3

In his comfortable Upper West Side sublet, a handsome, high-ceilinged first- and second-floor duplex boasting majestic oak paneling and a library that spoke highly of the owners, Professor Malik Solanka nursed a glass of red Geyserville zinfandel and mourned. The decision to leave had been wholly his; still, he grieved for his old life. Whatever Eleanor said on the phone, the break was almost certainly irreparable. Solanka had never thought of himself as a bolter or quitter, yet he had shed more skins than a snake. Country, family, and not one wife but two had been left in his wake. Also, now, a child. Maybe the mistake was to see his latest exit as unusual. The harsh reality was perhaps that he was acting not against nature but according to its dictates. When he stood naked before the unvarnished mirror of truth, this was what he was really like.

Yet, like Perry Pincus, he believed himself to be a good person. Women believed it too. Sensing in him a ferocity of commitment that was rarely found in modern men, women had often allowed themselves to fall in love with him, surprising themselves—these wised-up, cautious women!—by the speed with which they charged outward into the really deep emotional water. And he didn’t let them down. He was kind, understanding, generous, clever, funny, grown-up, and the sex was good, it was always good. This is forever, they thought, because they could see him thinking it too; they felt loved, treasured, safe. He told them—each of his women in turn—that friendship was what he had instead of family ties, and, more than friendship, love. That sounded right. So they dropped their defenses and relaxed into all the good stuff, and never saw the hidden twisting in him, the dreadful torque of his doubt, until the day he snapped and the alien burst out of his stomach, baring multiple rows of teeth. They never saw the end coming until it hit them. His first wife, Sara, the one with the graphic verbal gift, put it thus: “It felt like an ax-murder.”

“Your trouble is,” Sara incandescently said near the end of their last quarrel, “that you’re really only in love with those fucking dolls. The world in inanimate miniature is just about all you can handle. The world you can make, unmake, and manipulate, filled with women who don’t answer back, women you don’t have to fuck. Or are you making them with cunts now, wooden cunts, rubber cunts, fucking inflatable cunts that squeak like balloons as you slide in and out; do you have a life-size fuck-dolly harem hidden in a shed somewhere, is that what they’ll find when one day you’re arrested for raping and chopping up some golden-haired eight-year-old, some poor fucking living doll you played with and then threw away. They’ll find her shoe in a hedge and there’ll be descriptions of a minivan on TV and I’ll be watching and you won’t be home and I’ll think, Jesus, I know that van, it’s the one he carries his fucking toys around in when he goes to his perverts’ I’ll-show-you-my-dolly-if-you’ll-show-me-yours reunions. I’ll be the wife who never knew a thing. I’ll be the fucking cow-faced wife on TV forced to defend you just to defend myself, my own unimaginable stupidity, because after all, I chose you.”

Life is fury, he’d thought. Fury-sexual, Oedipal, political, magical, brutal-drives us to our finest heights and coarsest depths. Out of furia comes creation, inspiration, originality, passion, but also violence, pain, pure unafraid destruction, the giving and receiving of blows from which we never recover. The Furies pursue us; Shiva dances his furious dance to create and also to destroy. But never mind about gods! Sara ranting at him represented the human spirit in its purest, least socialized form. This is what we are, what we civilize ourselves to disguise—the terrifying human animal in us, the exalted, transcendent, self-destructive, untrammeled lord of creation. We raise each other to the heights of joy. We tear each other limb from fucking limb.

Her name was Lear, Sara Jane Lear, some sort of distant relative of the writer and watercolorist, but there wasn’t a trace of antic Edward’s immortal nonsense in her. Howpleasant to know Sara Lear, who remembers such volumes of stuff! Some folks think her awfully queer, but I find her pleasant enough. The revised verse didn’t raise the ghost of a smile. “Imagine how many times people have recited those exact words to me and you’ll excuse me for not being impressed.” She was a year or so his senior and was writing a thesis on Joyce and the French nouveau roman. In her second-floor flat on Chesterton Road, “love”—which in retrospect looked more like fear, a mutual clutching at the life belt of the other while drowning in twenty-something loneliness—made him plow his way twice through Finnegan’s Wake. Also the dour pages of Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, and Butor. When he looked up miserably from the great heaps of their slow, obscure sentences, he found her watching him from the other armchair, turning in his direction that angular devil-mask of a face, beautiful but sly. Sly-eyed lady of the Fenlands. He couldn’t read her expression. It might have been contempt.

They married too quickly for thought and felt trapped by the mistake almost immediately. Yet they stayed together for several miserable years. Afterward, when he told the story of his life to Eleanor Masters, Solanka cast his first wife as the one with the exit strategies, the player most likely to resign the game. “She gave up early on everything she desired most. Before she found out she wasn’t up to it.” Sara had been the outstanding university actress of her generation but had left it there, forever leaving behind the greasepaint and the crowd without a word of regret. Later she would also abandon her thesis and get a job in advertising, emerging from the chrysalis of her bluestocking wardrobe and spreading gorgeous butterfly wings.

This was soon after their marriage ended. When Solanka found out about it he was briefly furious. All that effortful reading for nothing! And not only reading. “Thanks to her,” he raged at Eleanor, “I saw L’Annee derniere a Marienbad three times in one day. We spent a whole weekend working out that damn matchstick game they play. ‘You wont win, you know’. – ‘It’s not a game if you can’t lose.’ – ‘Oh, I can lose, but I never do.’ That game. Thanks to her it’s still stuck in my head, but she’s buggered off to the universe of if you’ve got it flaunt it. I’m stuck here in the blasted couloirs of French fiction and she’s in a Jil Sander power suit in a forty-ninth-floor corner office on Sixth Avenue, pulling down, I have no doubt, some major bucks.”

“Yes, but for the record, you dumped her,” Eleanor pointed out. “You found the next one and traded Sara in: left her cold and flat. You should never have married her, obviously, which is your only excuse. That’s the great unanswerable question about love posed by your Queen Lear: what on earth were you thinking of? Also, you got yours when the next one, the Wagnerian Valkyrie with the Harley, threw you over for which composer was it?” She knew the answer perfectly well, but it was a story they both enjoyed. “Fucking Rummenigge.” Solanka grinned, calming down. “She worked as an assistant on one of his three-orchestras-and-a-Sherman-tank efforts and afterward he sent her a telegram. Kindly refrain from all sexual intercourse until we can examine the deep bond that evidently lies between us. And the next day a one-way ticket to Munich, and she disappeared into the Black Forest for years. She wasn’t happy, though,” he added. “Didn’t know when she was well-off, you see.” When Solanka left Eleanor, she added a bitter postscript to these reflections. Actually, I’d like to hear their sides of these stories,” she said during one difficult telephone call. “Maybe you were just a coldhearted bastard from the start.”

Malik Solanka, strolling alone toward a late-night Meslowski double bill at the Lincoln Plaza, tried to imagine his own life as a Dekalog movie. A Short Film About Desertion. Which Commandments could his story be said to illustrate or, as the Kieslowski scholar who introduced last week’s episodes preferred, interrogate? There were many Commandments against the sins of improper commission. Covetousness, adultery, lust, these things were anathematized. But where were the laws against sins of improper omission? Thou Shalt Not Be an Absentee Father. Cometh to Thinkst of It, Thou Shalt Not Walk Out of Thy Life Without a Fucking Good Reason, Buster, and What You’ve Put Up So Far Doesn’t Even Come Close. What Dost Thou Think? Thou Canst Do Any Goddamn Thing Thou Wantest? Who the Fuck Dost Thou Imagine Thou Ist: Hugh Hefner? The Dalai Lama? Donald Trump? At What the Sam Hill Art Thou Playing? Huh, Bub? Huh???

Sara Lear was probably right here in town, he suddenly thought. She would be in her late fifties now, a big shot with a booming portfolio, the secret booking numbers for Pastis and Nobu, and a weekend place south of the highway in, ah, Amagansett. Thank heavens there was no need to track her down, look her up, congratulate her on her life choices. How she would have crowed! For they had lived long enough to witness the absolute victory of advertising. Back in the seventies, when Sara gave up the serious life for the frivolous, working in ad-land had been slightly shameful. You confessed it to your friends with lowered voice and downcast eyes. Advertising was a confidence trick, a cheat, the notorious enemy of promise. It was—a horrible thought in that era—nakedly capitalist. Selling things was low. Now everyone eminent writers, great painters, architects, politicians-wanted to be in on the act. Reformed alcoholics plugged booze. Everybody, as well as everything, was for sale. Advertisements had become colossi, clambering like Kong up the walls of buildings. What was more, they were loved. When he was watching TV, Solanka still turned the sound down at commercial breaks, but everyone else, he was sure, turned it up. The girls in the ads—Esther, Bridget, Elizabeth, Halle, Gisele, Tyra, Isis, Aphrodite, Kate—were more desirable than the actresses in the shows in between; hell, the guys in the ads—Mark Vanderloo, Marcus Schenkenberg, Marcus Aurelius, Marc Antony, Marky Mark—were more desirable than the actresses in the shows. And as well as presenting the dream of an ideally beautiful America in which all women were babes and all men were Marks, after doing the basic work of selling pizza and SUVs and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, beyond money management and the new ditditdit of the dotcoms, the commercials soothed America’s pain, its head pain, its gas pain, its heartache, its loneliness, the pain of babyhood and old age, of being a parent and of being a child, the pain of manhood and women’s pain, the pain of success and that of failure, the good pain of the athlete and the bad pain of the guilty, the anguish of loneliness and of ignorance, the needle-sharp torment of the cities and the dull, mad ache of the empty plains, the pain of wanting without knowing what was wanted, the agony of the bowling void within each watching, semiconscious self. No wonder advertising was popular. It made things better. It showed you the road. It wasn’t a part of the problem. It solved things.

As a matter of fact, there was a copywriter living in Professor Solanka’s building. He wore red suspenders and Hathaway shirts and even smoked a pipe. He had introduced himself that very afternoon by the mailboxes in the vestibule, holding a set of rolled-up layouts. (What was it about Solanka’s solitude, the professor silently asked himself, that apparently obliged his neighbors to disturb it?) “Mark Skywalker, from the planet Tatooine.”

Whatever, as Perry Pincus would have said. Solanka was uninterested in this bow-tied, bespectacled, markedly un-Jedi-knight-like young man, and as a former science-fiction buff despised the lowbrow space opera of the Star Wars cycle. But he had already learned not to argue with self-invention in NewYork. He had learned, also, when giving his own name to omit the “Professor.” Learning annoyed people, and formality was a form of pulling rank. This was the country of the diminutive. Even the stores and eating places got friendly fast. Right around the corner he could find Andy’s, Bennie’s, Josie’s, Gabrielas, Vinnie’s, Freddie & Pepper’s. The country of reserve, of the understatement and the unsaid, he had left behind, and a good thing too, on the whole. At Hana’s (medical supplies) you could walk right in and buy a MASTECTOMY BRA. The unsayable was right there in the window in red letters a foot high. So, anyway, “Solly Solanka,” he replied, neutrally, surprising himself by using the disliked nickname; whereupon Skywalker frowned. “Are you a landsman?” Solanka was unfamiliar with the term, and said as much, apologetically. “Oh, then you’re not.” Skywalker nodded. “I thought, because of Solly, maybe. Also, excuse me, something about the nose.” The meaning of the unknown word quickly became clear from context and raised an interesting question, which Solanka refrained from asking: so, they had Jews on Tatooine?

“You’re British, right,” Skywalker went on. (Solanka didn’t get into the postcolonial, migrational niceties.) “Mila told me. Do me a favor. Take a look at these.” Mila was presumably the young empress of the street. Solanka noted without pleasure the euphony of their naming: Mila, Malik. When the young woman discovered this, she would no doubt be unable to resist mentioning it to him. He would be forced to point out the obvious, namely that sounds were not meanings, and this was a mere interlingual echo from which nothing, certainly not a human connection, need follow. The young adman had unrolled the layouts and spread them on the hall table. “I want to get your honest opinion,” Skywalker explained. “It’s a corporate-image campaign. “The layouts showed double-page-spread images of famous city skylines at sunset. Solanka gestured vaguely, not knowing how to respond. “The copy line,” Skywalker prompted. “Is it okay?” All the pictures bore the same heading. THE SUN NEVER SETS ON AMERICAN EXPRESS INTERNATIONAL BANKING CORPORATION. “Good. It’s good,” Solanka said, not knowing if it was in fact good, average, or terrible. Presumably there was always an American Express office open somewhere in the world, so the statement was probably true, though why would it be useful to an individual in, say, London to know that the banks were still open in Los Angeles? All this he kept to himself, and looked, he hoped, judicious and approving. But Skywalker evidently wanted more. As a Britisher,” he probed, “you’re saying the British won’t be insulted?”

This was a genuine puzzlement. “Because of the British empire, I mean. On which the sun never sets. There’s no offense intended. That’s what I want to be sure of. That the line doesn’t come across as an insult to your country’s glorious past.” Professor Solanka felt huge irritation rise up in his breast. He experienced a strong desire to screech at this fellow with the damn-fool alias, to call him names and perhaps actually smack him across the face with an open hand. It took an effort to restrain himself, and in a level voice to reassure earnest young Mark in his David Ogilvy-clone outfit that even the most red-faced colonels in England were unlikely to be upset by his banal formulation. Then he hurried into his apartment, shut the door with his heart pounding, leaned against the wall, closed his eyes, gasped, and shook. Yes, this was the other side of the coin of his new hi-how-you-doin’, up-front, in-your face, MASTECTOMY BRA environment: this new cultural hypersensitivity, this almost pathological fear of giving offense. Okay, he knew that, everybody knew it, that wasn’t the point. The point was, where was all this anger coming from? Why was he being caught off guard, time and again, by surges of rage that almost overwhelmed his will?

He took a cold shower. Then for two hours he lay in his darkened bedroom with both air conditioner and ceiling fan working flat-out to battle the heat and humidity. Controlling his breathing helped, and he also used visualization techniques to relax. He imagined the anger as a physical object, a soft dark throbbing lump, and mentally drew a red triangle around it. Then he slowly made the triangle smaller until the lump disappeared. This worked. His heartbeat returned to normal. He switched on the bedroom television, a whirring and clanking old monster of a set dating from an earlier generation of technology, and watched El Duque on the mound, his amazing, hyperbolic action. The pitcher coiled himself up until his knee almost touched his nose, then unwound like a whip. Even in this erratic, almost panicky season in the Bronx, Hernandez inspired calm.

Professor Solanka made the mistake of flipping briefly to CNN, where it was all Elian, all the time. Professor Solanka was nauseated by people’s eternal need for totems. A little boy had been rescued from a rubber ring in the sea, his mother drowned, and at once the religious hysteria had begun. The dead mother became almost a Marian figure and there were posters reading ELIAN, SAVE US. The cult, born of Miami’s necessary demonology—according to which Castro the devil, Hannibal-the-Cannibal Castro, would eat the boy alive, would tear out his immortal soul and munch it down with a few fava beans and a glass of red wine-instantly developed a priesthood as well. The dreadful media-fixated uncle was anointed pope of Elianismo, and his daughter, poor Marisleysis, with her “nervous exhaustion,” was exactly the type who would, any day now, start witnessing the seven-year-old’s first miracles. There was even a fisherman involved. And of course apostles, spreading the word: the photographer living in Elian’s bedroom, the TV-movie people waving contracts, publishing houses doing likewise, CNN itself and all the other news crews with their uplink dishes and fuzzy mikes. Meanwhile in Cuba, the little boy was being transformed into quite another totem. A dying revolution, a revolution of the old and straggle-bearded, held the child up as proof of its renewed youth. In this version, Elian rising from the waters became an image of the revolution’s immortality: a lie. Fidel, that ancient infidel, made interminable speeches wearing an Elian mask.

And for a long time the father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, stayed in his hometown of Cardenas and said little. He said he wanted his son back, which was perhaps dignified, and perhaps enough. Pondering what he himself might do if his uncles and cousins were to come between him and Asmaan, Professor Solanka snapped a pencil in half. Then he switched channels back to the ball game, but it was too late. El Duque, himself a Cuban refugee, would not be of Solanka’s mind in this. That mind, in which Asmaan Solanka and Elian Gonzalez blurred and joined, was overheating again, pointing out that in his own case no relatives had needed to get between Solanka and his child. He had achieved the rupture without outside assistance. As the helpless rage mounted in him he used, again, his well-practiced techniques of sublimation, and directed the anger outward, at the ideologically deranged Miami mob, transformed by experience into what they hated most. Their flight from bigotry had turned them into bigots. They screamed at journalists, abused politicians who disagreed with them, shook their fists at passing cars. They spoke of the evils of brainwashing, but their own brains were self-evidently unclean. “Not washing but staining,” Solanka found himself actually yelling aloud at the Cuban pitcher on TV. “You people have been brainstained by your lives. And that little boy on a swing with a hundred camera snouts nosing at his confusion: what are you telling him about his dad?”

He had to go through it all over again: the shaking, the pounding, the gasping for air, the shower, the darkness, the breathing, the visualization. No drugs; he had put them off-limits, and he was also avoiding head doctors. The gangster Tony Soprano might be going to a shrink, but fuck him, he was fictional. Professor Solanka had resolved to face his demon by himself. Psychoanalysis and chemistry felt like cheating. If the duel were to be truly won, if the demon that possessed him was to be wrestled to the mat and consigned to hell, it had to be just the two of them going at it, ass naked, without restraint, in a bare-knuckle fight to the death.

It was dark when Malik Solanka deemed himself fit to leave the apartment. Shaken, but putting on a show of jauntiness, he set out for the Kieslowski double bill. If he had been a Vietnam vet or even a re porter who’d seen too much, his behavior would have been more readily comprehensible. Jack Rhinehart, an American poet and war correspondent he had known for twenty years, if woken by a ringing telephone would, to this day, usually smash the instrument to bits. He couldn’t stop himself doing it, and was only half awake when it happened. Jack got through a lot of phones, but he accepted his fate. He was damaged, and thought himself lucky it wasn’t worse. But the only war Professor Solanka had been in was life itself, and life had been kind to him. He had money and what most people thought of as an ideal family. Both his wife and child were exceptional. Yet he had sat in his kitchen in the middle of the night with murder on the brain; actual murder, not the metaphorical kind. He’d even brought a carving knife upstairs and stood for a terrible, dumb minute over the body of his sleeping wife. Then he turned away, slept in the spare bedroom, and in the morning packed his bags and caught the first plane to New York without giving a reason. What had happened was beyond reason. He needed to put an ocean, at least an ocean, between himself and what he had almost done. So Ms. Mila, the empress of West Seventieth Street, had been closer to the truth than she knew. Than she must ever know.

He was waiting in line at the cinema, lost inside himself. Then a young man’s voice started up behind his right ear, disgracefully loud, not caring who listened, telling its story to a companion but also to the whole line, to the city; as if the city cared. To Eve in Metropolis was to know that the exceptional was as commonplace as diet soda, that abnormality was the popcorn norm: “So finally I called her, and I’m like, hi, Mom, wassup, and she goes, You wanna know who’s sitting down to dinner here in Nowheresville, who’s right here eating your mother’s meatloaf, we’ve got Santa Claus, that’s all. Santa Claus sitting right there at the head of the table where your snake skunk weasel father used to set his motherfuckin’ dumb-fuck ass. I swear to God. I mean it’s three P.m. and she’s already losing it. That’s what she said, word for fuckin’ word. Santa Claus. And I go, Sure, Mom, and where’s Jesus at. And she comes back with, That’s Mister Jesus Christ to you, young man, and I’ll have you know that Mister Jesus H. Christ is takin’ care of the fish course. So, that was all I could handle, so I’m like, So long, Mom, give the gentlemen my best, have a happy.” And alongside the male voice there was a woman’s hard, horrified laughter. HA-ha-ha-HA.

At this point in a Woody Allen movie (a part of Husbands and Wives had actually been filmed in Solanka’s rented apartment) the cinemagoers would have joined in the conversation, taking sides, offering personal anecdotes to rival or surpass the one they had just heard, and finding precedents for the monologue of the angry, crazy mother in late Bergman, in Ozu, in Sirk. In a Woody Allen movie Noam Chomsky or Marshall McLuhan, or maybe nowadays it would be Gurumayi or Deepak Chopra, would have stepped out from behind a potted palm and offered a few words of unctuous, polished commentary. The mother’s plight would briefly be the subject of an agonized Woody meditation—was she delusional all day or only at mealtimes? What medication was she on and were its side effects properly labeled on the bottle? What did it mean that she was possibly planning to fool around with not one but two major icons? What would Freud say about this unusual sex triangle? What did this woman’s equal need for gift-wrapped possessions and the salvation of her immortal soul tell us about her? What did it tell us about America?

Also, if those were real men in the room with her, who were they? Maybe killers on the run, holing up in this poor bourbon-soaked lady’s kitchen? Was she actually in danger? Alternatively, as open-minded thinkers, should we not allow the possibility, at least theoretically, of a genuine double miracle having occurred? In which case, what kind of Christmas present would Jesus ask Santa for? And, okay, so the Son of God was in charge of the tuna, but would there be enough meatloaf to go around?

To all of this Mariel Hemingway would pay careful but vapid attention; then, equally swiftly, it would be forgotten forever. In a Woody Allen movie the scene would have been shot in black-and-white, that most unreal of processes, which had come to stand for realism, integrity, and art. But the world is in color and is less well scripted than the movies. Malik Solanka turned around sharply, opened his mouth to remonstrate, and found himself looking at Mila and her quarterback centurion of a boyfriend. By thinking of her he had conjured them up. And behind them stood-leaned, hunched, squatted, posed—the rest of the indolent stoop troop.

They looked gorgeous, Solanka conceded; their daytime Hilfiger uniform had been sloughed off to reveal a very different, preppier style based on Calvin’s classic white-and-tan summerwear, and they all wore shades in spite of the hour. There was a commercial playing in the multiplexes in which a group of fashionable vampires—thanks to Buffy on TV, vampires were hot—sat on a dune in their Ray-Bans and waited for the dawn. The one who had forgotten his shades was fried when the sun’s rays hit him and his comrades laughed as he exploded, baring their fangs. HA-ha-ha-HA. Perhaps, thought Professor Solanka, Mila & Co. were vampires and he was the fool without the protection. Except, of course, that that would mean he was a vampire, too, a refugee from death, able to defy the laws of time… Mila removed her sunglasses and looked him provocatively in the eye, and at once he remembered who it was that she resembled.

“What do you know, it’s Mr. Garbo, who vants to be alone,” the peroxide centurion was saying, nastily, indicating that he was ready for all the trouble creaky old Professor Solanka cared to put his way. But Malik was trapped by Mila’s gaze. “Oh, my,” he said. “Oh, my, excuse me, it’s Little Brain. Excuse me, but it’s my doll.” The giant centurion found this to be an opaque, and therefore objectionable utterance, and indeed, in Solanka’s manner there was something more than surprise; something bilious, almost hostile, something that might have been disgust. “Take it easy, Greta,” the big young man said, putting the palm of an enormous hand against Solanka’s chest and applying an impressive amount of pressure; Solanka staggered backward and hit a wall.

But the young woman called off her attack dog. “It’s okay, Ed. Eddie, really, it’s fine.” Just then, mercifully, the line began to move rapidly. Malik Solanka rushed forward into the auditorium and sat down at some distance from the vampire group. As the lights went down he saw those piercing green eyes looking intently at him across the art-house crowd.

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