom lip quivered for an instant, and I took that small sign of nervousness or embarrassment to mean that she was susceptible to an invitation. Without it, I'm quite sure I would have apologized again and walked away. But that momentary tremor in her lip, gone in a moment, exposed a softness in her character and offered me a glimpse of what I guessed was her carefully guarded sensuality. I asked her to have coffee with me. Coffee turned into lunch, and lunch into dinner, and the following morning I was lying next to Erica Stein in the bed of my old apartment on Riverside Drive. She was still sleeping. The light came through the window and illuminated her face and hair. Very carefully I put my hand on her head. I left it there for several minutes while I looked at her and hoped she would stay.
By then we had talked for hours. It turned out that Erica and I came from the same world. Her parents were German Jews who left Berlin as teenagers in 1933. Her father became a prominent psychoanalyst and her mother a voice teacher at Juilliard. The Steins were both dead. They died within months of each other the year before I met Erica, which was the same year my mother died: 1973. I was born in Berlin and lived there for five years. My memories of that city are fragmentary, and some may be false, images and stories I shaped from what my mother told me about my early life. Erica was born on the Upper West Side, where I ended up after spending three years in a Hampstead flat in London. It was Erica who prompted me to leave the West Side and my comfortable Columbia apartment. Before we married, she told me she wanted to "emigrate." When I asked her what she meant, she said that it was time for her to sell her parents' apartment on West Eighty-second Street and take the long subway ride downtown. "I smell death up here," she said, "and antiseptic and hospitals and stale Sacher torte. I have to move." Erica and I left the familiar ground of our childhoods and staked out new turf among the artists and bohemians farther south. We used the money we had inherited from our parents and moved to a loft on Greene Street between Canal and Grand.
The new neighborhood with its empty streets, low buildings, and young tenants freed me from bonds I had never thought of as constraints. My father died in 1947, when he was only forty-three years old, but my mother lived on. I was their only child, and after my father was gone, my mother and I shared his ghost. My mother grew old and arthritic, but my father remained young and brilliant and promising — a doctor who might have done anything. That anything became everything for my mother. For twenty-six years she lived in the same apartment on Eighty-fourth Street between Broadway and Riverside with my father's missing future. Every once in a while, when I was first teaching, a student would refer to me as "Dr. Hertzberg" rather than "Professor," and I would inevitably think of my father. Living in SoHo didn't erase my past or induce forgetfulness, but when I turned a corner or crossed a street, there were no reminders of my displaced childhood and youth. Erica and I were both the children of exiles from a world that has disappeared. Our parents were assimilated middle- class Jews for whom Judaism was a religion their great-grandparents had practiced. Before 1933 they had thought of themselves as "Jewish Germans," a phrase that no longer exists in any language.
When we met, Erica was an assistant professor in English at Rutgers, and I had already been teaching at Columbia in the art history department for twelve years. My degree came from Harvard, hers from Columbia, which explained why she was wandering in the stacks that Saturday morning with an alumni pass. I had fallen in love before, but in almost every case I had arrived at a moment of fatigue and boredom. Erica never bored me. She sometimes irritated and exasperated me, but she never bored me. Erica's comment about Bill's self-portrait was typical of her — simple, direct, and penetrating. I never condescended to Erica.
I had walked past 89 Bowery many times without ever stopping to look at it. The run-down, four-story brick building between Hester and Canal had never been more than the humble quarters of a wholesale business, but those days of modest respectability were long over by the time I arrived to visit William Wechsler. The windows of what had once been a storefront were boarded up, and the heavy metal door at street level was gouged and dented, as if somebody had attacked it with a hammer. A man with a beard and a drink in a paper bag was lounging on the single front step. He grunted in my direction when I asked him to move and then half-rolled, half-slid off the step.
My first impressions of people are often clouded by what I come to know about them later, but in Bill's case, at least one aspect of those first seconds remained throughout our friendship. Bill had glamour — that mysterious quality of attraction that seduces strangers. When he met me at the door, he looked almost as disheveled as the man on the front step. He had a two-day beard. His thick black hair bushed out from the top and sides of his head, and his clothes were covered with dirt as well as paint. And yet when he looked at me, I found myself pulled toward him. His complexion was very dark for a white man, and his clear green eyes had an Asiatic tilt to them. He had a square jaw and chin, broad shoulders, and powerful arms. At six-two, he seemed to tower over me even though I couldn't have been more than a few inches shorter. I later decided that his almost magical appeal had something to do with his eyes. When he looked at me, he did so directly and without embarrassment, but at the same time I sensed his inwardness, his distraction. Although his curiosity about me seemed genuine, I also felt that he didn't want a thing from me. Bill gave off an air of autonomy so complete, it was irresistible.
"I took it for the light," he said to me when we walked through the door of the loft space on the fourth floor. Three long windows at the far end of the single room were shining with the afternoon sun. The building had sagged, which meant the back of the place was considerably lower than the front. The floor had warped as well, and as I looked toward the windows, I noticed bulges in the boards like shallow waves on a lake. The high end of the loft was spare, furnished only with a stool, a table constructed from two sawhorses and an old door, and stereo equipment, surrounded by hundreds of records and tapes in plastic milk crates. Rows of canvases had been stacked against the wall. The room smelled strongly of paint, turpentine, and must.
All the necessities for daily life had been crowded into the low end. A table knocked up against an old claw-foot bathtub. A double bed had been placed near a table, not far from a sink, and the stove protruded from an opening in an enormous bookcase crammed with books. There were also books piled in stacks on the floor beside it, and dozens more on an armchair that looked as if it hadn't been sat on in years. The chaos of the loft's living quarters revealed not only Bill's poverty but his obliviousness to the objects of domestic life. Time would make him richer, but his indifference to things never changed. He remained curiously unattached to the places where he lived and blind to the details of their arrangements.
Even on that first day, I felt Bill's asceticism, his almost brutal desire for purity and his resistance to compromise. The feeling came both from what he said and from his physical presence. He was calm, soft-spoken, a little restrained in his movements, and yet an intensity of purpose emanated from him and seemed to fill up the room. Unlike other large personalities, Bill wasn't loud or arrogant or uncommonly charming. Nevertheless, when I stood next to him and looked at the paintings, I felt like a dwarf who had just been introduced to a giant. The feeling made my comments sharper and more thoughtful. I was fighting for space.
Excerpted from What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt. Copyright © 2003 Siri Hustvedt. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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