Bad Connections: A Novel

Bad Connections: A Novel

by Joyce Johnson


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781480481251
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media LLC
Publication date: 06/17/2014
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Joyce Johnson was born in 1935 in New York City, the setting for all her fiction:  Come and Join the Dance , recognized as the first Beat novel by a woman writer,  Bad Connections , and  In the Night Café. She is best known for her memoir  Minor Characters , which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1983 and dealt with coming of age in the 1950s and with her involvement with Jack Kerouac. She has published two other Beat-related books:  Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters , and  The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac. She has also written a second memoir,  Missing Men,  and the nonfiction title  What Lisa Knew: The Truths and Lies of the Steinberg Case.

Read an Excerpt

Bad Connections

A Novel

By Joyce Johnson


Copyright © 1978 Joyce Johnson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-8120-6


There is a certain intensity in endings. Where passion has run dry, where hot has become cold, where love is no longer distinct from habit, disguising simple fear of the unknown, where there has been for some time a nullity—there may be in the last attempts at salvage a raising of certain questions previously seemingly forbidden, the covering stripped off mysteries upon which the original contract rested. For an imperfect bond between two people is often based upon a tacit ignorance. There is more compromise than choice in most relationships.

Appearances to the contrary, I've learned I am not a compromiser. For too many years I dreamed my life and then I decided to wake up. A certain violence in my methods, a single-mindedness of focus, came as a shock to others. One man, well known on the left, once angrily called me a guerrilla. Another lover, if I can accurately call him that, accused me of wanting, wanting too much. And indeed I wanted everything, much more than he ever imagined, much more than I would have dared to say—since there is a fearful fragility in men that always makes it impossible for me to be explicit with them. And then there was my own fragility as well—a thin membrane sagging under the weight of longings.

The year I turned thirty-five a hunger flared. The lights of the so-called real world dimmed, and in the hot glare of my imaginings, I found myself alive in the most fevered colors—there and in the reflections I caught for moments in the eyes of others.


I was married once to a man who is still an enigma to me. I do not know to this day precisely why I married him or precisely who he is. He was a man who seemed to lack any history. He might have been born the day I met him. He made a very good first impression—tall and handsome in a careless, shambly way. And there was a boyishness about him then that appealed to me, a kind of ingenuousness and optimism. He liked to dance, although there was something clumsy and mechanical about his style, and we went to a lot of loft parties and East Village discotheques and spent a lot of time in bed. I married my dancing partner. I remember the throbbing music of those late nights, the whirling, spangled globe on the ceiling of the Electric Circus gilding the upturned faces of the dancers. He moved in with me and I got careless with my diaphragm and became pregnant. He married me even though he was categorically opposed to marriage and didn't want children. I promised him nothing would change. It was not a good bargain.

I have mentioned his lack of history. I accepted not only that but his lack of a present. For six years we inhabited the same space, exchanged certain services—or rather I exchanged certain services. I see this gray blur of a woman leaving her office, hurrying downtown at the end of the day to pick up the baby from the sitter, stuffing groceries and laundry into the stroller with the sense that her identity is leaving her, that she is going home to nothing. And yet she must go home. Where else would she go? She is cooking dinner to the drone of the television which is always on when she is there and he is asking her to tell the baby to be quiet because between the water rushing into the sink and the noise the baby is making, he cannot hear the seven o'clock news and it is very annoying. "Tell the baby to be quiet yourself," she says. And later when he has gone out to the bar or discotheque—from which he will return at five, six, seven in the morning, although all such places by state law close at four—she turns off the television set and every light in the house and crawls into bed and waits to become unconscious.

They are about to have a conversation which later she will recognize as terminal. They are lying in bed, having made it for the first time in several weeks. The child has been sent away to the country. The house is very quiet without the child, who even when sleeping is a presence that can be felt. He blames the child sometimes for their sexual difficulties. Hasn't she noticed how the child has a way of waking out of the deepest sleep, of calling out for her just at the crucial moment? It is as if the little guy has a perverse sixth sense, a radar that tells him when his parents are going to fuck and sets him off like an alarm. The logical solution then, she thinks—the Malthusian solution—would be to get rid of the little guy and all would then be well. She waits for him to make this suggestion.

Tonight without the child here he was deliberately experimental, directing her in attempting different positions, turning her from one side to the other with varying placements of knees, his orders brusque and impatient. She had the feeling he was methodically following some invisible text. She was clumsy and stiff—not at all, she supposes, like the limber girls of the bars, with their yoga and tai chi classes, their expertise in the fifty erotic positions, their yin and their yang. Tonight he is very angry with her because her legs are too short. That is the reason they have been having such difficulties. He is convinced now that their bodies just don't fit each other. A cruel trick of fate for him to have ended up with such a short-legged woman!

She can remember a time in the past when they fitted each other perfectly, but doesn't bother to say it. She is comforting herself, warming herself, with thoughts of Conrad her lover, who is not as long-limbed as Fred her husband but bulkier. She would like to be lying against Conrad's huge chest and belly, her face buried in his mat of red hair.

Still, she feels she should explore with this boylike man she has lived with the real nature of their difficulties. There is still time for understanding, and understanding is something she believes in very strongly. She would like to understand more and feel less. She would like to be omniscient and thus distant. She is most of all simply curious about this person—she has lived for years with him in a state of suspended curiosity. Who is he? she wonders now for almost the last time, looking at the remote face that is becoming somewhat jowly.

She opens the conversation in an oblique way that is characteristic of her style—leading off with a tangential question, rather than getting right to the point.

"You've never told me much," she says, "about your relationships with other women. I know you've had relationships before me. You've never said what they were like."

"Why are you asking now?" he says suspiciously.

"Because I think it's one of our problems that you never talk about yourself. I think it's weird, for example, that I don't know anything about these other relationships."

"You think it would help if we talked about these things."

"I don't know that it would help, but it might. Maybe nothing will help," she says. She is speaking very collectedly, with an almost disinterested tone. She waits. He is silent. "I thought I would ask, that's all," she says.

There is an odd smile on his face. Perhaps he is taking a journey into the past. "There was an Argentinian girl I knew in Paris—" he begins.

"Yes?" she says.

"Well, she had the most fantastic muscles in her vagina. She could do the most incredible things. It was an extraordinary experience. And there was another girl I lived with for a few months. Arlene. She was from a Polish family."

"You lived with her?" the interviewer probes.

"Yes. It was a disaster. I think I stayed with her chiefly because she knew how to suck my dick and that's what we did most of the time."

"And what about me?" she asks.

"What do you mean, what about you?"

"What about me? What's my specialty aside from being Jewish?" She sits up in bed now and stares at him. She wants to be very sure of his answer.

"What are you talking about? he says disapprovingly.

"I want to know about me! What's my specialty? What's my specialty?" she cries, digging her fingers into his shoulders and shaking him. "What's my specialty?"

He is looking at her with amazement. "There's nothing special about you."

It is six o' clock in the morning and she has just left her husband. She is walking on her short legs to the West Side IRT subway, noticing how the light hits the buildings at this unusual hour, so that they look very starkly outlined and opaque. There is something very definite about the shadows they cast. She is aware of herself noticing things. She is walking very swiftly with the long strides that a taller person might make, her arms swinging freely. She was in such a hurry to get out before he woke that she forgot her purse. But she will not go back for it. There is a dollar in her pocket, more than enough to get her uptown to Conrad.

Her mind is very keen and clear. It has not been this clear in years. If she had nothing to go toward, she knows she would be in pain. But she is lucky, a very lucky woman to have met Conrad at this juncture in her life, to have been chosen by him from all the other pebbles on the beach. She'd thought she was becoming invisible, but he saw her just in time. She will tell him about the conversation she had with Fred, how she asked him to name her specialty, and he will laugh with her at the awfulness of it—because she knows it is not only awful but funny—and hold her against him and lead her gently back into the bedroom and put his hands under her shirt upon her breasts, squeezing them until she gasps and moans, his blue eyes resting seriously, ardently, upon her.

She waits impatiently for the subway. It comes at last and grinds from station to station. She wishes now she had brushed her teeth. She wishes herself already at his door. She gets out at 79th Street and speeds along the two blocks to his house. Six-thirty now. She flashes by a disheveled image of herself in the rear view mirror of a car. She wonders if she should have called him. It's not like her to turn up anywhere without an appointment. But this is different. It is an emergency. The beginning of the future. Just before she goes into Conrad's building, she looks up at his windows on the second floor, where grimy Venetian blinds have been drawn down to the sills. She tries to see if there is a light on, but of course there is none. Of course he is still asleep.

The night doorman comes toward her as she pushes open the heavy glass door and steps into the lobby.

"Schwartzberg," she says firmly.

"Two J," he says, staring at her curiously.

She feels the need to declare herself legitimate. "I'm expected," she says and presses the button for the elevator.

She gets off at the second floor and walks down the corridor. It is perfectly still. No one is up in any of the apartments. There is not even the sound of a child's cry or a radio. Copies of the New York Times lie folded and unread on doormats. She thinks that she and Conrad will have breakfast together this morning for the very first time. Perhaps she will make coffee for him while he looks at the paper. How extraordinary that they will do anything as ordinary as that.

She rings his doorbell once lightly, then waits and rings again, pressing harder now. She can hear the buzzing inside his apartment. She can see the apartment in her mind's eye—the piles of books, the ash-filled coffee cups, all undisturbed since her last visit. Perhaps he is in a very deep sleep. She feels guilty now for having to wake him. He has told her how hard he's been working, how exhausted he feels. There are too many demands on him, he says. But this is not a demand. She is bringing him herself. She presses again, keeping her finger on the bell for a much longer time. "Conrad!" she calls, putting her mouth close to the door. "Conrad!"

She looks down at her feet at the folded New York Times. There is another folded newspaper under it. It is yesterday's. And under that there is mail, yesterday's mail, because today's could not have been delivered yet. There is a phone bill, a copy of the National Guardian, an overdue notice from the library, and a letter in a blue envelope from a woman named Betty Klein in Berkeley. She holds all this mail in her hands, reading the name Conrad Schwartzberg over and over again. She wonders if this can really be happening to her, if she has really come up here at this hour to stand outside Conrad Schwartzberg's door holding these pieces of paper, if all this can possibly indicate what it seems to indicate.

After a while, she goes away, first putting the mail back where she had found it, the two newspapers neatly on top of it, first yesterday's, then today's. It is all in perfect order. As she steps into the elevator, she realizes she has left no traces.


My relationship with Conrad Schwartzberg was characterized by bad connections—missed appointments, late trains, automotive breakdowns, fogged-in airports, abruptly cut-off phone conversations. I learned early that I would not find Conrad where I thought him to be. I got used to it in the end, got used to it to some extent. No, never really got used to it. He was a man who moved constantly, who could drop out of reach for days or weeks—to reappear without apology. I collected his various phone numbers, even the ones I wasn't supposed to have. These testified to my developing Nancy Drewlike capabilities, my occasional triumph in being one jump ahead of him. I held them in reserve in case I needed them. More and more I became a woman who lived by her wits.

And yet all that tireless motion that Conrad embodied drew me to him, held me enchanted. I wanted only to move with him. I waited for him to invite me to abandon my predictable and sedentary existence—nearly as predictable and sedentary after I left my husband as before, except for the turmoil Conrad had added to it.

There was a blues that was popular for a while in the late fifties, when I came of age. I remember the lyrics to this day with a combination of nostalgia and fury:

Goin to Chicago, baby

Sorry I can't take you.

Ain't nothin in Chicago

That a monkey woman can do.

At thirty-five I was still a romantic, still waiting for an opportunity to go "on the road," at least figuratively.

Once Conrad took me to Buffalo. Another time we almost went to Cincinnati for the weekend—except his mother went into a severe depression at the last minute, or that's what he said. Twice—both times disastrous—I followed him to California. Still, I owe to Conrad a brief trip across the border into Mexico, as well as my first night—believe it or not—in what he assured me was a prototypical motel, which was even located off a freeway a few miles outside L.A. It had a swimming pool we didn't swim in, a big color TV with special pornographic movies that we didn't watch, a paper bathmat that read YOUR PERSONAL BATHMAT, and drinking glasses shrink-packed in plastic. We put down our suitcases and made love on the color-coordinated bedspread for the third-to-last time.

He had a little green Saab when I first knew him, a ridiculously small vehicle for a person of his proportions. He filled almost the whole front seat with his bulk, his belly wedged up against the steering wheel. The Saab was as dusty as his apartment and it was filled with the apartment's overflow of Marxist studies and law journals, stacks of undelivered leaflets that were months obsolete, and discarded articles of clothing. It was my joy to occasionally ride in it with him—to a speaking engagement in Larchmont, a rally in New Paltz, a fundraising dinner in Hempstead. He was at the height of his career as a radical lawyer, having taken on the defense of the Mahwah Seven, and he was much in demand on the Left as a speaker at meetings of all kinds. I would sit unobtrusively in the audience and listen to him proudly—tears would roll down my cheeks when he'd invoke the vision of a "new society." He had a way of pacing the platform, as if even there he could not be contained in his assigned place behind the podium.


Excerpted from Bad Connections by Joyce Johnson. Copyright © 1978 Joyce Johnson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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