Winter Journalby Paul Auster
From the bestselling novelist and author of The Invention of Solitude, a moving and highly personal meditation on the body, time, and language itself
"That is where the story begins, in your body, and everything will end in the body as well.
Facing his sixty-third winter, internationally acclaimed novelist Paul Auster sits down to write a/i>/b>/i>
From the bestselling novelist and author of The Invention of Solitude, a moving and highly personal meditation on the body, time, and language itself
"That is where the story begins, in your body, and everything will end in the body as well.
Facing his sixty-third winter, internationally acclaimed novelist Paul Auster sits down to write a history of his body and its sensationsboth pleasurable and painful.
Thirty years after the publication of The Invention of Solitude, in which he wrote so movingly about fatherhood, Auster gives us a second unconventional memoir in which he writes about his mother's life and death. Winter Journal is a highly personal meditation on the body, time, and memory, by one of our most intellectually elegant writers.
“Auster’s memoir courses gracefully over ground that is frequently rough, jarring and painful . . . But there are summery memories, as well. . . . Some of the loveliest sentences in the textand there are manyare illuminated by love. . . . A consummate professional explores the attic of his life, converting rumination to art.” Kirkus (starred review)
“Paul Auster's narration quickly engages the listener as he shares this very personal examination of his life. He effectively modulates pitch and tone as he recounts milestones and victories with an audible smile and sadly reflects upon tragedies and losses. His pacing varies appropriates from brisk to pensive, and his pleasing baritone adds an extra layer of richness to the presentation. Listeners familiar with the author's previous body of work will recognize his trademark quirkiness and highly individual style…Hearing these reminiscences and musings in the author's own voice enhances the intimacy and authenticity of this enjoyable listening experience.” AudioFile Magazine
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- 5.24(w) x 5.80(h) x 0.63(d)
Read an Excerpt
WINTER JOURNAL (Chapter 1)
You think it will never happen to you, that it cannot happen to you, that you are the only person in the world to whom none of these things will ever happen, and then, one by one, they all begin to happen to you, in the same way they happen to everyone else.
Your bare feet on the cold floor as you climb out of bed and walk to the window. You are six years old. Outside, snow is falling, and the branches of the trees in the backyard are turning white.
Speak now before it is too late, and then hope to go on speaking until there is nothing more to be said. Time is running out, after all. Perhaps it is just as well to put aside your stories for now and try to examine what it has felt like to live inside this body from the first day you can remember being alive until this one. A catalogue of sensory data. What one might call a phenomenology of breathing.
You are ten years old, and the midsummer air is warm, oppressively warm, so humid and uncomfortable that even as you sit in the shade of the trees in the backyard, sweat is gathering on your forehead.
It is an incontestable fact that you are no longer young. One month from today, you will be turning sixty-four, and although that is not excessively old, not what anyone would consider to be an advanced old age, you cannot stop yourself from thinking about all the others who never managed to get as far as you have. This is one example of the various things that could never happen, but which, in fact, have happened.
The wind in your face during last week’s blizzard. The awful sting of the cold, and you out there in the empty streets wondering what possessed you to leave the house in such a pounding storm, and yet, even as you struggled to keep your balance, there was the exhilaration of that wind, the joy of seeing the familiar streets turned into a blur of white, whirling snow.
Physical pleasures and physical pains. Sexual pleasures first and foremost, but also the pleasures of food and drink, of lying naked in a hot bath, of scratching an itch, of sneezing and farting, of spending an extra hour in bed, of turning your face toward the sun on a mild afternoon in late spring or early summer and feeling the warmth settle upon your skin. Innumerable instances, not a day gone by without some moment or moments of physical pleasure, and yet pains are no doubt more persistent and intractable, and at one time or another nearly every part of your body has been subjected to assault. Eyes and ears, head and neck, shoulders and back, arms and legs, throat and stomach, ankles and feet, not to mention the enormous boil that once sprouted on the left cheek of your ass, referred to by the doctor as a wen, which to your ears sounded like some medieval affliction and prevented you from sitting in chairs for a week.
The proximity of your small body to the ground, the body that belonged to you when you were three and four years old, that is to say, the shortness of the distance between your feet and head, and how the things you no longer notice were once a constant presence and preoccupation for you: the little world of crawling ants and lost coins, of fallen twigs and dented bottle caps, of dandelions and clover. But especially the ants. They are what you remember best. Armies of ants traveling in and out of their powdery hills.
You are five years old, crouched over an anthill in the backyard, attentively studying the comings and goings of your tiny six-legged friends. Unseen and unheard, your three-year-old neighbor creeps up behind you and strikes you on the head with a toy rake. The prongs pierce your scalp, blood flows into your hair and down the back of your neck, and you run screaming into the house, where your grandmother tends to your wounds.
Your grandmother’s words to your mother: “Your father would be such a wonderful man—if only he were different.”
This morning, waking in the dimness of another January dawn, a scumbled, grayish light seeping into the bedroom, and there is your wife’s face turned toward your face, her eyes closed, still fast asleep, the covers pulled all the way up to her neck, her head the only part of her that is visible, and you marvel at how beautiful she looks, how young she looks, even now, thirty years after you first slept with her, after thirty years of living together under the same roof and sharing the same bed.
More snow falling today, and as you climb out of bed and walk to the window, the branches of the trees in the back garden are turning white. You are sixty-three years old. It occurs to you that there has rarely been a moment during the long journey from boyhood to now when you have not been in love. Thirty years of marriage, yes, but in the thirty years before that, how many infatuations and crushes, how many ardors and pursuits, how many deliriums and mad surges of desire? From the very start of your conscious life, you have been a willing slave of Eros. The girls you loved as a boy, the women you loved as a man, each one different from the others, some round and some lean, some short and some tall, some bookish and some athletic, some moody and some outgoing, some white and some black and some Asian, nothing on the surface ever mattered to you, it was all about the inner light you would detect in her, the spark of singularity, the blaze of revealed selfhood, and that light would make her beautiful to you, even if others were blind to the beauty you saw, and then you would burn to be with her, to be near her, for feminine beauty is something you have never been able to resist. All the way back to your first days of school, the kindergarten class in which you fell for the girl with the long blonde ponytail, and how often were you punished by Miss Sandquist for sneaking off with the little girl you had fallen for, the two of you together in a corner somewhere making mischief, but those punishments meant nothing to you, for you were in love, and you were a fool for love then, just as you are a fool for love now.
The inventory of your scars, in particular the ones on your face, which are visible to you each morning when you look into the bathroom mirror to shave or comb your hair. You seldom think about them, but whenever you do, you understand that they are marks of life, that the assorted jagged lines etched into the skin of your face are letters from the secret alphabet that tells the story of who you are, for each scar is the trace of a healed wound, and each wound was caused by an unexpected collision with the world—that is to say, an accident, or something that need not have happened, since by definition an accident is something that need not happen. Contingent facts as opposed to necessary facts, and the realization as you look into the mirror this morning that all life is contingent, except for the one necessary fact that sooner or later it will come to an end.
You are three and a half, and your twenty-five-year-old pregnant mother has taken you along with her on a shopping expedition to a department store in downtown Newark. She is accompanied by a friend of hers, the mother of a boy who is three and a half as well. At some point, you and your little comrade break away from your mothers and begin running through the store. It is an enormous open space, no doubt the largest room you have ever set foot in, and there is a palpable thrill in being able to run wild through this gargantuan indoor arena. Eventually, you and the boy begin belly-flopping onto the floor and sliding along the smooth surface, sledding without sleds, as it were, and this game proves to be so enjoyable, so ecstatic in the pleasure it produces, that you become more and more reckless, more and more daring in what you are willing to attempt. You reach a part of the store where construction work or repair work is under way, and without bothering to take notice of what obstacles might lie ahead, you belly-flop onto the floor again and sail along the glasslike surface until you find yourself speeding straight toward a wooden carpenter’s bench. With a small twist of your small body, you think you can avoid crashing into the leg of the table that is looming before you, but what you do not realize in the split second you have to shift course is that a nail is jutting from the leg, a long nail low enough to be at the level of your face, and before you can stop yourself, your left cheek is pierced by the nail as you go flying past it. Half your face is torn apart. Sixty years later, you have no memories of the accident. You remember the running and the belly-flopping, but nothing about the pain, nothing about the blood, and nothing about being rushed to the hospital or the doctor who sewed up your cheek. He did a brilliant job, your mother always said, and since the trauma of seeing her firstborn with half his face ripped off never left her, she said it often: something to do with a subtle double-stitching method that kept the damage to a minimum and prevented you from being disfigured for life. You could have lost your eye, she would say to you—or, even more dramatically, You could have been killed. No doubt she was right. The scar has grown fainter and fainter as the years have passed, but it is still there whenever you look for it, and you will carry that emblem of good fortune (eye intact! not dead!) until you go to your grave.
Split eyebrow scars, one left and one right, almost perfectly symmetrical, the first caused by running full tilt into a brick wall during a dodgeball game in grade school gym class (the massively swollen black eye you sported for days afterward, which reminded you of a photograph of boxer Gene Fullmer, who had been defeated in a championship bout by Sugar Ray Robinson around the same time) and the second caused in your early twenties when you drove in for a layup during an outdoor basketball game, were fouled from behind, and flew into the metal pole supporting the basket. Another scar on your chin, origin unknown. Most likely from an early childhood spill, a hard fall onto a sidewalk or a stone that split open your flesh and left its mark, which is still visible whenever you shave in the morning. No story accompanies this scar, your mother never talked about it (at least not that you can recall), and you find it odd, if not downright perplexing, that this permanent line was engraved on your chin by what can only be called an invisible hand, that your body is the site of events that have been expunged from history.
It is June 1959. You are twelve years old, and in one week you and your sixth-grade classmates will be graduating from the grammar school you have attended since you were five. It is a splendid day, late spring in its most lustrous incarnation, sunlight pouring down from a cloudless blue sky, warm but not too warm, scant humidity, a soft breeze stirring the air and rippling over your face and neck and bare arms. Once school lets out for the day, you and a gang of your friends repair to Grove Park for a game of pickup baseball. Grove Park is not a park so much as a kind of village green, a large rectangle of well-tended grass flanked by houses on all four sides, a pleasant spot, one of the loveliest public spaces in your small New Jersey town, and you and your friends often go there to play baseball after school, since baseball is the thing you all love most, and you play for hours on end without ever growing weary of it. No adults are present. You establish your own ground rules and settle disagreements among yourselves—most often with words, occasionally with fists. More than fifty years later, you remember nothing about the game that was played that afternoon, but what you do remember is the following: The game is over, and you are standing alone in the middle of the infield, playing catch with yourself, that is, throwing a ball high into the air and following its ascent and descent until it lands in your glove, at which point you immediately throw the ball into the air again, and each time you throw the ball it travels higher than it did the time before, and after several throws you are reaching unprecedented heights, the ball is hovering in the air for many seconds now, the white ball going up against the clear blue sky, the white ball coming down into your glove, and your entire being is engaged in this witless activity, your concentration is total, nothing exists now except the ball and the sky and your glove, which means that your face is turned upward, that you are looking up as you follow the trajectory of the ball, and therefore you are no longer aware of what is happening on the ground, and what happens on the ground as you are looking up at the sky is that something or someone unexpectedly comes crashing into you, and the impact is so sudden, so violent, so overwhelming in its force that you instantly fall to the ground, feeling as though you have been hit by a tank. The brunt of the blow was aimed at your head, in particular your forehead, but your torso has been battered as well, and as you lie on the ground gasping for breath, stunned and nearly unconscious, you see that blood is flowing from your forehead, no, not flowing, gushing, and so you remove your white T-shirt and press it against the gushing spot, and within seconds the white T-shirt has turned entirely red. The other boys are alarmed. They come rushing toward you to do what they can to help, and it is only then that you find out what happened. It seems that one of your cohort, a gangly, good-hearted lunkhead called B.T. (you remember his name but will not divulge it here, since you do not want to embarrass him—assuming he is still alive), was so impressed by your towering, skyscraper throws that he got it into his head to take part in the action, and without bothering to tell you that he, too, was going to try to catch one of your throws started running in the direction of the descending ball, head turned upward, of course, and mouth hanging open in that oafish way of his (what person runs with his mouth hanging open?), and when he crashed into you a moment later, running at an all-out gallop, the teeth protruding from his open mouth went straight into your head. Hence the blood now gushing out of you, hence the depth of the gash in the skin above your left eye. Fortunately, the office of your family doctor is just across the way, in one of the houses that line the perimeter of Grove Park. The boys decide to lead you there at once, and so you cross the park holding your bloody T-shirt against your head in the company of your friends, perhaps four of them, perhaps six of them, you no longer remember, and burst en masse into Dr. Kohn’s office. (You have not forgotten his name, just as you have not forgotten the name of your kindergarten teacher, Miss Sandquist, or the names of any of the other teachers you had as a boy.) The receptionist tells you and your friends that Dr. Kohn is seeing a patient just now, and before she can get up from her chair to inform the doctor that there is an emergency to attend to, you and your friends march into the consulting room without bothering to knock. You find Dr. Kohn talking to a plump, middle-aged woman who is sitting on the examination table dressed in a bra and slip only. The woman lets out a yelp of surprise, but once Dr. Kohn sees the blood gushing from your forehead, he tells the woman to get dressed and leave, tells your friends to make themselves scarce, and then hastens to the task of sewing up your wound. It is a painful procedure, since there is no time to administer an anesthetic, but you do your best not to howl as he threads the stitches through your skin. The job he does is perhaps not as brilliant as the one executed by the doctor who sewed up your cheek in 1950, but it is effective for all that, since you do not bleed to death and no longer have a hole in your head. Some days later, you and your sixth-grade classmates take part in your grammar school graduation ceremony. You have been selected to be a flag-bearer, which means that you must carry the American flag down an aisle of the auditorium and plant it in the flag stand on stage. Your head is wrapped in a white gauze bandage, and because blood still seeps occasionally from the spot where you were stitched up, the white gauze has a large red stain on it. After the ceremony, your mother says that when you were walking down the aisle with the flag, you reminded her of a painting of a wounded Revolutionary War hero. You know, she says, just like The Spirit of ’76.
What presses in on you, what has always pressed in on you: the outside, meaning the air—or, more precisely, your body in the air around you. The soles of your feet anchored to the ground, but all the rest of you exposed to the air, and that is where the story begins, in your body, and everything will end in the body as well. For now, you are thinking about the wind. Later, if time allows for it, you will think about the heat and the cold, the infinite varieties of rain, the fogs you have stumbled through like a man without eyes, the demented, machine-gun tattoo of hailstones clattering against the tile roof of the house in the Var. But it is the wind that claims your attention now, for the air is seldom still, and beyond the barely perceptible breath of nothingness that sometimes surrounds you, there are the breezes and wafting lilts, the sudden gusts and squalls, the three-day-long mistrals you lived through in that house with the tile roof, the soaking nor’easters that sweep along the Atlantic coast, the gales and hurricanes, the whirlwinds. And there you are, twenty-one years ago, walking through the streets of Amsterdam on your way to an event that has been canceled without your knowledge, dutifully trying to fulfill the commitment you have made, out in what will later be called the storm of the century, a hurricane of such blistering intensity that within an hour of your stubborn, ill-advised decision to venture outdoors, large trees will be uprooted in every corner of the city, chimneys will tumble to the ground, and parked cars will be lifted up and go sailing through the air. You walk with your face to the wind, trying to advance along the sidewalk, but in spite of your efforts to get to where you are going, you cannot move. The wind is blasting into you, and for the next minute and a half, you are stuck.
Your hands on the Ha’penny Bridge in Dublin thirteen Januarys ago, the night following another hurricane with hundred-mile-an-hour winds, the final night of the film you have been directing for the past two months, the last scene, the last shot, a simple matter of fixing the camera on the gloved hand of your leading actress as she turns her wrist and lets go of a small stone that will fall into the waters of the Liffey. There is nothing to it, no shot has demanded less effort or ingenuity in the entire film, but there you are in the dank and dark of the windswept night, as exhausted as you have ever been after nine weeks of grueling work on a production fraught with countless problems (budget problems, union problems, location problems, weather problems), fifteen pounds lighter than when you began, and after standing for hours on the bridge with your crew, the clammy, frigid Irish air has infiltrated your bones, and a moment comes just before the final shot when you realize that your hands are frozen, that you cannot move your fingers, that your hands have turned into two blocks of ice. Why aren’t you wearing gloves? you ask yourself, but you are unable to answer the question, since the thought of gloves never even occurred to you when you left your hotel for the bridge. You film the last shot one more time, and then you and your producer, along with your actress, your actress’s boyfriend, and several members of the crew, go to a nearby pub to thaw out and celebrate the completion of the film. The place is crowded, jammed full, an echo chamber packed with roaring, clamorous people bobbing back and forth in a state of apocalyptic merriment, but a table has been reserved for you and your friends, so you sit down at the table, and the moment your body makes contact with the chair you understand that you are depleted, drained of all physical energy, all emotional energy, utterly spent in a way you never could have imagined possible, so crushed that you feel you might burst into tears at any moment. You order a whiskey, and when you take hold of the glass and raise it to your lips, you are heartened to notice that your fingers can move again. You order a second whiskey, then a third whiskey, then a fourth whiskey, and suddenly you fall asleep. In spite of the frenzy all around you, you manage to go on sleeping until the good man who is your producer hoists you to your feet and half-drags you, half-carries you back to your hotel.
Yes, you drink too much and smoke too much, you have lost teeth without bothering to replace them, your diet does not conform to the precepts of contemporary nutritional wisdom, but if you shun most vegetables it is simply because you do not like them, and you find it difficult, if not impossible, to eat what you do not like. You know that your wife worries about you, especially about your smoking and drinking, but mercifully, until now, no X-ray has revealed any damage to your lungs, no blood test has revealed any devastation to your liver, and so you forge on with your vile habits, knowing full well that they will ultimately do you grave harm, but the older you become the less likely it seems that you will ever have the will or the courage to abandon your beloved little cigars and frequent glasses of wine, which have given you so much pleasure over the years, and you sometimes think that if you were to cut these things out of your life at this late date, your body would simply fall apart, your system would cease to function. No doubt you are a flawed and wounded person, a man who has carried a wound in him from the very beginning (why else would you have spent the whole of your adult life bleeding words onto a page?), and the benefits you derive from alcohol and tobacco serve as crutches to keep your crippled self upright and moving through the world. Self-medication, as your wife calls it. Unlike your mother’s mother, she does not want you to be different. Your wife tolerates your weaknesses and does not rant or scold, and if she worries, it is only because she wants you to live forever. You count the reasons why you have held her close to you for so many years, and surely this is one of them, one of the bright stars in the vast constellation of enduring love.
Needless to say, you cough, especially at night, when your body is in a horizontal position, and on those nights when the breath tubes are excessively clogged, you climb out of bed, go into another room, and cough on madly until you have hacked up all the gunk. According to your friend Spiegelman (the most ardent smoker you know), whenever someone asks him why he smokes, he inevitably answers: “Because I like to cough.”
1952. Five years old, naked in the bath, alone, big enough to wash yourself now, and as you lie on your back in the warm water, your penis suddenly springs to attention, popping out above the water line. Until this moment, you have seen your penis only from above, standing on your feet and looking down, but from this new vantage point, more or less at eye level, it occurs to you that the tip of your circumcised male organ bears a striking resemblance to a helmet. An old-fashioned sort of helmet, similar to those worn by firemen in the late nineteenth century. This revelation pleases you, since at that juncture of your life your greatest ambition is to grow up to become a fireman, which you consider to be the most heroic job on the face of the earth (no doubt it is), and how fitting that you should have a miniature fireman’s helmet emblazoned on your very person, on the very part of your body, moreover, that looks like and functions as a hose.
The countless tight squeezes you have been in during the course of your life, the desperate moments when you have felt an urgent, overpowering need to empty your bladder and no toilet is at hand, the times when you have found yourself stuck in traffic, for example, or sitting on a subway stalled between stations, and the pure agony of forcing yourself to hold it in. This is the universal dilemma that no one ever talks about, but everyone has been there at one time or another, everyone has lived through it, and while there is no example of human suffering more comical that that of the bursting bladder, you tend not to laugh about these incidents until after you have managed to relieve yourself—for what person over the age of three would want to wet his pants in public? That is why you will never forget these words, which were the last words spoken to one of your friends by his dying father: “Just remember, Charlie,” he said, “never pass up an opportunity to piss.” And so the wisdom of the ages is handed down from one generation to the next.
Again, it is 1952, and you are in the backseat of the family car, the blue 1950 De Soto your father brought home the day your sister was born. Your mother is driving, and you have been on the road for some time now, going from where to where you can no longer remember, but you are on your way back, no more than ten or fifteen minutes from home, and for the past little while you have had to pee, the pressure in your bladder has been building steadily, and by now you are writhing on the backseat, legs crossed, your hand clamped over your crotch, uncertain whether you can hold out much longer. You tell your mother about your predicament, and she asks if you can hang in there for another ten minutes. No, you tell her, you don’t think so. In that case, she says, since there’s nowhere to stop between here and home, just go in your pants. This is such a radical idea to you, such a betrayal of what you consider to be your hard-won, manly independence, that you can scarcely believe what she has said. Go in my pants? you say to her. Yes, go in your pants, she says. What difference does it make? We’ll throw your clothes in the wash the minute we get home. And so it happens, with your mother’s full and explicit approval, that you pee in your pants for the last time.
Fifty years later, you are in another car, a rented car this time since you do not have one of your own, a spanking-new Toyota Corolla that you have been driving for the past three hours on your way back from Connecticut to your house in Brooklyn. It is August 2002. You are fifty-five years old and have been driving since you were seventeen, always with skill and confidence, known to everyone who has ever driven with you as a good driver, with no accident on your record beyond a single scraped fender in close to forty years behind the wheel. Your wife is up front with you in the seat to your right, and in the back is your fifteen-year-old daughter (who has just finished a summer acting program at a school in Connecticut), sprawled out asleep on the quilts and pillows that have served as her bedding for the past month. Also sleeping in the back is your dog, the ragged stray mutt you and your daughter brought home off the streets eight years ago, whom you dubbed Jack (after Jack Wilton, the hero of Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller) and who has been a much loved if lunatic member of the household ever since. Your wife, who worries about many things, has never worried about your driving, and in fact has often complimented you on how well you handle yourself in various kinds of traffic: passing other cars on multi-lane highways, for example, or negotiating the tangle of city streets, or easing your way around the twists and curves of backcountry roads. Today, however, she senses that something is wrong, that you are not concentrating properly, that your timing is slightly off, and more than once she has told you to watch what you are doing. You should know better by now than to doubt the wisdom of your wife’s words, for she possesses an uncanny ability to read the minds of others, to see into the souls of others, to sniff out the hidden undercurrents of any human situation, and again and again you have marveled at how accurate her instincts have proven to be, but on this particular day her anxiety is so acute that it has begun to get on your nerves. Are you not a famously good driver? you tell her. Have you ever had an accident? Would you ever do anything to put the lives of the people you love most in the world at risk? No, she says, of course not, she doesn’t know what has gotten into her, and once you reach the tollbooths at the Triborough Bridge, you say to her, Look, here we are, New York City, nearly home now, and after that she promises not to say another word about your driving. But something is wrong, even if you are not willing to admit it, for this is 2002, and so many things have happened to you in this year of grim surprises, why shouldn’t your mastery of cars suddenly and inexplicably abandon you? Worst of all, there was your mother’s death in mid-May (heart attack), which stunned you not because you didn’t know that people of seventy-seven can and do die without warning but because she was in apparent good health, and just the day before the last day of her life, you talked to her on the phone, and she was in buoyant spirits, cracking jokes and telling such funny stories that after you hung up you said to your wife: “She hasn’t sounded this happy in years.” Your mother’s death worst of all, but there was also the blood clot that formed in your left leg during a nine-hour coach flight to Copenhagen in early February, which kept you flat on your back for several weeks and forced you to walk with a cane for months afterward, not to speak of the trouble you have been having with your eyes, the tear in the cornea of your left eye to begin with, then the tear in the right cornea some weeks later, followed by repeated, altogether random instances in one eye or the other over the past several months, and the damage is always done in your sleep, which means there is nothing you can do to prevent it (since the cream prescribed by the ophthalmologist has had no effect), and on those mornings when you wake up with yet another torn cornea, the pain is ferocious, an eye being without question the most sensitive and vulnerable part of the body, and after you put in the painkilling drops the doctor has prescribed for such emergencies, it generally takes from two to four hours before the pain begins to disappear, and during those hours there is nothing you can do but sit still with a cold washcloth over the afflicted eye, which you keep shut, since opening that eye will make you feel as if a pin were being jabbed into it. A six-month siege of coach leg, then, and a chronic case of dry eye, and also the first full-blown panic attack of your life, which occurred just two days after your mother’s death, followed by several others in the days immediately after that, and for some time now you have felt that you are disintegrating, that you, who were once nature’s strongman, able to resist all assaults from within and without, impervious to the somatic and psychological travails that dog the rest of humanity, are not the least bit strong anymore and are rapidly turning into a debilitated wreck. Your family doctor has prescribed pills to keep the panic attacks under control, and perhaps those pills have been affecting your ability to drive this afternoon, but that seems unlikely to you, since you have driven with these pills in your system before, and neither you nor your wife ever noticed any difference. Impaired or not, you have now passed through the tollbooth at the Triborough Bridge and have begun the final stage of your journey home, and as you drive through the city you are not thinking about your mother or your eyes or your leg or the pills you swallow to keep your panic attacks at bay. You are thinking only about the car and the forty or fifty minutes it will take to reach your house in Brooklyn, and now that your wife has calmed down and no longer seems concerned about your driving, you are calm as well, and nothing out of the ordinary happens as you cover the miles from the bridge to the outskirts of your neighborhood. It is true that you have to pee, that your bladder has been sending out signals to you for the past twenty minutes, ever more rapid and dire signals of distress, and therefore you drive a little faster than perhaps you should, since you are doubly eager to get home, home for the sake of home, of course, and with it the relief of being able to emerge from the stuffy confines of the car, but also because getting home will allow you to run upstairs to the bathroom and relieve yourself, and yet even if you are pressing a little more than you should, all is well, and by now you are just two and a half minutes from the street where you live. The car is traveling down Fourth Avenue, an ugly stretch of dilapidated apartment buildings and empty warehouses, and because pedestrian traffic is sparse along these blocks, drivers rarely have to worry about anyone crossing the street, and on top of that the lights stay green for longer intervals than on most avenues, which encourages drivers to go fast, too fast, often far above the speed limit. This poses no problem if you are going straight ahead (that is why you have chosen this route, after all: because it will get you home more quickly than any other), but the onrush of traffic can make left turns somewhat perilous, since you must turn while the light is green, and while the light is green for you, it is also green for the cars speeding toward you from the opposite direction. Now, as you come to the juncture of Fourth Avenue and Third Street, where you must make the left turn that will take you home, you stop the car and wait for an opening, and suddenly you forget the lesson you learned from your father when he taught you how to drive close to forty years ago. He himself was a wretched, incompetent driver, an inattentive, daydreaming motorist who courted disaster every time he put his key in the ignition, but for all his shortcomings behind the wheel, he was an excellent teacher of others, and the best piece of advice he ever gave you was this: drive defensively; work on the assumption that everyone else on the road is stupid and crazy; take nothing for granted. You have always held these words uppermost in your thoughts, and they have served you well for all these years, but now, because you are desperate to empty your bladder, or because a pill has affected your judgment, or because you are tired and not paying close attention, or because you have turned into a debilitated wreck, you impulsively decide to take a chance, which is to say, to go on the offensive. A brown van is coming toward you. Going fast, yes, but no more than forty-five miles an hour, you think, fifty at most, and after gauging the distance of the van from where you have stopped in relation to the speed of the van, you are certain you will be able to make the left turn and get through the intersection without any problem—but only if you act quickly and step on the accelerator now. Your calculations, however, are founded on the belief that the van is traveling at forty-five or fifty miles an hour, which is in fact not true. It is going faster than that, at least sixty, perhaps even sixty-five, and therefore, once you make the left turn and begin hustling through the intersection, the van is suddenly and unexpectedly upon you, and since you are looking forward and not to your right, you do not see the van as it comes crashing into your car—a ninety-degree-angle hit, straight into the front door on the passenger’s side, the side on which your wife is sitting. The impact is thunderous, convulsive, cataclysmic—an explosion loud enough to end the world. You feel as if Zeus has hurled a lightning bolt at you and your family, and an instant later the car is spinning, out of control, madly rotating down the street until it collides with a metal lamppost and comes to an abrupt and jarring halt. Then everything goes silent, the entire universe is enveloped in silence, and when at last you are able to think again, the first thought that comes to you is that you are alive. You look at your wife and see that her eyes are open, that she is breathing and therefore alive as well, and then you turn around to look at your daughter in the back, and she too is alive, jolted from the depths of sleep by the double blow of van and lamppost, sitting up and looking at you with large, bewildered eyes, her lips whiter than any lips you have ever seen, lips as white as the paper you are writing on now, and you understand that she has been saved by the quilts and pillows she was sleeping on, saved by the fact that one’s muscles are utterly relaxed in sleep, and therefore no bones are broken, her head has not been hurled into contact with any hard surface, and she will be all right, is all right, as is the dog, who was sleeping on the quilts and pillows as well. Then you turn back to have another look at your wife, who was closest to the impact of the collision, and from the way she is sitting there beside you, so still, so mute, so absent from her surroundings, you fear that her neck might be broken, her long and slender neck, the beautiful neck that is the very emblem of her extraordinary beauty. You ask her how she is, if she feels any pain and if so where, but if she manages to answer you, her response is muffled, spoken in such a low voice that you cannot hear what she says. By now, you have become aware of noise outside the car, things are happening around you, several things at once, most noticeably the shrieking voice of the woman who was driving the van, who is hopping around in the street, angrily insulting you for causing the accident. (You will later learn that she was driving without a license, that the van did not belong to her, and that she had been in trouble with the police on several occasions—which would account for the vehemence of her anger, since she was afraid of running afoul of the law—but as she stands there shouting at you now, you are appalled by her selfishness, stunned that she does not even bother to ask if you and your family are all right.) As if to blot out the vicious behavior of this woman (who, to use your father’s words, is both stupid and crazy), a small miracle then occurs. A man is walking down Fourth Avenue, the only pedestrian on a thoroughfare that normally has no pedestrians, and against all reason, all logic, all presumptions about how the world supposedly works, this man is dressed in hospital whites, he is a young doctor, a native of India with smooth brown skin and an exceptionally handsome face, and seeing what has just happened, he approaches your car and calmly begins talking to your wife. There is no glass in the window anymore, which allows him to lean in and talk to her in a low voice, his soothing Indian voice, and as you listen to him ask all the standard questions a neurologist would pose to a patient—What is your name? What is the date? Who is the president?—you understand that he is doing everything he can to keep her conscious, to keep her from lapsing into a state of profound shock. Given the impact of the crash, it does not surprise you that for the time being she can no longer see any colors, that the world in front of her eyes is visible only in black and white. The doctor, who is not an apparition, who is a real man (but how not to think of him as a divine spirit who has come to save your wife?), stays with her until the ambulance and emergency team arrive. You and your daughter and Jack have left the car by now, but your wife must not move, everyone is worried that her neck could be broken, and as you stand there watching the firemen cut open the right front door with an instrument known as the jaws of life, you study the demolished car and cannot comprehend why all of you are still breathing. The car looks like a squashed insect. All four tires are flat, splayed out, twisted, the passenger side is caved in, and the back, which you now realize is the part of the car that crashed into the lamppost, is crumpled up, with no glass left in the rear window. Slowly, the paramedics strap your wife onto a board to keep her immobilized, they slide her into an ambulance, you and your daughter are put in another ambulance, and then you all set out for the trauma unit at Lutheran Medical Center in Bay Ridge. After two CAT scans and a number of X-rays, the doctors announce that no bones are broken in your wife’s back or neck. Happy, all of you happy, then, in spite of this brush with death, and as you leave the hospital together, your wife jokingly reports that the doctor in charge of conducting the CAT scans told her that she had the most perfect, most beautiful neck he had ever seen.
Eight and a half years have gone by since that day, and not once has your wife ever blamed you for the accident. She says the woman in the van was driving too fast and therefore was entirely responsible for what happened. But you know better than to exonerate yourself. Yes, the woman was driving too fast, but in the end that is of little consequence. You took a chance you shouldn’t have taken, and that error of judgment continues to fill you with shame. That is why you vowed to quit driving after you left the hospital, why you have not sat behind the wheel of a car since the day you almost killed your family. Not because you don’t trust yourself anymore, but because you are ashamed, because you understand that for one near-fatal moment you were just as stupid and crazy as the woman who crashed into you.
Two years after the crash, you are in the small French city of Arles, about to read from one of your books in public. Appearing with you will be the actor Jean-Louis Trintignant (a friend of your publisher’s), who will take the passages you read in English and read them again in French translation. A double reading, as is customary in foreign countries where the audiences are not bilingual, with the two of you alternating from paragraph to paragraph as you march in tandem through the pages you have chosen for the event. You are glad to be in Trintignant’s company tonight, since you hold his acting in great esteem, and when you think of the films you have seen him play in (Bertolucci’s The Conformist, Rohmer’s Ma Nuit chez Maud, Truffaut’s Confidentially Yours, Kieslowski’s Red—to cite just some of your favorites), you are hard-pressed to come up with the name of another European actor whose work you admire more. You also feel tremendous compassion for him, since you know about the brutal, highly publicized murder of his daughter some years back, and you are keenly aware of the terrible suffering he has lived through, continues to live through. Like many of the actors you have known and worked with, Trintignant is a shy and reticent person. Not that he doesn’t exude an aura of goodwill and friendliness, but at the same time he is closed in on himself, a man who finds talking to others difficult. At the moment, the two of you are together on stage rehearsing the evening’s performance, alone in the large church or former church where the reading will be held. You are impressed by the timbre of Trintignant’s voice, the resonance of his voice, the qualities of voice that distinguish great actors from merely good ones, and it gives you enormous pleasure to hear the words you have written (no, not quite your words, but your words translated into another language) conveyed through the instrument of that exceptional voice. At one point, apropos of nothing, Trintignant turns to you and asks how old you are. Fifty-seven, you say, and then, after a brief pause, you ask him how old he is. Seventy-four, he replies, and then, after another brief pause, you both go back to work. Following the rehearsal, you and Trintignant are taken to a room somewhere in the church to wait until the audience has been seated and the performance can begin. Other people are in the room with you, various members of the company that publishes your work, the organizer of the event, anonymous friends of people you don’t know, perhaps a dozen men and women in all. You are sitting in a chair and not talking to anyone, just sitting in silence and looking at the people in the room, and you see that Trintignant, who is about ten feet away from you, is sitting in silence as well, looking down at the floor with his chin cupped in his hand, apparently lost in thought. Eventually, he looks up, catches your eye, and says, with unexpected earnestness and gravity: “Paul, there’s just one thing I want to tell you. At fifty-seven, I felt old. Now, at seventy-four, I feel much younger than I did then.” You are confused by his remark. You have no idea what he is trying to tell you, but you sense it is important to him, that he is attempting to share something of vital importance with you, and for that reason you do not ask him to explain what he means. For close to seven years now, you have continued to ponder his words, and although you still don’t know quite what to make of them, there have been glimmers, tiny moments when you feel you have almost penetrated the truth of what he was saying to you. Perhaps it is something as simple as this: that a man fears death more at fifty-seven than he does at seventy-four. Or perhaps he saw something in you that worried him: the lingering traces of what happened to you during the horrible months of 2002. For the fact is that you feel more robust now, at sixty-three, than you did at fifty-five. The problem with your leg is long gone. You have not had a panic attack in years, and your eyes, which still act up every now and then, do so far less frequently than before. Also to be noted: no more car crashes, and no more parents for you to mourn.
Thirty-two years ago today, meaning half your life ago almost to the minute, the news that your father had died the previous night, another night in January filled with snow, just as this one is, the cold wind, the wild weather, everything the same, time moving and yet not moving, everything different and yet everything the same, and no, he did not have the luck to reach seventy-four. Sixty-six, and because you always felt certain that he would live to a ripe old age, there was never any urgency about clearing the fog that had always hovered between you, and therefore, as the fact of his sudden, unexpected death finally sank in, you were left with a feeling of unfinished business, the hollow frustration of words not spoken, of opportunities missed forever. He died in bed making love to his girlfriend, a healthy man whose heart inexplicably gave out on him. In the years since that January day in 1979, numerous men have told you that this is the best way to die (the little death turned into real death), but no woman has ever said it, and you yourself find it a horrible way to go, and when you think of your father’s girlfriend at the funeral and the shell-shocked look in her eyes (yes, she told you, it was truly horrible, the most horrible thing she had ever lived through), you pray that such a thing never happens to your wife. Thirty-two years ago today, and you have gone on regretting that too-abrupt departure ever since, for your father did not live long enough to see that his blundering, impractical son did not end up in the poorhouse, as he always feared you would, but several more years would have been necessary for him to understand this, and it saddens you that when your sixty-six-year-old father died in his girlfriend’s arms, you were still struggling on all fronts, still eating the dirt of failure.
No, you do not want to die, and even as you approach the age of your father when his life came to an end, you have not called any cemetery to arrange for your burial plot, have not given away any of the books you are certain you will never read again, and have not begun to clear your throat to say your good-byes. Nevertheless, thirteen years ago, just one month past your fiftieth birthday, as you sat in your downstairs study eating a tuna fish sandwich for lunch, you had what you now call your false heart attack, a siege of ever-mounting pain that spread through your chest and down your left arm and up into your jaw, the classic symptoms of cardiac upheaval and destruction, the dreaded coronary infarction that can stop a man’s life within minutes, and as the pain continued to grow, to reach higher and higher levels of incendiary force, burning up your insides and setting your chest on fire, you grew weak and dizzy from the onslaught, staggered to your feet, slowly climbed the stairs with both hands clutching the banister, and collapsed on the landing of the parlor floor as you called out to your wife in a feeble, barely audible voice. She came running down from the top floor, and when she saw you there lying on your back, she took you in her arms and held you, asking where it hurt, telling you she would call the doctor, and as you looked up at her face, you were convinced you were about to die, for pain of that magnitude could only mean death, and the odd thing about it, perhaps the oddest thing that has ever happened to you, is that you weren’t afraid, you were in fact calm and altogether accepting of the idea that you were about to leave this world, saying to yourself, This is it, you’re going to die now, and maybe death isn’t as bad as you had thought it was, for here you are in the arms of the woman you love, and if you must die now, consider yourself blessed to have lived as long as fifty years. You were taken to the hospital, kept overnight in an emergency room bed, given blood tests every four hours, and by the next morning the heart attack had become an inflamed esophagus, no doubt aggravated by the heavy dose of lemon juice in your sandwich. Your life had been given back to you, your heart was sound and beating normally, and on top of all that good news, you had learned that death was not something to be feared anymore, that when the moment comes for a person to die, his being shifts into another zone of consciousness, and he is able to accept it. Or so you thought. Five years later, when you had the first of your panic attacks, the sudden, monstrous attack that ripped through your body and threw you to the floor, you were not the least bit calm or accepting. You thought you were going to die then, too, but this time you howled in terror, more afraid than you had ever been in your life. So much for other zones of consciousness and quiet exits from this valley of tears. You lay on the floor and howled, howled at the top of your lungs, howled because death was inside you and you didn’t want to die.
Snow, so much snow these past days and weeks that fifty-six inches have fallen on New York in less than a month. Eight storms, nine storms, you have lost track by now, and all through January the song heard most often in Brooklyn has been the street music made by shovels scraping against sidewalks and thick patches of ice. Intemperate cold (three degrees one morning), drizzles and mizzles, mist and slush, ever-aggressive winds, but most of all the snow, which will not melt, and as one storm falls on top of another, the bushes and trees in your back garden are all wearing ever-longer and heavier beards of snow. Yes, it seems to have turned into one of those winters, but in spite of the cold and discomfort and your useless longing for spring, you can’t help admiring the vigor of these meteorological dramas, and you continue to look at the falling snow with the same awe you felt when you were a boy.
Roughhousing. That is the word that comes to you now when you think about the pleasures of boyhood (as opposed to the pains). Wrestling with your father, a rare circumstance since he was seldom present during the hours when you were awake (off to work while you were still asleep and home after you had been put to bed), but all the more memorable because of that perhaps, and the outlandish size of his body and muscles, the sheer bulk of him as you grappled in his arms and strove to defeat the King of New Jersey in hand-to-hand combat, and also your older cousin by four years, on those Sunday afternoons when you and your family visited your aunt and uncle’s house, the same excessive physicality as you rolled around on the floor with him, the joy of that physicality, the abandon. Running. Running and jumping and climbing. Running until you felt your lungs would burst, until your side ached. Day after day and on into the evening, the long, slowly fading dusks of summer, and you out there on the grass, running for all you were worth, your pulse pounding in your ears, the wind in your face. A bit later on, tackle football, Johnny on the Pony, Kick the Can, King of the Castle, Capture the Flag. You and your friends were so nimble, so flexible, so keen on waging these pretend wars that you went at one another with unrelenting savagery, small bodies crashing into other small bodies, knocking one another to the ground, yanking arms, grabbing necks, tripping and shoving, anything and everything to win the game—animals the lot of you, wild animals through and through. But how well you slept back then. Switch off the lamp, close your eyes … and see you tomorrow.
More subtly, more beautifully, more gratifying in the long run, there was your ever-evolving skill at playing baseball, the least violent of sports, and the passion you developed for it beginning at six or seven years old. Catching and throwing, fielding ground balls, learning where to position yourself at each moment throughout the course of a game, depending on how many outs there were, how many runners were on base, and knowing in advance what you must do should the ball be hit in your direction: throw home, throw to second, try for a double play, or else, because you played shortstop, run into left field after a base hit and then wheel around to make the long relay throw to the correct spot on the field. Never a dull moment, in spite of what critics of the game might think: poised in a state of constant anticipation, ever at the ready, your mind churning with possibilities, and then the sudden explosion, the ball speeding toward you and the urgent need to do what must be done, the quick reflexes required to perform your job, and the exquisite sensation of scooping up a ground ball hit to your left or right and making a hard, accurate throw to first. But no pleasure greater than that of hitting the ball, settling into your stance, watching the pitcher go into his windup, and to hit a ball squarely, to feel the ball making contact with the meat of the bat, the very sound of it as you followed through with your swing and saw the ball flying deep into the outfield—no, there was no feeling like it, nothing ever came close to the exaltation of that moment, and because you became better and better at this as time went on, there were many such moments, and you lived for them in a way you lived for nothing else, all wrapped up in this meaningless boy’s game, but that was the apex of happiness for you back then, the very best thing your body was able to do.
The years before sex entered the equation, before you understood that the miniature fireman between your legs was good for anything but helping you empty your bladder. It must be 1952 again, but perhaps a little earlier or a little later than that, and you ask your mother the question all children ask their parents, the standard question about where babies come from, meaning where did you come from, and by what mysterious process did you enter the world as a human being? Your mother’s answer is so abstract, so evasive, so metaphorical that it leaves you utterly confounded. She says: The father plants the seed in the mother, and little by little the baby begins to grow. At this point in your life, the only seeds you are familiar with are the ones that produce flowers and vegetables, the ones that farmers scatter over large fields at planting time to start a new round of crops for harvest in the fall. You instantly see an image in your head: your father dressed as a farmer, a cartoon version of a farmer in blue overalls with a straw hat on his head, and he is walking along with a large rake propped against his shoulder, walking with a jaunty, insouciant stride out in some rural nowhere, on his way to plant the seed. For some time afterward, this was the picture you saw whenever the subject of babies was mentioned: your old man as a farmer, dressed in blue overalls with a ragged straw hat on his head and a rake propped against his shoulder. You knew there was something wrong about this, however, for seeds were always planted in the earth, either in gardens or in large fields, and since your mother was neither a garden nor a field, you had no idea what to make of this horticultural presentation of the facts of life. Is it possible for anyone to be more stupid than you were? You were a stupid little boy who lacked the wit to ask the question again, but the truth was that you enjoyed imagining your father as a farmer, enjoyed seeing him in that ridiculous costume, and when it comes right down to it, you probably wouldn’t have understood what your mother was talking about if she had given you a more precise answer to your question.
Some weeks or months before or after this conversation with your mother, the little neighbor boy who smashed you on the head with the toy rake inexplicably went missing. His frantic mother rushed into your backyard and told you and your friends to start looking for him, and off you all went, thrashing into the borderland of wild shrubbery and tangled undergrowth that served as your secret hiding place, calling out the name of the boy, which was Michael, although he was commonly referred to as Brat or Monster—a midget felon whose life thus far had been devoted exclusively to acts of terrorism and violence. You entered a dense patch of bushes, flicking leaves out of your face and parting branches as you moved forward, fully expecting to find the runaway hoodlum huddled at your feet, but what you found instead was a nest of wasps or hornets, which you inadvertently stepped on, and seconds later you were engulfed by those stinging creatures, who were attacking your face and arms, and even as you tried to swat them away, others had crawled inside your clothes and were stabbing you in your legs and chest and back. Horrific pain. You went running out of the bushes onto the grass in the backyard, no doubt screaming your head off, and there was your mother, who took one glance at you and immediately began stripping off your clothes, and when there was no longer a stitch on you, she swooped up your naked body into her arms and ran with you toward the house. Once inside, she carried you upstairs, turned on the water, and put you in a cold, cold bath.
The boy was found. If you remember correctly, he was discovered in his own house, asleep on the living room floor, either hidden behind the sofa or curled up under a table, but if you need further proof that he did not die or vanish that day, you have only to recall the afternoon four or five years later when you were in bed with a case of the flu, one of those dreary sick days spent in the airless confinement of pajamas, fever, and aspirin tablets every four hours, thinking about your friends, who had already been let out of school and were no doubt playing a game of pickup baseball in Grove Park, since the sun was shining and the weather was warm, which made it an ideal afternoon for baseball. You were nine or ten years old, and as you remember it now, more than half a century later, you were the only person in the house. Outside in the backyard, chained to the wire runner your father had built for him, the family dog was dozing on the grass. He had been a part of your life for a good two years or longer, and you were intensely fond of him—a frisky young beagle with an appetite for adventure and a mad penchant for chasing after cars. He had already been run over once, injuring his left hind leg so badly that he could no longer use it, which had turned him into a three-legged dog, a strange, peg-legged kind of dog, a swashbuckling pirate of a dog in your opinion, but he had adjusted to his infirmity well, and even with just three legs he could still outrun any four-legged dog in the neighborhood. So there you were lying in bed in your upstairs room, certain that your crippled dog was safely tethered to his runner in the backyard, when a sudden volley of loud noises burst in on the quiet: a screech of tires in front of your house, immediately followed by a high-pitched howl of pain, the howl of a dog in pain, and from the sound of that dog’s voice, you instantly knew that it was your dog. You jumped out of bed and ran outside, and there was the Brat, the Monster, confessing to you that he had unhooked your dog from his leash because he “wanted to play with him,” and there was the man who had been driving the car, a much rattled and deeply upset man, saying to the people who had gathered around him that he had no choice, that the boy and the dog ran straight into the middle of the street, and it was either hit the boy or hit the dog, so he swerved and hit the dog, and there was your dog, your mostly white dog lying dead in the middle of the black street, and as you picked him up and carried him into the house, you told yourself no, the man was wrong, he should have hit the boy and not the dog, he should have killed the boy, and so angry were you at the boy for what he had done to your dog, you did not stop to consider that this was the first time you had ever wished that another human being were dead.
There were fights, of course. No one can get through boyhood without some of them, or many of them, and when you consider the tussles and confrontations you took part in, the bloody noses you both gave and received, the punches to the stomach that knocked the wind out of you, the inane headlocks and hammerlocks that sent you and your opponent sprawling to the ground, you can’t think of a single instance when you were the one who started it, for you hated the whole business of fighting, but because there was always a bully somewhere in the vicinity, some brainless tough who would taunt you with threats and dares and insults, there were times when you felt compelled to defend yourself, even if you were the smaller one and were almost certain to be thrashed. You loved the mock wars of tackle football and Capture the Flag, the rough-and-tumble of barreling into a catcher at home plate, but real fighting made you sick. It was too fraught with emotional consequences, too wrenching in the angers it provoked, and even when you won your fights, you always felt like crying afterward. The slug-or-be-slugged approach to settling differences lost all appeal to you after a boy at summer camp came at you by jumping down from the rafters of the cabin and you wound up breaking his arm when you retaliated by slamming him into a wooden table. You were ten years old, and from that point on you steered clear of fighting as best you could, but fights continued to come your way from time to time, at least until you were thirteen, when you finally figured out that you could win any fight against any boy by kneeing him in the balls, by driving your knee into his crotch with all the force you could muster, and just like that, within a matter of seconds, the fight would be over. You acquired a reputation for being a “dirty fighter,” and perhaps there was some truth to it, but you fought like that only because you didn’t want to fight, and after one or two of these bouts, word got around and no one ever attacked you again. You were thirteen years old and had permanently retired from the ring.
No more battles with boys, but an abiding passion for girls, for kissing girls and holding hands with girls, something that started for you long before the onset of puberty, at a time when boys are supposedly not interested in such matters. As far back as the kindergarten class in which you fell for the girl with the golden ponytail (whose name was Cathy), you were always mad for kissing, and even then, at age five or six, you and Cathy would sometimes exchange kisses—innocent pecks, to be sure, but deeply pleasurable for all that. In those years of so-called latency, your friends were unanimous in their public scorn for girls. They would mock them, tease them, pinch them, and pull up their dresses, but you never felt that antipathy, could never rouse yourself to participate in these assaults, and all during that early grammar school period of your life (that is, up to the age of twelve, when you carried the American flag with a blood-soaked bandage around your head during your class’s graduation ceremony), you continued to succumb to various infatuations with girls such as Patty, Susie, Dale, Jan, and Ethel. No more than kissing and holding hands, of course (you were physically incapable of having sex, the mechanics of which were still rather vague to you, since you did not arrive at full-fledged puberty until you were turning fourteen), but the kissing had become altogether ferocious by the time you reached graduation day. There were dances and unchaperoned parties in that final year before you entered junior high school, nearly every weekend you and a gang of fifteen or twenty others were invited to someone’s house, and in those suburban living rooms and finished basements, impotent boys and girls with newly sprouting breasts would dance to the latest rock-and-roll songs (the hits of 1958 and 1959), and eventually, as the evening wore on, the lights would be dimmed, the music would stop, and girls and boys would pair off in hidden corners of the room, where they’d all neck crazily until it was time to go home. You learned much about lips and tongues that year, were indoctrinated into the pleasures of feeling a girl’s body in your arms, of feeling a girl’s arms wrapped around you, but that was as far as it went. There were lines that could not be crossed, and for now you were happy not to cross them. Not because you were scared, but because it never even occurred to you.
Finally, the day came when you went hurtling across the threshold that separates boyhood from adolescence, and now that you had felt the feeling, now that you had discovered that your old friend the fireman was in fact an agent of divine bliss, the world you lived in became a different world, for the ecstasy of that feeling had given a new purpose to your life, a new reason for being alive. The years of phallic obsession began. Like every other male who has wandered this earth, you were in thrall to the miraculous change that had occurred in your body. On most days, you could think of little else—on some days, of nothing else.
Nevertheless, when you recall the years immediately following your transformation, you are struck by how cautious and backward you were. In spite of your ardor, in spite of your constant pursuit of girls in junior and senior high school, the romances and flirtations with Karen, Peggy, Linda, Brianne, Carol, Sally, Ruth, Pam, Starr, Jackie, Mary, and Ronnie, your erotic adventures were frightfully tame and insipid, barely one step beyond the make-out sessions you took part in when you were twelve. Perhaps you were unlucky, or perhaps you weren’t bold enough, but you tend to think it had more to do with the place and the time, a middle-class suburban town in the early sixties, and the unwritten code that girls did not give themselves to boys, that good girls had reputations to uphold, and the line was drawn at kissing and petting, notably the least dangerous form of petting, that is, the boy’s hand placed on a breast covered by two or three layers of clothing, a sweater (depending on the season), a blouse, and a bra, but woe to the boy who tried to put his hand inside a blouse, let alone reach for the forbidden territory inside a bra, for that hand would be swiftly pushed away by the girl who had a reputation to uphold, even if that girl secretly wanted the hand to be there as much as the boy did. How many times were you rebuffed in this way, you wonder, how many useless expeditions did your hands make into the skirts and blouses of your companions, how many partial journeys toward the realm of bare skin before being turned back at the gates? Such were the impoverished conditions of your early erotic life. No bare skin allowed, no shedding of clothes, and forget, once and for all, that genitals have any part in the game you are playing. And so you and Linda go on kissing, kissing and then kissing some more, kissing until your lips are chapped and drool is sliding down your cheeks, and all the while you pray that the erection bulging in your pants will not explode.
You live in a torment of frustration and never-ending sexual arousal, breaking the North American masturbation record every month throughout the years 1961 and 1962, an onanist not by choice but by circumstance, trapped inside your ever-growing, ever-mutating body, the five-feet-two-inch thirteen-year-old now transformed into a five-feet-ten-inch fifteen-year-old, still a boy, perhaps, but a boy in a man’s body, who shaves a couple of times a week, who has hair on his forearms and legs, hair under his arms, pubic hair because he is no longer pubescent but almost fully formed, and even as you forge on with your schoolwork and your sporting activities and travel ever more deeply into the universe of books, your life is dominated by your thwarted sexual hunger, you feel that you are actually starving to death, and no ambition is more important to you, no cause is more central to the well-being of your aching, starving self than to lose your virginity as quickly as possible. Such is your desire, in any case, but nowhere is it written that desires must be fulfilled, and so the torture goes on, all the way through the delirious abnegations of 1962 and on into the fall of 1963, when finally, at long long last, an opportunity presents itself, and although it is less than ideal, not at all what you have been imagining, you don’t hesitate to say yes. You are sixteen years old. In July and August, you worked as a waiter at a summer camp in upstate New York, and the fellow who served as your partner, a funny, fast-talking kid from Queens (a city boy who knows his way around the New York streets—as opposed to you, who know next to nothing), calls to tell you that he has the address and telephone number of a brothel on the Upper West Side. He will make the appointment for you if you wish, and because you indeed wish, you take a bus into the city the following Saturday and meet your friend in front of an apartment building in the mid-Eighties, just off the river. It is a damp, drizzly afternoon in late September, everything is gray and sodden, umbrella weather, or at least a day for wearing hats, but you have neither an umbrella nor a hat, which is nevertheless fine, perfectly fine, since the last thing you are thinking about now is the weather. The word brothel has conjured up a host of enticing mental images for you, and you are expecting to walk into a large, sumptuously decorated establishment with red plush-velvet walls and a staff of fifteen or twenty alluring young women (what wretched film put that idea in your head?), but as you and your friend step into the elevator, which is the slowest, dirtiest, most graffiti-scarred elevator in all of New York, you quickly readjust your expectations. The luxurious brothel turns out to be a shabby little one-bedroom apartment, and only two women are there, the proprietress, Kay, a round black woman pushing fifty, who greets your friend with a warm hug, as if they are old familiars, and a much younger woman, also black, who appears to be around twenty or twenty-two. They are both sitting on stools in the tiny kitchen, which is separated from the bedroom by a thin curtain that doesn’t quite touch the floor, both are dressed in colorful silk robes, and, much to your relief, the young one is highly attractive, with a very pretty face, perhaps even a beautiful face. Kay announces the price (fifteen dollars? twenty dollars?) and then asks you and your friend which one wants to go first. No, no, your friend laughs, he’s just come along for the ride (no doubt the girls in Queens are less reluctant to shed their clothes than the girls in New Jersey), and so Kay turns to you and says that you can choose, either her or her young co-worker, and when you do not choose Kay, she does not appear to be offended—merely shrugs, smiles, puts out her hand, and says, “A little money, honey,” at which point you dig into your pocket and pull out the fifteen or twenty dollars you owe her. You and the young one (too shy or too nervous, you forget to ask what her name is, which means that she has been nameless to you for all these years) step into the other room as Kay pulls the curtain shut behind you. The girl leads you toward the bed in the corner, she slips out of her robe and tosses it onto a chair, and for the first time in your life you are in the presence of a naked woman. A beautiful naked woman, in fact, a young woman with a remarkably beautiful body, with glorious breasts, glorious arms and shoulders, glorious backside, glorious hips, glorious legs, and after three long years of frustration and failure, you are beginning to feel happy, as happy as you have felt at any time since your adolescence began. The girl instructs you to take off your clothes, and then the two of you are on the bed together, both naked, and all you really want, at least for now, is to touch her and kiss her and feel the smoothness of her skin, which is marvelously smooth skin, so smooth that it makes you tremble just to put your hand on her, but kissing on the mouth is not part of the program, since prostitutes do not kiss their customers on the mouth, and prostitutes have no interest in foreplay, no interest in touching or being touched for the simple pleasure of touching and being touched, for sex under these circumstances is not pleasure but work, and the sooner the client can finish the job he has paid for, the better. She knows it is your first time, that you are an absolute novice with no experience whatsoever, and she treats you kindly and patiently, she is a good person, you feel, and if she wants to get down to the fucking part right away, no problem, you are more than willing to play by her rules, for there is no question that you are ready, that you have been sporting an erection from the instant you saw her take off the robe, and therefore, as she eases herself onto her back, you happily climb on top of her and let her guide your penis to the place where it has longed to be for so many years. Good, everything is good, it feels as good as you always imagined it would, no, even better, much better, and all is good for the first little while, when it seems only a matter of seconds before you will finish the job, but then you become aware of Kay and your friend talking and laughing in the kitchen, which is no more than ten or twelve feet from the bed, and once you become aware of them, you start to feel distracted, and as soon as your mind begins to wander from the task at hand, you can feel how bored the girl is, how tiresome this whole business is for her, and even though you are lying on top of her, she is nowhere near you, she is in another city, another country, and then, losing patience, she asks you if you can finish, and you say yes, of course, and twenty seconds later she asks you again and you say yes, of course, but the next time she speaks to you, she says: “Come on out and let me jerk you off. You young kids. You jerk off all the time, but when it comes to the real thing, you don’t have a clue.” And so you let her jerk you off, which is precisely what you have been doing to yourself for the past three years—with one small difference: better her hand than yours.
You never went back. For the next year and a half, you continued to wrangle with sweaters, blouses, and bras, went on kissing and stroking and struggling against the embarrassment of unseemly ejaculations, and then, at eighteen, you connived to skip out on the last two months of high school, first by coming down with a case of mononucleosis that kept you weak and bedridden for most of May, and then by heading to Europe on a student ship three weeks before your class graduated. You were allowed to do this by the school authorities because your grades were good and you had already been admitted to college for the fall, so off you went, with the understanding that you would return at the beginning of September to take your final exams and officially earn your diploma. Airplanes were an expensive way to travel in 1965, but student ships were not, and since you were operating on a tight budget (money earned from summer jobs over the past two years), you opted for the S.S. Aurelia and a slow, nine-day crossing from New York to Le Havre. Approximately three hundred students were on board, most of whom had already finished one or two years of college, meaning that most were a bit older than you, and with little or nothing to do as you and your fellow passengers inched your way across the Atlantic, filling the time with sleep, food, books, and films, it was only natural, altogether inevitable it seems to you now, that the thoughts of three hundred young people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one should have been largely preoccupied with sex. Boredom and proximity, the languors of a fair-weather ocean voyage, the knowledge that the ship was a world unto itself and nothing that happened there could have any enduring consequences—all these elements combined to create an atmosphere of unguarded sensual ease. The dalliances began before the sun set on the first day, and they continued until the ship touched land two hundred hours later. It was a floating palace of fornication out there on the high seas, with couples slinking in and out of darkened cabins, boys and girls changing partners from one day to the next, and twice during the crossing you found yourself in bed with someone, each time with a sympathetic and intelligent girl, not unlike the good girls you had grown up with in New Jersey, but these girls were from New York, and therefore more sophisticated, more experienced than the hand-swatting virgins from your hometown, and because there was a strong attraction on both sides, in the first instance between you and Renée, in the second instance between you and Janet, there was no compunction about shedding clothes, about crawling between the sheets and making love in a way that had not been possible in that sad flat on the Upper West Side, with kissing and touching and genuine feeling now part of the adventure, and this was the real breakthrough, your initiation into the pleasure of two partners participating equally in the pleasures of prolonged intimacy. There was still much to learn, of course. You were no more than a beginner at that point, but at least you were on your way, at least you had discovered how much there was to look forward to.
Later on, when you were living in Paris in the early seventies, there were long stretches when you were alone, sleeping night after night with no body next to yours in the narrow bed of your small maid’s room, and there were times when you became half-mad in your womanless solitude, not just from lack of sexual release but from lack of any physical contact, and because there was no one to turn to, no woman you could count on for the companionship you craved, you would sometimes go out and find yourself a prostitute, perhaps five or six times in the several years you lived there, wandering down the side streets of the now demolished neighborhood of Les Halles, which was just around the corner from your room, or else, venturing a bit farther, walk to the rue Saint-Denis and its adjacent alleys, passageways, and cobbled lanes, the sidewalks crowded with women lined up against the walls of buildings and the hôtels de passe, an array of feminine possibilities that ran the gamut from good-looking girls in their early twenties to harshly made-up street veterans in their mid-fifties, hookers representing every imaginable body type, every race and color, from rotund Frenchwomen to willowy Africans to voluptuous Italians and Israelis, some provocatively dressed in miniskirts with breasts spilling out of low-cut bras and flimsy blouses, others in blue jeans and modest sweaters, not unlike the girls you had gone to school with in your hometown, but all of them in high heels or boots, black or white leather boots, and around the neck an occasional boa or silk scarf, or an occasional S&M girl decked out in flamboyant leather garb, or an occasional pretend schoolgirl in a plaid skirt and prim white blouse, something to accommodate every desire and predilection, and walking down the middle of the carless streets, the men, an endless procession of silent men, examining the possibilities on the sidewalks with furtive glances or bold stares, all kinds of women prepared to hire themselves out to all kinds of men, from lonely Arabs to middle-aged johns in suits, the throngs of womanless immigrants and frustrated students and bored husbands, and once you joined those processions, you suddenly felt that you were no longer part of the waking world, that you had slipped into an erotic dream that was at once thrilling and destabilizing, for the thought that you could go to bed with any one of those women merely by offering her a hundred francs (twenty dollars) made you dizzy, physically dizzy, and as you prowled the narrow streets looking for a companion to satisfy the need that had driven you out of your room into this labyrinth of flesh, you found yourself looking at faces rather than bodies, or faces first and bodies second, searching for a pretty face, the face of a human being whose eyes had not gone dead, someone whose spirit had not yet entirely drowned in the anonymity and artificiality of whoredom, and strangely enough, on your five or six excursions into the thoroughly legal, government-sanctioned red-light districts of Paris, you generally managed to find one. No bad experiences, then, no encounter that filled you with regret or remorse, and when you look back on it now, you suppose you were well treated because you were not an aging man with a protruding belly or a foul-smelling laborer with dirt under his fingernails but an unaggressive, not unpresentable young man of twenty-four or twenty-five who made no idiosyncratic or uncomfortable demands on the women he went upstairs with, who was simply grateful not to be alone in his own bed. On the other hand, it would be wrong to classify any of these experiences as memorable. Brisk and forthright, goodwilled but altogether businesslike in execution, a service competently rendered for an allotted fee, but since you were no longer the bumbling sixteen-year-old neophyte of yore, that was all you ever expected. Still, there was one time when something unusual occurred, when a spark of reciprocity was ignited between you and your provisional consort, which happened to be the last time you ever paid a woman to sleep with you, the summer of 1972, when you were earning some much needed cash with a job as switchboard operator at the local bureau of the New York Times, the graveyard shift, roughly six P.M. to one A.M., you no longer remember the exact hours, but you would arrive when the office was emptying out for the day and sit there alone at a desk, the only person on the darkened floor of a building on the Right Bank, waiting for the telephone to ring, which it seldom did, and using the unbroken silence of those hours to read books and work on your poems. One weekday night when your shift was done, you left the office and stepped outside into the summer air, the warm embrace of the summer air, and because the Métro was no longer running, you started walking home, strolling south in the soft summer air, not at all tired as you ambled through the empty streets on the way back to your small, empty room. Before long you were on the rue Saint-Denis, where a number of girls were still working in spite of the late hour, and then you turned down a nearby side street, the one where the prettiest girls tended to congregate, understanding that you had no desire to go home just yet, that you had been alone for too long and dreaded going back to your empty room, and midway down the block someone caught your attention, a tall brunette with a lovely face and an equally lovely figure, and when she smiled at you and asked if you wanted company (Je t’accompagne?), you didn’t think twice about accepting her offer. She smiled again, pleased by the quickness of the transaction, and as you continued to look at her face, you understood that she would have been a heart-stopping beauty if her eyes had not been too close together, if she had not been ever so slightly cross-eyed, but that was of no importance to you, she was still the most appealing woman who had ever walked this street, and you were disarmed by her smile, which was a magnificent smile in your opinion, and it occurred to you that if everyone in the world could smile as she did, there would be no more wars or human conflicts, that peace and happiness would reign on earth forever. Her name was Sandra, a French girl in her mid-twenties, and as you followed her up the winding staircase to the third floor of the hotel, she announced that you were her last customer of the night, and consequently there would be no need to rush, you could take as much time as you liked. This was unprecedented, a violation of all professional standards and protocols, but it was already clear to you that Sandra was different from the other girls who worked that street, that she lacked the hardness and coldness that necessarily seemed to go with the job. Then you were in the room with her, and everything continued to be different from all your previous experiences in this part of the city. She was relaxed, in a warm and expansive mood, and even when you both took off your clothes, even when you discovered how uncommonly beautiful her body was (majestic was the word that came to you, in the same way that the bodies of certain dancers can be called majestic), she was talkative and playful, in no hurry to get down to business, not at all put out by your desire to touch her and kiss her, and as she lolled on the bed with you, she began demonstrating the various lovemaking positions she and her friends used with their clients, the Kama Sutra of the rue Saint-Denis, twisting around and over and in on top of herself as she helped you contort your body into matching configurations, laughing softly at the absurdity of it all as she told you the name of each position. Unfortunately, you can remember only one of them now, which was probably the dullest one, but also the funniest because it was so dull: le paresseux, the lazy man, which was simply a matter of stretching out on your side and copulating with your partner face to face. You had never met a woman who was so at home in her body, so serene in the way she carried her naked self, and eventually, even though you wanted these demonstrations to go on until morning, you became too aroused to hold back any longer. You assumed that would be the end of it, jouissance had always been the end of it in the past, but even after you were finished, Sandra did not press you to leave, she wanted to lie on the bed with you and talk, and so you stayed with her for close to an hour more, happily encircled in her arms as your head rested on her shoulder, discussing things that have long since vanished from your mind, and when she finally asked what you did with yourself and you said that you wrote poems, you were expecting her to shrug with indifference or make some noncommittal remark, but no, no yet again, for once you started talking about poetry, Sandra closed her eyes and began to recite Baudelaire, long passages delivered with intense feeling and perfectly accurate recall, and you could only hope that Baudelaire had sat up in his grave and was listening.
Mère des souvenirs, maîtresse des maîtresses,
O toi, tous mes plaisirs! ô toi, tous mes devoirs!
Tu te rappelleras la beauté des caresses,
La douceur du foyer et le charme des soirs,
Mère des souvenirs, maîtresse des maîtresses!
It was one of the most extraordinary moments of your life, one of the happiest moments of your life, and even after you were back in New York and the next chapter of your story was being written, you kept thinking about Sandra and the hours you had spent with her that night, wondering if you shouldn’t jump on a plane, rush back to Paris, and ask her to marry you.
Always lost, always striking out in the wrong direction, always going around in circles. You have suffered from a lifelong inability to orient yourself in space, and even in New York, the easiest of cities to negotiate, the city where you have spent the better part of your adulthood, you often run into trouble. Whenever you take the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan (assuming you have boarded the correct train and are not traveling deeper into Brooklyn), you make a special point to stop for a moment to get your bearings once you have climbed the stairs to the street, and still you will head north instead of south, go east instead of west, and even when you try to outsmart yourself, knowing that your handicap will set you going the wrong way and therefore, to rectify the error, you do the opposite of what you were intending to do, go left instead of right, go right instead of left, and still you find yourself moving in the wrong direction, no matter how many adjustments you have made. Forget tramping alone in the woods. You are hopelessly lost within minutes, and even indoors, whenever you find yourself in an unfamiliar building, you will walk down the wrong corridor or take the wrong elevator, not to speak of smaller enclosed spaces such as restaurants, for whenever you go to the men’s room in a restaurant that has more than one dining area, you will inevitably make a wrong turn on your way back and wind up spending several minutes searching for your table. Most other people, your wife included, with her unerring inner compass, seem able to get around without difficulty. They know where they are, where they have been, and where they are going, but you know nothing, you are forever lost in the moment, in the void of each successive moment that engulfs you, with no idea where true north is, since the four cardinal points do not exist for you, have never existed for you. A minor infirmity until now, with no dramatic consequences to speak of, but that doesn’t mean a day won’t come when you accidentally walk off the edge of a cliff.
Your body in small rooms and large rooms, your body walking up and down stairs, your body swimming in ponds, lakes, rivers, and oceans, your body traipsing across muddy fields, your body lying in the tall grass of empty meadows, your body walking along city streets, your body laboring up hills and mountains, your body sitting down in chairs, lying down on beds, stretching out on beaches, cycling down country roads, walking through forests, pastures, and deserts, running on cinder tracks, jumping up and down on hardwood floors, standing in showers, stepping into warm baths, sitting on toilets, waiting in airports and train stations, riding up and down in elevators, squirming in the seats of cars and buses, walking through rainstorms without an umbrella, sitting in classrooms, browsing in bookstores and record shops (R.I.P.), sitting in auditoriums, movie theaters, and concert halls, dancing with girls in school gymnasiums, paddling canoes in rivers, rowing boats across lakes, eating at kitchen tables, eating at dining room tables, eating in restaurants, shopping in department stores, appliance stores, furniture stores, shoe stores, hardware stores, grocery stores, and clothing stores, standing in line for passports and driver’s licenses, leaning back in chairs with your legs propped up on desks and tables as you write in notebooks, hunching over typewriters, walking through snowstorms without a hat, entering synagogues and churches, dressing and undressing in bedrooms, hotel rooms, and locker rooms, standing on escalators, lying in hospital beds, sitting on doctors’ examination tables, sitting in barbers’ chairs and dentists’ chairs, doing somersaults on the grass, standing on your head on the grass, jumping into swimming pools, walking slowly through museums, dribbling basketballs in playgrounds, throwing baseballs and footballs in public parks, feeling the different sensations of walking on wooden floors, cement floors, tile floors, and stone floors, the different sensations of putting your feet on sand, dirt, and grass, but most of all the sensation of sidewalks, for that is how you see yourself whenever you stop to think about who you are: a man who walks, a man who has spent his life walking through the streets of cities.
Enclosures, habitations, the small rooms and large rooms that have sheltered your body from the open air. Beginning with your birth at Beth Israel Hospital in Newark, New Jersey (February 3, 1947) and traveling onward to the present (this cold January morning in 2011), these are the places where you have parked your body over the years—the places, for better or worse, that you have called home.
1. 75 South Harrison Street; East Orange, New Jersey. An apartment in a tallish brick building. Age 0 to 11/2. No memories, but according to the stories you heard later in your childhood, your father managed to secure a lease by giving the landlady a television set—a bribe made necessary by the housing shortage that hit the country after the end of World War II. Since your father owned a small appliance store at the time, the apartment you lived in with your parents was equipped with a television as well, which made you one of the first Americans, one of the first people anywhere in the world, to grow up with a television set from birth.
2. 1500 Village Road; Union, New Jersey. A garden apartment in a complex of low brick buildings called Stuyvesant Village. Geometrically aligned sidewalks with large swaths of neatly tended grass. Large is surely a relative term, however, given how small you were at the time. Age 11/2 to 5. No memories, then some memories, then memories in abundance. The dark green walls and venetian blinds in the living room. Digging for worms with a trowel. An illustrated book about a circus dog named Peewee, a toy dalmatian who miraculously grows to normal size. Arranging your fleet of miniature cars and trucks. Baths in the kitchen sink. A mechanical horse named Whitey. A scalding cup of hot cocoa that spilled on you and left a permanent scar in the crook of your elbow.
3. 253 Irving Avenue; South Orange, New Jersey. A two-story white clapboard house built in the 1920s, with a yellow front door, a gravel driveway, and a large backyard. Age 5 to 12. The site of nearly all your childhood memories. You began living there so long ago, the milk was delivered by a horse-drawn wagon for the first year or two after you moved in.
4. 406 Harding Drive; South Orange, New Jersey. A larger house than the previous one, built in the Tudor style, awkwardly perched on a hilly corner with the tiniest of backyards and a gloomy interior. Age 13 to 17. The house in which you suffered through your adolescent torments, wrote your first poems and stories, and your parents’ marriage dissolved. Your father went on living there (alone) until the day he died.
5. 25 Van Velsor Place; Newark, New Jersey. A two-bedroom apartment not far from Weequahic High School and the hospital where you were born, rented by your mother after she and your father separated and then divorced. Age 17 to 18. Bedrooms for your mother and little sister, but you slept on a fold-out couch in a minuscule den, not at all unhappy with the new arrangement, however, since you were glad your parents’ painfully unsuccessful marriage was over, relieved that you were no longer living in the suburbs. You owned a car then, a secondhand Chevy Corvair bought for six hundred dollars (the same defective automobile that launched Ralph Nader’s career—although you never had any serious trouble with yours), and every morning you would drive to your high school in not-too-distant Maplewood and go through the motions of being a high school student, but you were free now, unsupervised by adults, coming and going as you wished, getting ready to fly away.
6. Suite 814A, Carman Hall; Columbia University dormitory. Two rooms per suite, two occupants per room. Cinder-block walls, linoleum floors, two beds placed end to end under the window, two desks, a built-in cupboard for storing clothes, and a common bathroom shared with the occupants of 814B. Age 18 to 19. Carman Hall was the first new dorm built on the Columbia campus in more than half a century. An austere environment, ugly and charmless, but nevertheless far better than the dungeonlike rooms to be found in the older dorms (Furnald, Hartley), where you sometimes visited your friends and were appalled by the stench of dirty socks, the cramped double-decker beds, the unending darkness. You were in Carman Hall during the New York City blackout of 1965 (candles everywhere, a mood of anarchic celebration), but what you remember best about your room are the hundreds of books you read there and the girls who occasionally wound up with you in your bed. The parietal rules of the all-male undergraduate college had been changed by the university administration just in time for the beginning of your freshman year, and females were now allowed into the rooms—with the door closed. For some time before that they had been allowed in if the door stayed open, followed by an interim period of a couple of years when the door could be left ajar by the width of a book, but then some brilliant boy with the mind of a Talmudic scholar challenged the authorities by using a matchbook, and that was the end of open doors. Your roommate was a childhood friend. He began dabbling in drugs midway through the first semester, became increasingly involved as the year wore on, and nothing you said to him ever made the smallest difference. You stood by helplessly and watched him disintegrate. By the next fall, he had dropped out of school—never to return. That was why you refused to dabble in drugs yourself, even as the Dionysian sixties roared around you. Alcohol yes, tobacco yes, but no drugs. By the time you graduated in 1969, two of your other boyhood friends were dead from overdoses.
7. 311 West 107th Street; Manhattan. A two-room apartment on the third floor of a four-story walkup between Broadway and Riverside Drive. Age 19 to 20. Your first apartment, which you shared with fellow sophomore Peter Schubert, your closest friend during your early days as an undergraduate. A derelict, ill-designed shit hole, with nothing in its favor but the low rent and the fact that there were two entrance doors. The first opened onto the larger room, which served as your bedroom and workroom, as well as the kitchen, dining room, and living room. The second opened onto a narrow hallway that ran parallel to the first room and led to a small cell in the back, which served as Peter’s bedroom. The two of you were lamentable housekeepers, the place was filthy, the kitchen sink clogged again and again, the appliances were older than you were and hardly functioned, dust mice grew fat on the threadbare carpet, and little by little the two of you turned the hovel you had rented into a malodorous slum. Because it was too depressing to eat there, and because neither one of you knew how to cook, you tended to go out to cheap restaurants together for your meals, either Tom’s or the College Inn for breakfast, gradually preferring the latter because of its excellent jukebox (Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf), and night after night dinner at the Green Tree, a Hungarian restaurant on the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and West 111th Street, where you subsisted on goulash, overcooked green beans, and savory palacinka for dessert. For some reason, your memories of what happened in that apartment are dim, dimmer than those of the other places you inhabited before and after. It was a time of bad dreams—many bad dreams—that you remember well (the Montaigne seminar with Donald Frame and the Milton course with Edward Tayler are still vivid) but all in all what comes back to you now is a feeling of discontent, an urgent desire to be somewhere else. The war in Vietnam was growing, America had split in half, and the air around you was heavy, barely breathable, suffocating. You signed up with Schubert for the Junior Year Abroad Program in Paris, left New York in July, quarreled with the director in August and quit the program, stayed on until early November as a non-student, an ex-student, living in a small, bare-bones hotel (no telephone, no private bathroom), where you felt yourself beginning to breathe again, but then you were talked into going back to Columbia, a sensible move given the draft and your opposition to the war, but the time off had helped you, and when you reluctantly returned to New York, the bad dreams had stopped.
8. 601 West 115th Street; Manhattan. Another oddly shaped two-room apartment just off Broadway, but in a far more solid building than the last one, with the further advantage of having a true kitchen, which stood between the larger room and the smaller room and was big enough (barely) to squeeze in a runty, drop-leaf table. Age 20 to 22. Your first solo apartment, continuously dark because of its location on the second floor, but otherwise adequate, comfortable, sufficient to your needs of the moment. You spent your junior and senior years there, which were the wild years at Columbia, the years of demonstrations and sit-ins, of student strikes and police raids, of campus riots, expulsions, and paddy wagons carting off hundreds to jail. You diligently slogged through your course work, contributed film and book reviews to the student paper, wrote poems and translated poems, completed several chapters of a novel you eventually abandoned, but in 1968 you also participated in the weeklong sit-ins that led to your being thrown into a paddy wagon and driven downtown to a holding cell in the Tombs. As mentioned before, you had long since given up fighting, and you weren’t about to tangle with the police when they smashed in the door of the room in Mathematics Hall where you and several other students were waiting to be arrested, but neither were you going to cooperate and walk out of there on your own two feet. You let your body grow limp—the classic strategy of passive resistance developed in the South during the civil rights movement—thinking the cops would carry you out of there without any fuss, but the members of the Tactical Patrol Force were angry that night, the campus they had invaded was turning into a bloody battleground, and they had no interest in your nonviolent, highly principled approach to the matter. They kicked you and pulled you by the hair, and when you still refused to climb to your feet, one of them stomped on your hand with the heel of his boot—a direct hit, which left your knuckles swollen and throbbing for days afterward. In the next morning’s edition of the Daily News, there was a photograph of you being dragged off to the paddy wagon. The caption read Stubborn Boy, and no doubt that was exactly what you were at that moment of your life: a stubborn, uncooperative boy.
9. 262 West 107th Street; Manhattan. Yet another two-room apartment with a sit-down kitchen, but not oddly shaped as the others had been, a large room and a somewhat smaller room, but the small room was nevertheless ample, nothing like the coffin-sized spaces of the previous two. The top floor of a nine-story building between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, which meant more light than in any of the other New York apartments, but a shoddier building than the last one, with sluggish, haphazard maintenance by the cheerful super, a stout, barrel-chested man named Arthur. Age 22 to a couple of weeks past your 24th birthday, a year and a half in all. You lived there with your girlfriend, the first time either one of you had attempted cohabitation with a member of the opposite sex. The first year, your girlfriend was finishing her B.A. at Barnard and you were a graduate student in the Columbia doctoral program in comparative literature, but you were only biding your time, you knew from the start that you would last no longer than one year, but the university had given you a fellowship and a stipend, so you worked on your M.A. thesis, which turned into a sixty-page essay called “The Art of Hunger” (which examined works by Hamsun, Kafka, Céline, and Beckett), consulted from time to time with your thesis advisor, Edward Said, attended a number of mandatory seminars, skipped your lecture classes, and went on writing your own fiction and poetry, some of which was beginning to be published in little magazines. When the year was over, you dropped out of the program as planned, quit student life forever, and went off to work on an Esso oil tanker that shuttled among various refineries in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic coast—a job with decent pay, which you were hoping would finance a temporary move to Paris. Your girlfriend found someone to share the expense of the apartment with her during the months you were gone: a quick-tongued, sharp-witted young white woman who earned her living pretending to be a black D.J. for an all-black radio station—with great success, apparently, which you found deeply amusing, but how not to see it as one more symptom of the times, another example of the nuthouse logic that had taken over American reality? As for you and your girlfriend, the experiment in conjugal living had been something of a disappointment, and after you returned from your stint in the merchant marine and started preparing for the trip to Paris, you both decided that the romance had played itself out and that you would make the trip alone. One night about two weeks before your scheduled departure, your stomach rebelled against you, and the pains that shot into your gut were so severe, so agonizing in their assault, so unrelenting as you lay doubled up on the bed, you felt as if you had eaten a pot of barbed wire for dinner. The only plausible explanation was a ruptured appendix, which you figured would have to be operated on immediately. It was two o’clock in the morning. You staggered off to the emergency room at St. Luke’s Hospital, waited in utmost misery for an hour or two, and then, when a doctor finally examined you, he confidently asserted that there was nothing wrong with your appendix. You were suffering from a bad attack of gastritis. Take these pills, he said, avoid hot and spicy foods, and little by little you’ll begin to feel better. Both his diagnosis and his prediction were correct, and it was only later, many years later, that you understood what had happened to you. You were afraid—but afraid without knowing you were afraid. The prospect of uprooting yourself had thrown you into a state of extreme but utterly suppressed anxiety; the thought of breaking up with your girlfriend was no doubt far more upsetting than you had imagined it would be. You wanted to go to Paris alone, but a part of you was terrified by such a drastic change, and so your stomach went haywire and began to rip you in two. This has been the story of your life. Whenever you come to a fork in the road, your body breaks down, for your body has always known what your mind doesn’t know, and however it chooses to break down, whether with mononucleosis or gastritis or panic attacks, your body has always borne the brunt of your fears and inner battles, taking the blows your mind cannot or will not stand up to.
10. 3, rue Jacques Mawas; 15th Arrondissement, Paris. Still another two-room apartment with a sit-down kitchen, on the third floor of a six-story building. Age 24. Not long after you arrived in Paris (February 24, 1971), you began having second thoughts about the breakup with your girlfriend. You wrote her a letter, asking if she had the courage to try to make another go of it, and when she said yes, your good-and-bad, off-and-on, up-and-down relations with her continued. She would be joining you in Paris in early April, and in the meantime you went out to look for a furnished apartment (the ship had paid well, but not well enough to allow you to buy furniture), and you soon found the place on the rue Jacques Mawas, which was clean, filled with light, not too expensive, and equipped with a piano. Since your girlfriend was an excellent and devoted pianist (Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven), you took the apartment on the spot, knowing how pleased she would be by this lucky turn. Not just Paris, but Paris with a piano. You moved in, and once you had taken care of the household fundamentals (bedding, pots and pans, dishes, towels, silverware), you arranged for someone to come and tune the out-of-tune piano, which had not been played in years. A blind man showed up the next day (you have rarely met a piano tuner who is not blind), a corpulent person of around fifty with a dough-white face and eyes rolling upward in their sockets. A strange presence, you found, but not just because of the eyes. It was the skin, the blanched, puffball skin, which looked spongy and malleable, as if he lived underground somewhere and never let the light touch his face. With him was a young man of eighteen or twenty, who held on to his arm as he guided the tuner through the front door and on toward the instrument in the back room. The young man never said a word during the visit, so you failed to learn if he was a son, a nephew, a cousin, or a hired companion, but the tuner was a talkative fellow, and after he had completed his work, he paused for a while to chat with you. “This street,” he said, “rue Jacques Mawas in the fifteenth arrondissement. It’s a very small street, isn’t it? Just a few buildings, if I’m not mistaken.” You told him he wasn’t mistaken, it was indeed a very small street. “It’s funny,” he continued, “but it turns out that I lived here during the war. It was a good place to find apartments back then.” You asked him why. “Because,” he said, “many Israelites used to live in this neighborhood, but then the war started and they went away.” At first, you couldn’t register what he was trying to tell you—or didn’t want to believe what he was telling you. The word Israelite might have knocked you off balance a little, but your French was good enough for you to know that it was not an uncommon synonym for the word juif (Jew), at least for people of the war generation, although in your experience it had always carried a pejorative edge to it, not an outright declaration of anti-Semitism so much as a way of distancing the Jews from the French, of turning them into something foreign and exotic, that curious, ancient people from the desert with their funny customs and vengeful, primitive God. That was bad enough, but the next part of the sentence reeked of such ignorance, or such willful denial, that you weren’t sure if you were talking to the world’s biggest simpleton or a former Vichy collaborator. They went away. No doubt on a deluxe world cruise, an uninterrupted five-year holiday spent basking in the Mediterranean sun, playing tennis in the Florida Keys, and dancing on the beaches of Australia. You wanted the blind man gone, to remove him from your sight as quickly as possible, but as you were handing him his money, you couldn’t resist asking one last question. “Oh,” you said, “and where did they go when they went away?” The piano tuner paused, as if searching for an answer, and when no answer came, he grinned at you apologetically. “I have no idea,” he said, “but most of them didn’t come back.” That was the first of several lessons that were hammered home to you in that building about the ways of the French—the next one being the War of the Pipes, which began a couple of weeks later. The plumbing equipment in your apartment was not new, and the chain-pull toilet with the overhead water tank was not in proper working order. Each time you flushed, the water would run for a considerable length of time and make a considerable amount of noise. You paid no attention to it, the running toilet was no more than a minor inconvenience to you, but it seemed that it created a great turbulence in the apartment below yours, the thunderous sound of a bath being drawn at full throttle. You were unaware of this until a letter was slipped under your door one day. It was from your downstairs neighbor, a certain Madame Rubinstein (how shocked the piano tuner would have been to learn that his wartime address still harbored some undead Israelites), an indignant letter complaining about the unbearable ruckus of midnight baths, informing you that she had written to the landlord in Arras about your carryings-on, and if he didn’t begin eviction procedures against you at once, she would take the matter to the police. You were astonished by the violence of her tone, dumbfounded that she had not bothered to knock on your door and talk about the problem with you face to face (which was the standard method of resolving differences between tenants in New York apartment buildings) but instead had gone behind your back and contacted the authorities. This was the French way, as opposed to the American way—a boundless faith in the hierarchies of power, an unquestioning belief in the channels of bureaucracy to right wrongs and rectify the smallest injustices. You had never met this woman, had no idea what she looked like, and here she was attacking you with savage insults, declaring war over an issue that until then had escaped your notice. To avoid what you assumed would be immediate eviction, you wrote to the landlord, explained your side of the story, promised to have the malfunctioning toilet fixed, and received a jovial, thoroughly heartening letter in response: Youth must have its day, live and let live, no worries, but just go easy on the hydrotherapy, all right? (The nasty French as opposed to the good-natured French: in the three and a half years you lived among them, you met some of the coldest, meanest characters on the face of the earth, but also some of the warmest, most generous men and women you have ever known.) Peace reigned for a while. You still had not seen Madame Rubinstein, but the complaints from downstairs had stopped. Then your girlfriend arrived from New York and the silent apartment began to fill with the sounds of her piano playing, and because you loved music above all other things, it was inconceivable to you that anyone could object to the keyboard masterworks emanating from the third floor. One Sunday afternoon, however, an especially beautiful Sunday afternoon in late spring, as you sat on the couch listening to your girlfriend play Schubert’s Moments Musicaux, a chorus of shrieking, irritated voices suddenly erupted downstairs. The Rubinsteins were entertaining guests, and what the angry voices were saying was: “Impossible! Enough! The last straw!” Then someone began whacking a broomstick on the ceiling directly below the piano, and a woman’s voice cried out: “Stop! Stop that infernal racket now!” It was the last straw for you as well, and with the voice still screaming from the second floor, you burst out of your apartment, ran down the stairs, and knocked—knocked hard—on the Rubinsteins’ door. It opened within three seconds (no doubt they heard you coming), and there you were, standing face to face with the formerly invisible Madame Rubinstein, who turned out to be an attractive woman in her mid-forties (why does one always want to suppose that unpleasant people are ugly?), and with no preamble of any kind, the two of you immediately launched into a full-bore shouting match. You were not someone who was easily agitated, you had little trouble keeping your temper under control, you would generally do anything possible to avoid an argument, but on that particular day you were beside yourself with anger, and because your anger seemed to lift your French to new levels of speed and precision, the two of you went at it as equals in the art of verbal combat. Your position: We have every right to play the piano on a Sunday afternoon, on any afternoon for that matter, at any time of any day of any week or month as long as the hour is not too early or too late. Her position: This is a respectable bourgeois house; if you want to play the piano, rent a studio; this is a good bourgeois house, and that means we follow the rules and behave in a civilized manner; loud noises are forbidden; when a police detective was living in your apartment last year, we had him thrown out of the building because he kept such irregular hours; this is a decent bourgeois house; we have a piano in our apartment, but do we ever play it? No, of course not. Her arguments struck you as lame, cliché-ridden tautologies, comic assertions worthy of Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain, but she delivered them with such fury and venomous conviction that you were in no mood to laugh. The conversation was going nowhere, neither one of you would budge, you were building a wall of permanent animosity between you, and when you imagined how bitter the future would be if you kept on going at each other in this way, you decided the moment had come to pull out your trump card, to turn the dispute around and steer it in an entirely different direction. How sad it is, you said, how terribly sad and pathetic that two Jews should be fighting like this; think of all the suffering and death, Madame Rubinstein, all the horrors our people have been subjected to, and here we are shouting at each other over nothing; we should be ashamed of ourselves. The ploy worked just as you had hoped it would. Something about the way you said what you had said got through to her, and the battle was suddenly over. From that day forward, Madame Rubinstein ceased to be an antagonist. Whenever you saw her in the street or in the entranceway of the building, she would smile and address you with the formal propriety such encounters called for: Bonjour, monsieur, to which you would respond, politely smiling back at her, Bonjour, madame. Such was life in France. People pushed by force of habit, pushed for the pure pleasure of pushing, and they would go on pushing until you showed them you were willing to push back, at which point you would earn their respect. Add in the contingent fact that you and Madame Rubinstein were fellow Jews, and there was no reason to fight anymore, no matter how often your girlfriend played the piano. It sickened you that you had allowed yourself to resort to such an underhanded tactic, but the trump card had done its job, and it bought you peace for the rest of the time you lived on the rue Jacques Mawas.
11. 2, rue du Louvre; 1st Arrondissement, Paris. A maid’s room (chambre de bonne) on the top floor of a six-story building facing the Seine. Age 25. Your room was in the back, and what you saw when you looked out the window was a gargoyle thrusting from the bell tower of the church next door—SaintGermain l’Auxerrois, the same church whose bells tolled without interruption on August 24, 1572, ringing out the news of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre. When you looked to your left, you saw the Louvre. When you looked to your right, you saw Les Halles, and far off, at the northern edge of Paris, the white dome of Montmartre. This was the smallest space you have ever inhabited, a room so small that only the barest essentials could fit in there: a narrow bed, a diminutive desk and straight-backed chair, a sink, and another straight-backed chair beside the bed, where you kept your one-burner electric hot plate and the single pot you owned, which you used for heating water to make instant coffee and boiled eggs. Toilet down the hall; no shower or bath. You lived there because you were low on money and the room had been given to you for free. The agents of this extraordinary act of generosity were your friends Jacques and Christine Dupin (the very best and kindest of friends—may their names be hallowed forever), who lived downstairs in a large apartment on the second floor, and because this was a Haussmann-era building, their apartment came with an extra room for a maid on the top floor. You lived alone. Once again, you and your girlfriend had failed to make a go of it, and once again you had split up. She was living in the west of Ireland by then, sharing a turf-heated cottage with a high school friend a few miles outside of Sligo, and although you went to Ireland at one point to try to win her back, your gallant gesture went for naught, since her heart had become entangled with that of a young Irishman, and you had walked in at an early juncture of their affair (which eventually came to naught as well), meaning that you had mistimed your trip, and you left the green, windy hills of Sligo wondering if you would ever see her again. You returned to your room, to the loneliness of your room, that smallest of small rooms that sometimes drove you out in search of prostitutes, but it would be wrong to say you were unhappy there, for you had no trouble adjusting to your reduced circumstances, you found it invigorating to learn that you could get by on almost nothing, and as long as you were able to write, it made no difference where or how you lived. Day after day throughout the months you were there, construction crews worked directly across from your building, digging an underground parking garage four or five levels deep. At night, whenever you went to your window and looked down at the excavated earth, at the vast hole spreading in the ground below you, you would see rats, hundreds of wet, gleaming rats running through the mud.
12. 29, rue Descartes; 5th Arrondissement, Paris. Another two-room apartment with a sit-down kitchen, on the fourth floor of a six-story building. Age 26. A number of well-paying freelance jobs had lifted you out of penury, and your finances were now robust enough for you to sign a lease on another apartment. Your girlfriend had returned from Sligo, the Irishman was no longer in the picture, and once again the two of you decided to join forces and take another stab at living together. This time, things went fairly smoothly, not without some bumps along the way, perhaps, but less jolting ones than previously, and neither one of you threatened to walk out on the other. The apartment at 29, rue Descartes was surely the most pleasant space you occupied in Paris. Even the concierge was pleasant (a pretty young woman with short blonde hair who was married to a cop, always smiling, always with a friendly word, unlike the snooping, ill-tempered crones who traditionally managed Paris apartment buildings), and you were glad to be living in this part of town, the middle of the old Latin Quarter, just up the hill from the place de la Contrescarpe, with its cafés, restaurants, and vivid, boisterous, theatrical open-air market. But the good freelance jobs of the past year were drying up, and once again your resources were dwindling. You figured you would be able to hang on until the end of the summer, and then you would have to pack it in and return to New York. At the last minute, however, your stay in France was unexpectedly prolonged.
13. Saint Martin; Moissac-Bellevue, Var. A farmhouse in southeastern Provence. Two stories, immensely thick stone walls, red-tile roof, dark green shutters and doors, several acres of surrounding fields flanked by a national forest on one side and a dirt road on the other: the middle of nowhere. One of the stones above the front door was engraved with the words L’An VI—year six—which you took to mean the sixth year of the revolution, suggesting that the house was built in 1794 or 1795. Age 26 to 27. You and your girlfriend spent nine months as caretakers of that remote southern property, living there from early September 1973 to the end of May 1974, and although you have already written about some of the things that happened to you in that house (The Red Notebook, Story No. 2), there was much that you did not talk about in those five pages. When you think about the time you spent in that part of the world now, what comes back to you first is the air, the scents of thyme and lavender that rose up around you whenever you walked through the fields that bordered the house, the redolent air, the muscular air when the wind was blowing, the languorous air when the sun lowered itself into the valley and lizards and salamanders crawled out from crevices in the stones to drowse in the heat, and then the dryness and roughness of the country, the gray, molten rocks, the chalky white soil, the red earth along certain paths and stretches of road, the scarab beetles in the forest pushing their mountainous spheres of dung, the magpies swooping over the fields and neighboring vineyards, the flocks of sheep that passed through the meadow just beyond the house, the sudden apparitions of sheep, hundreds of sheep bunched together and moving forward with the clattering sounds of their bells, the violence of the mistrals, the windstorms that would last for seventy-two unbroken hours, shaking every window, every shutter, every door and loosened tile of the house, the yellow broom that covered the hillsides in spring, the flowering almond tress, the rosemary bushes, the scrubby, stunted live oaks with gnarled trunks and shimmering leaves, the frigid winter that forced you to close off the second floor of the house and live in the three downstairs rooms, warmed by an electric heater in one and a wood fire in another, the ruins of the chapel on a nearby cliff where the Knights Templar used to stop on their way to fight in the Crusades, the static coming through your enfeebled transistor radio in the middle of the night for two weeks running as you strained to listen to the U.S. Armed Forces broadcasts from Frankfurt of the Mets versus Cincinnati in the National League play-offs, the Mets versus Oakland in the World Series, and then the hailstorm you were thinking about the other day, the icy stones hammering against the terra-cotta roof and melting on the grass around the house, not as large as baseballs, perhaps, but golf balls for nine-foot men, followed by the one time it snowed and everything briefly turned white, and your nearest neighbor, a bachelor tenant farmer living alone with his truffle dog in a crumbling yellow house and dreaming of world revolution, the shepherds drinking in the hilltop bar of Moissac-Bellevue, their hands and faces black with dirt, the dirtiest men you have ever seen, and everyone speaking with the rolling r’s of the southern French accent, the added g’s that turned the words for wine and bread into vaing and paing, the s’s dropped elsewhere in France still surviving their Provençal origins, turning étrangers into estrangers (strangers, foreigners), and all through the region the rocks and walls painted with the slogan Occitanie Libre!, for this was the medieval land of oc and not of oui, and yes, you and your girlfriend were estrangers that year, but how much softer life was in this part of the country when compared to the brittle formalities and edginess of Paris, and how warmly you were treated during your time in the south, even by the stuffy, bourgeois couple with the impossible name of Assier de Pompignon, who would occasionally invite you to their house in the adjacent village of Régusse to watch films on TV, not to mention the people you came to know in Aups, seven kilometers from the house, where you went on your twice-weekly shopping expeditions, a town of three or four thousand people that came to feel like a vast metropole as the months of isolation rolled on, and because there were only two principal cafés in Aups, the right-wing café and the left-wing café, you frequented the left-wing café, where you were welcomed in by the regulars, the scruffy farmers and mechanics who were either Socialists or Communists, the rowdy, talkative locals who grew increasingly fond of the young American estrangers, and you remember sitting with them in that bar as you all watched the 1974 presidential election returns on TV, the campaign between Giscard and Mitterrand following Pompidou’s death, the hilarity and ultimate disappointment of that evening, everyone soused and cheering, everyone soused and cursing, but also in Aups there was your friend the butcher’s son, more or less your age, who worked in his father’s shop and was being groomed to take over the business, but at the same time a passionate and highly skilled photographer, who spent that year documenting the evacuation and demolition of a small village that was scheduled to be inundated for the construction of a dam, the butcher’s son with his heartbreaking photographs, the drunken men in the Socialist/Communist bar, but also the dentist in Draguignan, the man your girlfriend had to visit again and again for the complicated root-canal work he performed on her, all the many hours she spent in his chair, and when the work was finally done and he presented her with the bill, it came to all of three hundred francs (sixty dollars), a sum so low, so incommensurate with the time and effort he had expended on her, that she asked him why he had charged her so little, to which he responded, with a wave of the hand and a diffident little shrug, “Forget it. I was young once myself.”
14. 456 Riverside Drive; in the middle of the long block between West 116th Street and West 119th Street, Manhattan. Two rooms with a razor-thin galley kitchen between them, the northern penthouse or tenth floor of a nine-story building overlooking the Hudson. Penthouse was a deceptive term in this case, since your apartment and the southern penthouse next to it were not a structural part of the building you lived in. PHN and PHS were located inside a separate, freestanding, flat-roofed, diminutive one-story house built out of white stucco, which sat on the main roof like a peasant hut incongruously transported from the back street of a Mexican village. Age 27 to 29. The interior space was cramped, barely adequate for two people (you and your girlfriend were still together), but affordable New York apartments turned out to be scarce, and after your return from three and a half years abroad, you spent more than a month looking for somewhere to live, anywhere to live, and you felt fortunate to have landed in this airy if too crowded perch. Brilliant light, gleaming hardwood floors, fierce winds blowing off the Hudson, and the singular gift of a large L-shaped roof terrace that equaled or surpassed the square footage of the apartment inside. In warm weather, the roof mitigated the effects of claustrophobia, and you never tired of going out there and looking at the view from the front of the building: the trees of Riverside Park, Grant’s Tomb to the right, the traffic cruising along the Henry Hudson Parkway, and most of all the river, with its spectacle of unceasing activity, the countless numbers of boats and sailing vessels that traveled along its waters, the freighters and tugs, the barges and yachts and cabin cruisers, the daily regatta of industrial ships and pleasure craft that populated the river, which you soon discovered was another world, a parallel world that ran beside the patch of land you inhabited, a city of water just beyond the city of stones and earth. A stray hawk would settle onto the roof every now and then, but most often you were visited by gulls, crows, and starlings. One afternoon, a red pigeon landed outside your window (salmon-colored, speckled with white), a wounded fledgling with fearless curiosity and strange, red-rimmed eyes, and after you and your girlfriend fed him for a week and he was well enough to fly again, he kept coming back to the roof of your apartment, nearly every day for months, so often that your girlfriend eventually gave him a name, Joey, which meant that Joey the pigeon had acquired the status of pet, an outdoor companion who shared his address with you until the following summer, when he flapped his wings one last time and flew away for good. Early on: working from noon to five for a rare-book dealer on East Sixty-ninth Street, writing poems, reviewing books, and slowly reacclimating yourself to America, just as the country was living through the Watergate hearings and the fall of Richard Nixon, which made it a slightly different America from the one you had left. On October 6, 1974, about two months after you moved in, you and your girlfriend were married. A small ceremony held in your apartment, then a party thrown by a friend who lived in a nearby apartment that was much larger than yours. Given the frequent changes of heart that had afflicted the two of you from the beginning, the constant comings and goings, the affairs with other people, the breakups and makeups that followed one another as regularly as the changing of the seasons, the thought that either one of you should have considered marriage at this point now strikes you as an act of delusional folly. At the very least you were taking an enormous risk, gambling on the solidity of your friendship and your shared ambitions as writers to make marriage into something different from what you had already experienced together, but you lost the bet, you both lost because you were destined to lose, and therefore you managed to keep it going for only four years, marrying in October 1974 and calling it quits in November 1978. You were both twenty-seven when you took your vows, old enough to know better, perhaps, but at the same time neither one of you was anywhere close to full adulthood, you were both still adolescents at the core, and the hard truth was that you didn’t have a chance.
15. 2230 Durant Avenue; Berkeley, California. A small efficiency apartment (two rooms and a kitchenette) across from the college football stadium, within walking distance of the university campus. Age 29. Restless, dissatisfied for no reason you could name, feeling ever more hemmed in by the too-tiny apartment in New York, you were rescued by a sudden infusion of cash (a grant from the Ingram Merrill Foundation), which opened the door to other possibilities, other solutions to the problem of how and where to live, and since you felt the moment had come to shake things up for yourself, you and your first wife boarded a train in New York, traveled to Chicago, where you disembarked and switched to another train, and then headed for the West Coast, passing through the interminable flatlands of Nebraska, the Rockies, the deserts of Utah and Nevada, and pulled into San Francisco after a three-day journey. It was April 1976. The idea was to test out California for half a year and see if you might not want to move there permanently. You had several good friends in the area, you had visited the previous year and had come away with a favorable impression, and if you chose to conduct your experiment in Berkeley rather than in San Francisco, it was because the rents were lower there and you didn’t have a car, and life without a car would be more manageable on that side of the Bay. The apartment wasn’t much of anything, a low-ceilinged box with a faint odor of mildew and mold when the windows were shut, but not unlivable, not grim. You have no memory of making the decision to rent it, however, because not long after you arrived in town, sometime during the first week, when you were temporarily staying with friends, you were invited to play in a pickup softball game, in the second inning of which, with your back turned to the runner as you stood well out of the baseline waiting for a throw from the outfield, the runner intentionally went out of his way to crash into you from behind, leveling you with a murderous football block (wrong sport), and because he was a large man and you were not prepared for the blow, the collision snapped your head back before you fell to the ground, which caused a severe case of whiplash. (Your attacker, known for his bad sportsmanship and often referred to as “the Animal,” was a highly sophisticated intellectual who went on to write books about seventeenth-century Dutch painting and translate a number of German poets. He turned out to be a former student of a former professor of yours, a man much admired by both of you, and when the Animal was informed of the connection, he was deeply contrite, saying he never would have run into you if he had known who you were. You have always been mystified by this apology. Was he trying to tell you that only former students of Angus Fletcher’s were exempt from his dirty tactics but all others were fair game? You continue to scratch your head in wonder.) Your friends took you to the emergency room of the local hospital, where you were given a padded, Velcro-adjustable neck brace and a prescription for heavy doses of the muscle relaxant Valium, a drug you had never taken and which you hope you will never have to take again, for efficient as it was in alleviating the pain, it put you in a mindless stupor for the better part of a week, obliterating the memory of events an instant after those events occurred, meaning that several days of your life have been removed from the calendar. You cannot bring back a single thing that happened to you while you were walking around in your Frankenstein-monster neck brace and swallowing those amnesia-inducing pills, and therefore, when you and your first wife moved into the apartment on Durant Avenue, you praised her for having found such conveniently located digs, even though she had consulted with you at length before you both made the decision to live there. You stayed for the six months you had allotted yourselves, but no more. California had much to recommend it, and you fell in love with the landscape, the vegetation, the ever-present aroma of eucalyptus in the air, the fogs and all-encompassing showers of light, but after a while you found yourself missing New York, the vastness and confusion of New York, for the better you came to know San Francisco, the smaller and duller it seemed to you, and while you had no problem living in remotest seclusion (the nine months in the Var, for example, which had been an intensely fertile time for you), you decided that if you were going to live in a city, it had to be a big city, the biggest city, meaning that you could embrace the extremes of far-flung rural places and massive urban places, both of which seemed inexhaustible to you, but small cities and towns used themselves up too quickly, and in the end they left you cold. So you went back to New York in September, reclaimed the little apartment overlooking the Hudson (which had been rented out to a subtenant), and dug in again. But not for long. In October, the good news, the much-hoped-for news that a child was on the way—which meant that you would have to find another place to live. You wanted to stay in New York, you fully expected to stay in New York, but New York was too expensive, and after several months of searching for a larger apartment that you could afford, you accepted defeat and started looking elsewhere.
16. 252 Millis Road; Stanfordville, New York. A white, two-story house in northern Dutchess County. Construction date unknown, but neither new nor particularly old, which would suggest sometime between 1880 and 1910. Half an acre of land, with a vegetable garden in back, a dark, pine-shaded yard in front, and a small patch of woods between your property and the one to the south. A worn-out but not altogether decrepit place, something to be improved on over time if sufficient funds were available, with a living room, dining room, kitchen, and guest room/study on the ground floor and three bedrooms upstairs. Purchase price: $35,000. One of several houses on a rural side road with moderate traffic. Not the extreme isolation of Provence, but a life in the country for all that, and if you never ran into altruistic dentists or left-wing farmers, your neighbors on Millis Road were kind, solid citizens, many of them young couples with small children, all of whom you came to know to one degree or another, but what you remember best about your Dutchess County neighbors are the tragedies that took place in those houses, the twenty-eight-year-old woman who came down with M.S., for example, or the grieving middle-aged couple next door whose twenty-five-year-old daughter had died of cancer within the past year, the mother now reduced to skin and bone from a steady diet of gin and her tender husband doing his best to prop her up, so much suffering behind the locked doors and drawn shades of those houses, and among those houses your own house must be included as well. Age 30 to 31. A bleak time, without question the bleakest time you have ever gone through, brightened only by the birth of your son in June 1977. But that was the place where your first marriage broke apart, where you were overwhelmed by constant money problems (as described in Hand to Mouth), and you came to a dead end as a poet. You don’t believe in haunted houses, but when you look back on that time now, you feel that you were living under an evil spell, that the house itself was partly to blame for the troubles that descended on you. For many decades before you moved in, the owners had been a pair of unmarried sisters, German-Americans named Stemmerman, and by the time you bought the place from them, they were exceedingly old, in their late eighties or early nineties, one blind and the other deaf, and both had been in a nursing home for close to a year. A neighbor who lived a couple of doors down the road handled the negotiations for them—a vivacious woman who had been born in Cuba, was married to a quiet American auto mechanic, and collected glass figurines of elephants (!?)—and she told you a number of stories about the notorious Stemmerman sisters, who apparently hated each other and had been locked in mortal combat since childhood, the two of them bound together for life and yet bitter enemies to the last, who were known to engage in such loud, vicious quarrels that their voices could be heard up and down the length of Millis Road. When the neighbor started talking about how the deaf sister would punish the blind sister by locking her in the downstairs closet, you couldn’t help conjuring up scenes from Gothic novels and remembering that tacky black-and-white movie with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford from the early sixties. How amusing, you thought, a couple of grotesque and crazy characters, but that’s all in the past now, you and your pregnant wife would be bringing youth and vigor to the old house, and everything was about to change—all the while neglecting to consider that the Stemmermans had lived there for fifty or sixty years, perhaps seventy or eighty years, and that every inch of the house was impregnated with their malevolent spirits. You actually met the deaf sister one day at the Cuban woman’s house (she nearly choked to death trying to drink a cup of tepid coffee), but she seemed benign enough to you, and you didn’t give the matter another thought. Then you moved in, and in those early days of cleaning and rearranging furniture (some of which came with the house), you and your first wife pulled an armoire away from the wall in the upstairs hallway and found a dead crow on the floor behind it—a long-dead crow, utterly desiccated but intact. No, that wasn’t amusing, not amusing at all, and even though you both tried to laugh it off, you went on thinking about that dead bird for months afterward, that dead black bird, the classic omen of bad tidings. The next morning, you discovered two or three boxes of books on the back porch, and because you were curious to see if anything was worth holding on to, you opened the boxes. One by one, you pulled out pamphlets from the John Birch Society, paperback books about the Communist plot to infiltrate the United States government, several volumes about the fluoride conspiracy to brainwash American children, pro-Nazi tracts published in English before the war, and then, most disturbing of all, a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the book of books, the most repellent and influential defense of anti-Semitism ever written. You had never thrown away a book, had never been tempted to throw away a book, but these books you threw away, driving the boxes to the town dump and purposefully shoving them under a mound of rotting garbage. It wasn’t possible to live in a house with such books in it. You hoped that would be the end of the story, but even after you got rid of the books, it still wasn’t possible to live there. You tried, but it simply wasn’t possible.
17. 6 Varick Street; Manhattan. One room on the top floor of a ten-story industrial building in what is now known as Tribeca. A sub-sublet, passed on to you by the sometime girlfriend of a childhood friend of yours. One hundred dollars a month for the privilege of camping out in a former electrical supply office, a gutted shell not meant for human habitation, which until recently had served as a storage room for the artist’s loft across the hall. A cold-water sink, but no bath, toilet, or kitchen facilities. Living conditions not unlike those in your maid’s room on the rue du Louvre in Paris, but this room was three or four times larger than that one—as well as three or four times dirtier. Age 32. Before landing there in early 1979, a whirlwind of shocks, sudden changes, and inner upheavals that turned you around and set your life on a different course. With nowhere to go and no money to finance a move even if you had known where to go, you stayed on in the Dutchess County house after the breakup of your marriage, sleeping on the sofa bed in the corner of your downstairs study, which you now realize (thirty-two years later) had been your bed as a child. A couple of weeks later, on a trip down to New York, you experienced the revelation, the scalding, epiphanic moment of clarity that pushed you through a crack in the universe and allowed you to start writing again. Three weeks after that, immersed in the prose text you had begun immediately after your resuscitation, your liberation, your new beginning, the unexpected hammer blow of your father’s death. To your first wife’s infinite credit, she stuck with you through the dismal days and weeks that followed, the ordeal of funeral arrangements and estate matters, disposing of your father’s neckties, suits, and furniture, taking care of the sale of his house (which had already been in the works), standing by you through all the wrenching, practical business that follows death, and because you were no longer married, or married in name only, the pressures of marriage had been lifted, and once again you were friends, much as you had been in your early days together. You started writing the first part of The Invention of Solitude. By the time you moved to Varick Street in early spring, you were well into it.
18. 153 Carroll Street; Brooklyn. A railroad flat on the third floor of a four-story building near Henry Street. Age 33 to 34. Three rooms, sit-down kitchen, and bathroom. The bedroom, overlooking the street in front, was large enough to fit in a double bed for yourself and a single bed for your son (the same sofa bed you had used as a child and which you had now reclaimed after the sale of the house in Stanfordville). Two middle rooms, one without windows, which you converted into a makeshift study, the other the living room (one window overlooking the garden), followed by the kitchen (one window) and the bathroom in back—tawdry and run-down, yes, but a big step up from where you had been living before. You lost the place on Varick Street in January 1980 (the artist was giving up his loft), and when Manhattan rents proved to be too steep for an apartment that could accommodate both you and your two-and-a-half-year-old son (who spent three days a week with you), you crossed the East River and began searching in Brooklyn. Why hadn’t you thought of this in 1976? you wondered. Surely this was a better solution than trekking one hundred miles to the north and buying a haunted house in Dutchess County, but the fact was that Brooklyn had never even crossed your mind back then, for New York was Manhattan and Manhattan only, and the outer boroughs were as alien to you as the distant countries of Oceania or the Arctic Circle. You wound up in Carroll Gardens, a self-enclosed Italian neighborhood where most people went out of their way to make you feel unwelcome, treating you with suspicion and silent stares, as if you were an intruder in their midst, an estranger, even if you could have passed for Italian yourself, but no doubt there was something wrong with you, the way you dressed, perhaps, or the way you moved, or simply the look in your eyes. Again and again for almost two years, walking down Carroll Street on the way to your apartment with the old women sitting on the stoops of their houses, cutting off their conversations when you were within earshot of them, watching you pass without a word, and the men standing around with nothing in their eyes, or else looking under the hoods of their cars, examining the engines of those cars with such persistence and dedication that they reminded you of philosophers in search of some ultimate truth about human existence, and the only time you ever received a nod from the women was when you were walking down that street with your son, your little blond-haired son, but otherwise you were a phantom, a man who was not there because he had no business being there. Fortunately, the owners of your building, John and Jackie Caramello, a couple in their early thirties who lived in the garden apartment on the bottom floor, were affable and friendly and never displayed the slightest resentment toward you, but they were your contemporaries, and they were no longer grinding the axes of their parents’ generation. Joey Gallo’s aunt lived on your block, there were the social clubs around the corner on Henry Street where the old-timers hung out during the day, and if Carroll Gardens was known as the safest neighborhood in the city, it was because it was ruled by an undercurrent of violence, the retaliatory violence and ethics of the mob. Black people steered clear of this well-guarded enclave, knowing they would be risking danger if they set foot within its borders, an unwritten law you might not have understood if you hadn’t seen it executed with your own eyes, walking down Court Street one day in the brightness of an autumn afternoon, when a rangy black kid carrying a boom box on the other side of the street was jumped by three or four white teenagers, who pummeled him, bloodied him, and smashed his radio against the sidewalk, and before you could intervene the black kid was staggering away, stumbling forward, and then starting to run as the white kids shouted nigger at him and warned him never to come back. Another time, you did have a chance to intervene. A Sunday afternoon in late spring, walking down Carroll Street toward the subway station on Smith, when you stopped for a couple of minutes to watch a roller-skate hockey game being played on the asphalt surface of Carroll Park and saw, hanging on the chain-link fence that surrounded the park, a large red, white, and black Nazi banner. You went into the park, found the sixteen-year-old boy who had put it up (the equipment manager of one of the teams), and told him to take it down. Perplexed, not at all understanding why you would ask him to do such a thing, he listened to you explain what the banner represented, and when he heard you talk about the evils of Hitler and the slaughter of innocent millions, he looked genuinely embarrassed. “I didn’t know,” he said. “I just thought it looked cool.” Rather than ask him where he had been all his life, you waited until he had removed the banner and then continued walking to the subway. Still, Carroll Gardens was not without its advantages, the food in particular, the bakeries, the pork stores, the watermelon man riding through the neighborhood with his horse-drawn wagon in the summer, the coffee roasted on-site at D’Amico’s and the blast of sharp, beautiful smells that assaulted you whenever you walked into that shop, but Carroll Gardens was also the place where you asked the single most stupid question of your adult life. You were upstairs in your apartment one afternoon, at work on the second half of The Invention of Solitude in your windowless study, when a great clamor of voices rose up from the street outside. You went downstairs to see what was going on, and the whole block was out in force, clusters of men and women were standing in front of their houses, twenty excited conversations were going on at once, and there was your landlord, the burly John Caramello, parked on the stoop of the building where you both lived, calmly surveying the commotion. You asked him what was wrong, and he told you that a man who had just been let out of prison had been breaking into empty houses and apartments along the block and stealing things—jewelry, silverware, anything of value he could put his hands on—but he had been caught before he could get away. That was when you asked your question, uttering the famous words that proved you were an out-and-out dunce who still understood nothing about the little world in which you happened to be living. “Did you call the police?” John smiled. “Of course not,” he said. “The boys beat the shit out of him, broke his legs with baseball bats, and threw him into a taxi. He won’t be back in this neighborhood again—not if he wants to go on breathing.” So much for your early days in Brooklyn, where you have been living for thirty-one years now, and in that transitional period of your life, beginning with the breakup of your marriage and your father’s death, the nine months on Varick Street and the first eleven months in Carroll Gardens, a time marked by nightmares and inner struggle, alternating between fits of hope and no hope, tumbling into the beds of various women, women you tried to love and almost loved but couldn’t, certain you would never marry again, working on your book, on your translations of Joubert and Mallarmé, on your mammoth anthology of twentieth-century French poetry, taking care of your confused and sometimes embattled three-year-old son, and with so many things happening to you at once, which included the near-fatal cardiac arrest of your mother’s second husband just ten days after your father’s funeral, the vigils in the hospital six months later as you watched over your grandfather’s rapid decline and death, it was probably inevitable that your body should go haywire again, this time with a pounding heart, an irregular heart that would suddenly and inexplicably speed up inside your chest, the bouts of tachycardia that would take hold of you at night just as you were falling asleep, or wake you up just after you had fallen asleep, either alone in the room with your son or lying next to the sleeping bodies of Ann or Françoise or Ruby, the frantically beating heart that would echo inside your head with a percussiveness so loud and insistent you thought the noises were coming from somewhere in the room, a thyroid condition as you eventually found out, which had thrown your system entirely out of whack and for which you had to take pills for two or three years. Then, on February 23, 1981, twenty days after your thirty-fourth birthday, just four days after her twenty-sixth birthday, you met her, you found yourself being introduced to the One, the woman who has been with you ever since that night thirty years ago, your wife, the grand love that ambushed you when you were least expecting it, and in the first weeks you were together, when much of your time was spent in bed, you developed a ritual of reading fairy tales to each other, something you went on doing until your daughter was born six years later, and not long after you discovered the intimate pleasures of reading to each other in this way, your wife wrote a long prose poem entitled Reading to You, the fourteenth and last part of which evokes the erratic beating of your heart and is set in the bedroom of your third-floor apartment at 153 Carroll Street: The cruel father sends the stupid boy into the woods to be killed, but the murderer cannot do it and lets him go, bringing back a deer’s heart to the father instead, and this boy speaks to the dogs and the frogs and the birds and in the end the doves whisper into his ears, the words of the mass, the repetitions over and over into his ears, and somewhere else I whisper into your ears, messages, messages from me to you, about the back of your knees and the inside of your elbows and the impression above your upper lip, from me to you even if you are now away. I whisper like the birds in the story I read to you, repetitions in the room where you took me. The parts are the same, but changing, always in movement, altering imperceptibly like the expression on your face from a smile to seriousness leaning over me in the thin light. So I wish you a story in the reading of it, in the writing of it. We inherit stories, too, conditions, faces, hearts, bladders, weak and stricken. His heart has water around it, drowning, the sick heart, the heart sick, the stricken part, the beat measured in you that is sometimes too fast so you take pills to make it slower, to make it right and rhythmic, not random and slipping like other things. I wish you a story in bed where they hang the moon after the old men die so it shines forever on top of you, and will not stop even if it does not have its own light, but is borrowed and cyclic. I will take the moon, the borrowing and stealing and changing from large to small. The tiniest moon, thin and weak behind a cloud in winter is the view I choose.
19. 18 Tompkins Place; Brooklyn. The top two floors of a four-story brownstone on a one-block street of nearly identical row houses in Cobble Hill, the neighborhood between Carroll Gardens and Brooklyn Heights. Age 34 to 39. Less than half a mile from 153 Carroll Street, but an altogether different world, with a population more mixed and various than the ethnic compound you had lived in for the past twenty-one months. Not a duplex shut off from the lower half of the house but two independent floors, the low-ceilinged one on top with a nook-sized kitchen, an ample dining area and unpartitioned living room beyond it, as well as a small study for your wife; on the higher-ceilinged floor below: a compact master bedroom, a larger bedroom/playroom for your son, and a study for you, identical in size to your wife’s above. A bit ramshackle in overall design, but larger than any apartment you had ever rented and located on a block of great architectural beauty: every house constructed in the 1860s, gas lamps burning at night in front of every door, and when the snow covered the ground in winter, you felt that you had traveled back to the nineteenth century, that if you shut your eyes and listened closely enough, you would hear the sound of horses in the street. You were married in that apartment on a sultry day in mid-June, one of those hot, overcast days in early summer with storms building slowly at the far edge of the horizon, the sky darkening imperceptibly as the hours advanced, and an instant after you were declared man and wife, at the very instant you took your wife in your arms and kissed her, the storm finally broke, a tremendous clap of thunder ripped through the air directly above you, rattling the windows of the house, shaking the floor under your feet, and as the people in the room gasped, it was as if the heavens were announcing your marriage to the world. An uncanny bit of dramatic timing, which meant nothing and yet seemed to mean everything, and for the first time in your life, you felt that you were taking part in a cosmic event.
20. 458 Third Street, Apartment 3R; Brooklyn. A long, narrow apartment that took up one half of the third floor of a four-story building in Park Slope. Living room overlooking the street in front, dining room and galley kitchen in the middle, flanked by a book-lined hallway that led to three small bedrooms in the back. Age 40 to 45. When you moved to your previous apartment on Tompkins Place, your landlord, who also happened to be your downstairs neighbor, warned you that you could not live there forever, that eventually he and his family would be taking over the entire house. You must have understood this at the time, but after living there for five years and one month, your longest stint in any dwelling since your boyhood days on Irving Avenue, you had little by little pushed the thought of involuntary departure out of your mind, and because the years on Tompkins Place had been the happiest, most fulfilling period of your life so far, you simply refused to face the facts. Then, in November 1986—just one week after your wife discovered she was pregnant—the landlord politely informed you that time was up and he would not be renewing your lease. His announcement came as a jolt, and because you never wanted to be in such a position again, could not bear the idea of being thrown out of yet another place at some point in the future, you and your wife began searching for a place to buy, a co-op apartment that would belong to you and thereafter protect you from the whims of other people. The Wall Street crash of 1987 was still eleven months off, and the New York real estate frenzy was surging out of control, prices were going up every week, every day, every minute of every day, and because you had only so much money to spend on a down payment, you had to settle for something that did not quite measure up to your needs. The apartment on Third Street was attractive, hands down the most attractive of the many places you had visited on your search, but it was too small for four people, especially when two of the people were writers, who not only had to live in that space but work there as well. All three bedrooms were accounted for: one for you and your wife, one for your son (who continued to live with you half the time), and one for your infant daughter, and even the largest of the three, the so-called master bedroom, was too tightly proportioned to accommodate a desk. Your wife volunteered to set up her work space in a corner of the living room, and you went out and found yourself a tiny studio in an apartment building on Eighth Avenue, a block and a half from 458 Third Street (see entry 20A). Too cramped, then, a less than ideal arrangement, but your circumstances were far from tragic. You and your wife both preferred the animation of Park Slope to the quiet streets of Cobble Hill, and when you started spending the summers in southern Vermont (three months for five consecutive years—see entry 20B), there was little or nothing to complain about, especially when you considered some of the wretched places you had inhabited in the past. Living in a co-op put you in more intimate contact with your neighbors than at any time before or since, something you initially faced with a certain amount of dread, but there were no Madame Rubinsteins in your building, no festering conflicts developed on any front, and the co-op meetings you were obliged to attend were relatively short, easygoing affairs. Six families were involved, four of them with small children, and with an architect, a contractor, and a lawyer among the members of the board, your neighbors were conscientious about maintaining the physical and financial health of the building. Your wife, who served as recording secretary for the five years you lived there, wrote up the minutes after each board meeting—entertaining, tongue-in-cheek reports that were warmly appreciated by everyone involved. Some excerpts:
10/19/87. BUGS: This highly unpleasant subject was addressed by the assembled company with utmost delicacy. The euphemism “problem” was used by at least one member. Marguerite went so far as to speak of “hundreds of babies.” Dick recommended a product called COMBAT. Siri echoed the recommendation. It was also suggested that the exterminator be told to change his poison. Then, with a sigh of relief, the members turned to another subject.
3/7/88. THE FENCE: Theo was given a price of $500 for the fence by his students. Certain members felt this was exorbitant; others didn’t. There was a faint agreement—that is, an agreement so vague, so slim, it might not be called an agreement at all—that if these students of Theo promised to do a good job, they could have their $500. But this is not certain …
10/18/88. OLD BUSINESS: There was a moment of hesitation. Would the members be able to reach into the past and recall just what our old business was? The president came to the rescue with a copy of the old minutes.
2/22/90. CEILING IN 3R: Paul announces to the group that the ceiling in #3R is about to collapse. Expressions of alarm can be seen on the faces of his fellow co-opers. His wife, otherwise known as the secretary, attempts to assuage the others by noting her husband’s tendency to exaggerate. The man’s bread and butter, after all, is in the making of fictions, and occasionally this submersion in the world of the imagination colors that other world, known for lack of a better expression as the Real World. Let it stand for the record that the ceiling in 3R is not about to collapse and that its occupants have taken appropriate action to make certain that this will not happen. The plasterers and painters shall take care of our slight sag …
3/28/90. CEILING IN 3R: It WAS falling in! The painters who restored that apartment to an acceptable condition confirmed Paul’s gloomy prediction. It was just a matter of time before it fell on our heads.
6/17/92. FLOODING: The basement is flooding. Lloyd’s acute remark that either we fix the flooding or stock the basement with trout hit home. The estimates for repair are running between $100 and $850, depending on what must be done. We agreed that lower was better than higher and that we should begin low with Roto-Rooter. The gentleman from RotoRooter, a friend, acquaintance, or at least a person KNOWN to Lloyd, is Raymond Clean, a name that inspires confidence, considering the nature of his work, and, who knows, may have inspired Mr. Clean’s calling in life.
10/15/92. WINDOWS AND CRIME: Joe, the window man, was formally accused of absconding with the secretary’s one hundred dollars and not answering his telephone. He may have left the country. Theo and Marguerite have also accused him of essentially NOT FIXING their balances, since they ceased to work again after one week. There was some speculation among the members as to how far one could get with $100. We may have to look for him in Hoboken.
12/3/92. Beyond the walls of 458 Third Street, the weather was cold and damp that night, and winter was upon us. We ended the meeting on a wistful note. Marguerite told stories about Cyprus, a definite longing in her voice. In that exotic place the weather is warm and the light brilliant and clothes dry on balconies in ten minutes.… And that is how it stands with us. There’s always another place where the sun shines, where clothes dry fast, where there are no window men, no maintenances, no workmen’s compensation, or flooded basements …
1/14/93. WORKMEN’S COMPENSATION: This issue of whether or not to cover officers of the co-op injured while performing their duties came to a head. We won’t. Let come what may: fingers broken at the typewriter, necks strangled in a telephone cord while conducting co-op business, broken legs, arms, and heads from too much wine at a meeting. We’ll have to live with it, the way people used to. We’ll call it fate. We’ll save about fifty bucks, and fifty bucks is fifty bucks is fifty bucks.
20A. 300 Eighth Avenue, Apartment 1-I; Brooklyn. A one-room studio on the ground floor of a six-story apartment building, located in the back, with a view of an air shaft and a brick wall. Larger than the maid’s room on the rue du Louvre, less than half the size of the Varick Street hovel, but equipped with a toilet and bath as well as various kitchen appliances built into one of the walls: sink, stove, and minibar fridge, which you rarely bothered to use, since this was a space for work and not for living (or eating). A desk, a chair, a metal bookcase, and a couple of storage cabinets; a bare bulb hanging from the middle of the ceiling; an air conditioner in one of the windows, which you would turn on when you arrived in the morning to filter out noises from the building (COOL in summer; FAN in winter). Spartan surroundings, yes, but surroundings have never been of any importance as far as your work is concerned, since the only space you occupy when you write your books is the page in front of your nose, and the room in which you are sitting, the various rooms in which you have sat these forty-plus years, are all but invisible to you as you push your pen across the page of your notebook or transcribe what you have written onto a clean page with your typewriter, the same machine you have been using since your return from France in 1974, an Olympia portable you bought secondhand from a friend for forty dollars—a still functioning relic that was built in a West German factory more than half a century ago and will no doubt go on functioning long after you are dead. The number of your studio apartment pleased you for its symbolic aptness. 1-I, meaning the single self, the lone person sequestered in that bunker of a room for seven or eight hours a day, a silent man cut off from the rest of the world, day after day sitting at his desk for no other purpose than to explore the interior of his own head.
WINTER JOURNAL Copyright 2012 by Paul Auster
Meet the Author
Paul Auster is the bestselling author of Sunset Park, Invisible, Man in the Dark, The Book of Illusions, and The New York Triology, among many other works. His books have been translated into forty-three languages. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
- Brooklyn, New York
- Date of Birth:
- February 3, 1947
- Place of Birth:
- Newark, New Jersey
- B.A., M.A., Columbia University, 1970
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