NOTHING so blinding as a simple piece of white paper. Haven’t begun, still waiting for the phrase that comes from somewhere else—the one that surprises when later read. Of course, no one knows better than a writer the myth of inspiration (or, as Stephen Crane observed, “inspiration’s nice, but it’s good to be sitting at the typewriter when it happens”). The real work is the keyboard, the chair, an empty room, a silent phone; the stack of books, those you admire most—the only company allowed. (The pain of such deliberate deprivation, day after day. After day. And how, months into it, you sit at a dinner party empty of comment, your own life peopled by characters only you know.)
Walking around town, making calls, drinking coffee, going out—feeding the bank, the question nags, or simply procrastination?
I rifle my bookshelves, glancing at random pages, hoping something—anything—will spark. At the very least, sifting through the collection for my heroes—in particular, the ones who might help me now; with this. (Bukowski, Gogol, Salter, Duras. Vonnegut, Salinger, Phillips, Hempel. Jones, Bass, Carver, Moore.) The ones who have taught (and continue teaching) me whatever I do know. Among which is that the beginning cannot be ground out, thought through, reasoned with; it comes from someplace else—surfacing, I think, or maybe I mean alighting—whether it comes from above or below, all I know is the beginning has to soar; has to begin that inner high-wire act, all the while knowing that every word must be worthy of somebody—of anybody—else’s eyes.
When I refused to sign with the studio unless I was given the right to do my own adaptation (or got first shot, anyway, as Maggie immediately pointed out), I was all swagger and master, the cool strut. How hard could it be, I’d thought—then. Now (of course), the effort required looms monumental.
But then, I’ve always balked at beginnings. Fine when I’m in the middle, when I’ve hit my stride, but something about starting strikes me false—the need to work oneself up like a horse behind the gate, rearing before the bell.
Start in the middle, then, my editor suggests. Yes, I think (I’d said)—those suggestions, they sound so simple in his office, the two of us high above midtown, looking down, broad daylight making everything safe, our problems practical, simply requiring solution (“yes, that’s it!”), so that both of us smile, pleased, two colleagues sitting in a room, a gulf of knowledge between us.
Try to talk myself down from the absolute blank of it, the stunned ignorance as to how to proceed. Type, “Exterior, Day,” then sit with my hands on the keyboard, minutes, an endless period of time. “My wife” the single recurring phrase.
It’s three hours later in New York—where everything, as she pointed out to me, happens first. Where is she right now—at the gym, hair pulled into a tight ponytail, she’s stepping, determined, up and up and up, going nowhere, sweat her sole purpose, the single destination; it is, I think, the only mindless thing she does all day.
Outside, the sun shines relentlessly, mocking. How can anyone think seriously in this town—the light crowds everything out, every nuance, every shadow.
Finally leave the hotel, get in the car. Drive up into the hills along Mulholland, see the Hollywood sign, enormous letters crooked on a hill. A town that advertises itself.
Went back down and east on Franklin with no destination until I saw the sign: Griffith Park. Turned on Western and followed the winding road into the canyon and further, all the way to the top. Solitary men parked along the sides, glancing at me, their looks brief but penetrating—am I one of them. Avert my eyes, half-envious, half-aghast at how, left to themselves, men seek sex out like predators, roving anonymous, nothing exchanged but the tacit enactment of some pornographic fantasy, furtive, illegal.
At the top, busloads of tourists unloading before the observatory. Didn’t stop the car, just drove back down, aimlessness like a nervous disorder. Parked at the bottom, near some picnic benches. A woman sitting alone, reading, a child playing at her feet. When I sat at a table nearby, she didn’t even look up.
Took my notebook out, still can’t suppress the wave of self-consciousness inevitably felt when attempting to write in public. Want the solace of other human faces around me, the sense of having escaped solitary confinement, but always end up paralyzed—ultimately, the act too private; feels like sitting on the john with the door open, pretending you don’t care if anyone sees.
I sit hunched over my paper, sunglassed, fraudulent, and all I’m thinking is whether she’s married or not. Does she love her husband. Does she still fuck him when they go to bed at night. Does she look at other men—she hasn’t, as far as I can tell, acknowledged my existence, not even for a second.
But I know how women can be. How Maggie is. Walking down the street, staring straight ahead, she seems oblivious to the men around her, catches everything. Who looks at her, how. That man, she’ll mutter about some Bowery drunk, staggering to gape after her, needs to get some sleep.
Women: they’ve trained themselves to notice everything without ever seeming to look around. To look invites attention, Maggie says, and I get enough unwanted without having to ask for more.
Keep flashing on her that last night, how she changed out of her slouchy clothes before Connor came over, how she darkened her eyes. How every time I sat next to her she jumped up, muttering—check on dinner, she’d say, hate it when the bread gets burned—but then it did, and she forgot dessert altogether…
Sit here now obsessing, can’t shake it, about the way it was—the way she was—that last night in NYC. Coming out of the bedroom when Connor arrived, capable, despite the twelve years we’ve (somehow) stacked between us, of surprising me with her beauty.
She was possessed of an energy she calls forth sometimes, a kind of fire, wild; you can feel it in the air around her, see it in her eyes: it’s a passion, not just for life (life, she likes to say, is drudgery) but for this particular moment, now, and now and now and NOW—so that being with Maggie, when she’s like that, heightens everybody’s awareness, makes people greedy for her, makes them crave proximity—and maybe because it’s not entirely under her control, it makes her giddy, too; it has a sexual edge, always, but it also, especially when we’re with friends, creates a fine, sweet camaraderie.
At home with the two of them that night, like so many other nights before, she was a brilliant thing, my wife, glimpses of her mind like flashes of light, the sting of her wit a fine lash, always balanced by her goofiness (she was Mata Hari with knobby knees, tripping over her own laces).
Giggling, sexy, falling into Connor’s lap, she was the evening’s star, and while it made of us collaborators (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid indulging the woman both adore), none of it was—none of it is—possible for me, neither the intimacy nor the ease, without the absolute certainty, so strong it has its own presence (or so I’ve thought), that come the end of the day, the end of the evening, when she’s tired, when it’s all over—that come the end of everything, the years of our lives themselves—it is, it would have always been—me whom she had entrusted it all to, her secrets and her lies, her brilliance and her bitterness—that it was me and only me who had to know her, to whom she had to tell it all … and me only who kept her warm and sacred and close … so that ultimately it never mattered whose lap she fell into, or upon whose shoulder she momentarily rested her head, because she would still, always, choose me.
Meet me at five, he’d said; that was all.
I can hear the child talking nonsense, singsong, wholly absorbed in his own pretense. The woman seems equally absorbed by her book, I can see the title from where I sit—My Sister and I, it says, and beneath, written like a signature, Friedrich Nietzsche.
It is not, I think, the usual thing.
I turn back to my paper and hear it all again, Connor’s voice on our machine—meet me at five—nothing else (the intimacy of such curtness, such command!).
We rise at the same time, the woman and I, and the unexpected simultaneity of it makes us both look.
Hi, her child says, the greeting so clearly for me I raise my hand in a wave. Hi.
She smiles between us, she seems distracted—by the environment, or maybe something in the book she’s just been reading.
It’s nice out here, I say (immediately think how banal it sounds, not at all what I wanted to say)—
The light here, I say then, surprise myself with the desire to speak, to command her attention.
Where are you from? she asks, all three of us moving toward our cars, her son slightly ahead of her, tugging her forward. She acts unaware of his resistance, she keeps well enough behind me that I cannot see her face.
New York, I say, City.
It’s not like a city here, she says, only looking at me when she’s reached her car, an old Buick from the seventies, its dark green paint rusting off.
No, I say, and feel its urban absence the way amputees must a phantom limb—how radically immediate the streets are the second you step outside, and how human, people brushing past each other in narrow doorways, the comforting inescapability of touch, everyone cowering beneath the same fierce winter, soldiers all, enduring.
But once you get used to the trees, she says, she makes a gesture, then doesn’t finish the sentence, and it is oddly revealing, makes me see her as if for the first time—the oval of her face—her skin, I see only now, luminescent—totally devoid of makeup. We look at each other for a moment, curious, and then her child speaks.
Okay, Mommy, he says, let’s go (three, I’m guessing no older).
Okay, Walter, she says, the casual respect in her tone unusual to hear spoken to a child so young.
Bye, Walter, I say, and he turns around, pleased to hear his name.
Bye, he calls out, so bright I smile, the expression an involuntary reflex.
She drives away first, and I see her plate, one of its corners unscrewed so it spirals out and away from the body of the car, the letters on it an unintelligible row of consonants, a Y and two Rs, an Icelandic rune.
—7 january, Los Angeles
Everything’s different at midnight. The absence of light demands more from you, & writing such a private act, a nocturnal impulse, sexual, hard. I am driven to it by some fury tonight, the fury of energy that grips me when I can’t sleep, and something else—the writer’s fury to get it down.
Since arriving LA, only things I’ve been driven to write are my own wild flights of doubt, bewilderment, pornography—and then, a fury bordering on the murderous (that immediately followed by trepidation, remorse, a persistent sense of the unreal … Maggie and Con. Jesus Christ, it’s an absurdity! Con and Maggie?).
Never! I say to myself, I am beyond sure, I’m reaching for the phone to call, to laugh with her—how ridiculous, these thoughts!—all at once I’m ready to confess just how stupidly I’ve spent my first days “on the coast” … but then, when the phone is in my hand, I’m assaulted by a sudden, unbidden image—
The three of us, we’re saying goodnight—it’s so familiar, Con’s grin at the door, the groan of too much wine—after the martinis, that is, and before that wildly expensive bottle of Cognac Con’d brought (a surprise)—is it a pastiche of every goodnight, or am I editing, inventing their lines, imagining how the scene plays if they are, in fact, lovers (or perhaps they’ve only begun, but still waiting to conduct its consummation—waiting to get rid of the extra man…).
Remember Con reaching for me, urgency masked by self-deprecation (is it for real, then, the muttered “don’t go,” “just stay,” a child grasping after what—after who—is nearly gone? Surely he’s not capable of such emotional deception! Cool he may be, but that kind of liar? Impossible!). The impulsive reach as he grabs my hand (he’s adopted the black half-hug, a one-armed embrace perfect in its ambiguity—how it satisfies men’s need to be close at the same time as we hold ourselves away) and it’s satisfying here, too, natural in a way the pseudo-hug-PAT-PAT-I’M-NOT-A-HOMO!-PAT-PAT-PAT! has never been—and never will be.
It’s only then I recall his last gesture, so unexpected I’d stashed it someplace else—when, even as we came apart, he’d leaned forward again, planting a sudden, nakedly sweet kiss on my cheek—a gesture I found so touching I could only smile, even as I (chickenshit!) automatically reached (Christ and how often I do—how often I did!) for my wife—she who finds no demonstration of love ever awkward, or bizarre, or unwanted (no, we must only—ever!—be delighted).
And yes, there she was, I could see Con’s sweetness mirrored in her eyes, warm and sure as she opened her hand under mine for one brief moment before allowing it to trail off and up, my fingers tracing the length of her arm as she moved away, letting me precede her even as I spoke—to cover (as ever) my sudden flush of feeling with a wry, affectionate tone:
“Say goodnight and come along, darling, the boy has raves and rants awaiting, a crowd of swells and molls, wildbeasties by the dozen, to say nothing of deposed kings and uncrowned queens”—interrupting myself as I warmed to my soliloquy, lowering my brow to glance at him beneath it—“and oh so many fags and faeries, all of whom have no doubt spent the better part of this evening wondering who on earth could possibly lay more claim to L. L. Fauntleroy” (a nickname he despised, but allowed it pass without protest) “than their own entourage…”
Remember how Maggie’d caught my hand just as my fingertips left her shoulder, twisting to smile bewitchingly at me, while in her most rational wifely tone she promised “to just lock up” and then, turning further, in some theatrical play at privacy, added, Warm up the bed for me, won’t you, sweet keep?
Remember my own eye roll as I climbed the stairs away from them (thinking now was it—IS it—possible that she’d thrown that out to be purposely overheard reassuring her dumbfuck husband of her continuing sexual desire?).
If so, what an ass I look to myself now: a fool smiling indulgently as he rounds up a myriad of wine goblets from the various armchairs and cushions, sofas and windowsills, the three of us had lounged on, eaten at, danced atop, argued over, then laughed against …?
No. The only thing I want to get down now is how long it seems—no, not seems, how long it really did, in fact, take—for my wife to actually dispatch that presumptuous fucking brat before she finally decided (with what, I wonder—an arched brow, raised shoulder—that eloquent quasi-European shrug that bespeaks so volubly of the tedium we all must wade through in life?) to visit her presence upon my—upon our—bed, for what we’d both (or so we’d said, building it up three days before I left, whispering nasty words in each other’s ears at the last faculty tea, deliberately abstaining until that bittersweet moment should arrive) been waiting for; “goodbye sex is so—mmmm,” Maggie’d said once—God, years and years ago now—“I like it better than almost anything else.”
Another, wholly unwelcome thought (sure, come on in! Crowd my head, shove any usefully literary ones overboard, then just repeat … repeat … repeat…).
Knock it off, I warn myself, and am rewarded by the sudden certainty that Con is, right now, still awake himself on the other side of this continent, lounging around in some unimaginable (in that I refuse to imagine it) state of undress, doing the exact same thing as me: writing in the notebook I give all my students at the beginning (and end) of every term, with the unending assignment to write down—I’ve said it so many times it’s memorized: “as truthfully, with the fewest words necessary, what happens to you. And by happen I include thoughts, dreams, fantasies, memories, conversations, ideas, even words, that inspire you—write what makes you crazy, what thrills you, what brings you to your knees, what makes you glad to be alive—everything, that is, that might, in any way, be relevant to a writer’s interior life.”
For one white-hot second I am utterly convinced: she is there, my wife, her legs tangled in his scummy sheets, her eyelashes quiet on her cheeks, while he, stupefied with his great fortune, with this surely undeserved conquest, naturally much too excited to sleep, props himself up on one elbow and tries to get every last nuance down—what she said, what he said, how she acquiesced, the shocking silk of her mouth, the satin of her skin, the flax of her hair—
Stand, pace, sit, stand. Suddenly, have to laugh. What better deus ex machina in these modern times than our goddamn telephone technology—made all the more ironic in that suspicion had nothing to do with why I listened to those messages … no, it was merely stupid, thoughtless habit …!
Called home to leave a message, then unthinkingly, automatically, hit the rewind button. The jolt of his voice, scoured with background traffic, loud in my ear, the half-shout of it:
Meet me at five!
Where, it was my first thought—and then I had to endure the rude interruption of my own voice, mere seconds after his; had to listen to its self-importance from three thousand miles away, a truly nasty joke.
Hung up on myself.
It’s two o’clock in the morning and I’m wide awake. Would like to have a drink in some anonymous dark bar, but this town is over, it’s closed, there is no place to go. Turn the television on instead & catch some piece of news about New York, footage—makes me childishly, but no less viscerally, homesick for its press of humanity, even the gridlock of it all. The brash opinions, the contact.
It’s all right there when I close my eyes—my neighborhood, its texture, the colors, the people on the stoops, everything. I have lived there ten years now, I am saturated with it. It extends out from me like some invisible radius, a hologram.
Now I’m in the desert. How appropriate to have been brought to my knees, here.
Turn the TV off, sit there without moving, ages. Occurs to me what a classic, what a cliché, picture I make: man sitting on the edge of his bed in a hotel, wondering if his wife is having an affair.
—8 january, Los Angeles
© 2010 Kristin McCloy