It was good to talk with you and Roland last week, although I must say again that I like talking to you in these letters just as well. Telephones make me feel so pressured to say everything fast and completely and full and precise and… unnatural. There’s the word for it. Everything is unnatural over the phone, no matter how close the friend or how long the conversation. Don’t you agree? You hear the real, wonderful voice, which is frustrating because it makes the friend almost there; you’re dying to reach through the receiver and pull her through so you can have the rest of her with you too. And no matter how long the call lasts, if there’s a lull or a pause, my mind starts working double-time to think up something, anything to say to fill that dead space, like a disc jockey on the radio. Even with someone like you, my other self—alter ego-soul mate, I feel the need to entertain or at least be interesting so that we get our money’s worth from these transatlantic calls. I know you’ll think that’s stupid—the paranoid actress at work in me, because I really don’t have to feel that way with you, of all people. But I do, so despite being almost with you via the telephone, sometimes I prefer writing you another of our never-ending letters. How long was my last one, twenty pages? Yummy. I love it. On a piece of paper I can take my time, stop for days or hours to think about what I want to tell you with no pressure on, smoke my cigarettes (which you so dramatically hate), and if there are no matches about, I can get up and go looking for some without worrying about irritating you with smoke in your face or leaving you (via the receiver) down on the chair too long.
Because I live so far out of town, the mailman usually doesn’t arrive here till after two in the afternoon, and if he brings something interesting, I torture myself by not opening it right away. Instead, like a stoical child holding a birthday present on her lap for minutes before attacking, I put whatever it is (a letter from you, a book I’ve ordered from America and am dying to read) on the couch. I go to the kitchen, grind some coffee, get out that favorite fat gray cup and the rest of the fixings. Wait around till the kitchen is filled with the great bitter smell of fresh brewed, wondering all the time what’s in that letter, what’s back in the other room waiting for me. Waiting, waiting. Put the coffee on a tray along with a clean ashtray and a Kipferl or a couple of slices of bread if it’s fresh. Take the spread into the living room. Don’t hurry, go slow. Make the wait even more painful and delicious. Walk purposely by the couch and look hungrily at the white mail sitting on that fat chunk of black leather. Go out to the terrace and arrange everything just so. Only when the world out there is perfectly set up am I allowed to go back for the letter and read it.
The irony of last week’s conversation was that I got your latest a day after we spoke, but was just as excited to see your handwriting as I was when I heard your voice on the phone. People will say we’re in love.
Today I want to answer your question about living overseas. You asked what it was like to live in a place for a long time where no one speaks your language. As I said, it’s lonely and certainly isolating in a way. I talk out loud to myself a lot more than I ever have, but that could be a result of growing older and more—gulp—eccentric. One of the things that drove me mad about living in California was the sickening amount of talk I heard every day that added up to nothing. Everybody talks out there, especially in the business. Everybody has lots and lots to say, but too often at the end of a conversation, even when I thought hard about it, I couldn’t remember what they’d said! And if you don’t watch out, you become like them—both your tongue and brain click onto that deadly L.A. mental cruise control. Know what I’m talking about? When you’re awake and aware and not stoned and your lips are moving normally—but what’s coming out of both your head and mouth is oatmeal? No, right now I prefer the rigors of this goddamned German language. It’s a nice challenge, staggering around my short moronic sentences and being proud when I get them right.
I’ve lived here six months now and think I’ve convinced both my body and spirit that I am staying; this is not just another pit stop in the race to some finish line far away from here. I have no idea whether I’ll spend the rest of my life in Austria, but I do want some years here. That’s certain. At first, I didn’t like the aloneness caused by my not speaking German well. Oh, sure, I could go into the local Feinkost and chat slowly with jolly Mr. Patzak behind the counter about this butter being more billig, but that doesn’t count as real conversation—it’s more kindergarten or beginning German class. Yet at the same time, the words you do know and understand take on a hundred times more importance and meaning.
Put another way, living away from home is like being in a hot air balloon hovering over the ground, say forty feet or so. Thirty—a little closer down. The perspective’s completely different, though most things down there are still recognizable. You float over people talking and can make out scraps of their conversations, distinct words here and there, even whole phrases, but never the whole thing. And the world does become different when you experience it from a completely new perspective. In this case, being forty feet away from the existence you knew. In America among English speakers, I was part of, so I didn’t watch closely. Here I’m forced to watch rather than listen, and like the blind person, I have a greater ability to “see,” but in a wholly different way. Hear too, only different things now—things other than language.
On the other side of my life, I’ve been in and out of those depressions we talked about before. There’s something terrifying about pulling up all your stakes and moving to new territory. Some days you admire yourself for your spunk and courage; others, you wake up in the morning thinking, God, what am I doing here? And there’s the constant question of what to do with the rest of your life. Looking down the corridor of months and years that you hope are still left, you have to wonder sometimes, How am I going to walk all that way? You ask the question no matter where you are, but it goes deeper when you’re far from home and can’t lose yourself in a familiar culture and years-old daily routine. Or else I’m only being self-indulgent.
Sweet Weber has been very good about sending over books he thinks I’ll like. Lots of novels and collections of poetry. I’m amazed at how he finds the time to read with the schedule he keeps. One poet he likes very much and has now addicted me to is Charles Simic. Listen to this, from a poem called “Evening Talk”:
Everything you didn’t understand
Made you what you are. Strangers
Whose eyes you caught on the street
Studying you. Perhaps they were all-seeing
Illuminati? They knew what you didn’t,
And left you troubled like a strange dream…
That’s how I feel so much of the time, especially when I’m depressed. There must be people around who know the big answers. If I could just find them I know they’d help in a million ways. Is that silly? Is it silly to think someone’s out there who’ll know just the right thing for me to do to find love and small peace? Sounds optimistic, yet I never think of myself as an optimist.
In one of Weber’s early poems (which I’ve also been rereading), he wrote, “When we’re old and held above the earth only by the hammock of our memories.” But what kind of memories will we have if we don’t live fully right now? How come so many old people look shriveled not only by age, but also by hate and failure and disappointment? And how did you, my best friend, end up with a good man who loves you and a healthy child? Was it only luck, or living correctly, or was there something else going on?
I went to dinner at the Easterlings’ the other night and had a terrific time. I like them. Both have a sense of calm and solidity that’s deeply reassuring. And they’re funny! They told stories that cracked me up and I swore to write them down so you could enjoy them too.
Maris’s first. Apparently her father was a grade A bastard and the whole family lived in fear of him. Lots of slaps in the face, mean punishments, speak only when spoken to—that sort of bully. Our dad the shit. Mealtimes were always silent unless Dad had something to say or asked you a question. Even when they were eating, the children would keep their heads down because just raising their eyes and looking at him was an act of defiance as far as he was concerned.
One night the fam sat down to dinner at the regular time, but Dad wasn’t home yet, which was very unlike him. About ten minutes later he walked in, looking as if he’d been bitten by a snake or had had a religious experience. His eyes were as big as hubcaps and his hair stood straight out from his head. His lips were wet and his hands were shaking. It was so strange to see him this way that Maris couldn’t resist asking what had happened. “I was just struck by lightning!” The guy had been walking down the street when it started to rain, and suddenly a bolt zapped down and sizzled him on the spot. But he was so awful that even lightning couldn’t kill him! It’s a terrible story, but Mans described him as such a skunk, and living with him such a reign of terror, that when I heard what happened and what he looked like that night at their dinner table, I laughed.
Later we were talking about high school and Walker said he knew a woman who went to a big gala party at the Palladium in New York for Liza Minelli. All the chic’y-mickeys were there in their finest and the place was really hopping. Scene scene scene—meet you at the bar. That sort of party.
After she’d been there a while, this woman had to go to the ladies’ room. She found a toilet, did her thing, then stood at a sink putting on fresh makeup. A very beautiful woman wearing a tight, tight dress and looking totally glamorous came up next to her and started staring.
“Birgit Thiel! My God, it’s you!” Birgit looked over at this goddess at the next sink but didn’t recognize her. Not at all. To help her out, the other squealed, “It’s me, Richard Randall! Don’t you remember? Mill Valley High School, class of ‘Eighty-six? We were in drama class together!”
It took old Birgit about a solid red-hot minute of staring and disbelieving and remembering to realize who she was listening to. When she did, she almost went into meltdown. Richard Randall had been a little nerd in the class no one ever noticed. Now Richard had become Rochelle and looked like a Las Vegas sex goddess. Our girl was trying to regain her balance and gravity in a world that had suddenly gone weightless, while Rochelle rattled on, wanting only to reminisce about the time they were in Oklahoma together. Wouldn’t you have loved to be there, watching the whole thing?
Some people have to be struck by lightning; others cut up their bodies to make change happen. I was much luckier. I only had to look at my life to see I loved no one, had no passion for anything, didn’t care what happened today or tomorrow or next week. You asked why I left all that and came here. Now that I’ve thought about it like this, I think the answer’s kind of easy. Life has to have some geography. Color, mountains, variety… If not, you’re just living on the moon or out in the desert. When you watch those nature documentaries, you learn that only the weirdest, most sturdy lizards and bugs can survive where it’s either hot or cold and never anything else. That’s not me. Perhaps what I realized most of all was that I was losing my geography, whatever richness I had inside. No, wait a minute: maybe what I realized was I was becoming one of those nasty little desert bugs who spend days digging endless tunnels into the sand.
Enough of this.
Here it is, the end of May and I haven’t written you in too long. Please forgive. The truth of the matter is, I’ve been in a funk for weeks, and no matter how many Sacher tortes or glasses of new white wine I drink, I can’t seem to get over my self-inflicted bruise. Part of it resulted from a big mistake I made after writing to you.
When I retired and moved here, I swore I would not “be” Arlen Ford anymore, not the Arlen that people knew me as. Oh, sure, once in a while someone stops me on the street to ask for an autograph, and that’s nice, but otherwise I don’t want it. I recently rented an old Tony Curtis film, The Great Imposter, and watched it with the greatest longing. The character fakes his way through many different lives and professions and gets away with almost every one because he’s so good at what he does. People don’t question his authority. I know it’s na"ive of me to ask, but why can’t we stop living a certain way and simply change direction without being brought to task by others? I know it sounds bratty, but I do not want to be an actress anymore; it left me empty and hugely unhappy, and the time came when I realized I wasn’t a person as much as a personality. Acting is a wonderful profession, especially when you’re successful, but is it ungrateful to say I’ve had enough of it and want to do something else now? What? What do I want to do? Unfortunately, I don’t know yet, but it took me half my life to decide I wanted to be an actress. Maybe it’ll take the other half to decide what’s next. In the meantime, the past sticks like something ugly on the bottom of my shoe.
What am I talking about? An Italian journalist appeared on the doorstep recently and asked if he could do an interview. I was surprised at his chutzpah for just showing up without being invited, but I like people with nerve as long as they aren’t obnoxious. I invited him in for a cup of tea.
At first he seemed an interesting guy. He knew a lot about my films and was a good talker. A pleasant chat on a Wednesday morning. Attractive too, in a skinny way, and as I told you before, I’ve been celibate a long time. The fact that he was good-looking didn’t hurt. I wasn’t going to go to bed with him, but it’s nice being in a room with a pretty boy. We talked, had a few giggles, and I thought, Oh what the hell, let’s do the interview. Maybe it’ll be interesting.
It started out innocently enough. Stock questions: Why did you retire? Why did you choose to live in Austria? What was your favorite role? I tried to be clever, sprightly, and amusing. But about halfway through, an ugly look came into his eye that said he wasn’t having any of it. Finally, I stopped being darling Arlen and asked what he really wanted. He smiled like a barracuda with a million teeth and said he had enough material for the interview; could we now talk off the record? What do you mean, Mr. Interview Man? Well, the word’s going around that the real reason Arlen Ford so gracefully stepped down from the silver screen is that she has AIDS: she’s dying of the media’s favorite disease but naturally doesn’t want anyone to know. As if I were going to pull a Freddy Mercury and tell the world a day before I died.
Instead of getting riled, I said I’d be happy to show him the results of a blood test I’d taken three weeks before, when I’d had a full medical examination for my Austrian health insurance application. He said he’d like to see that. Still calm, I went to my study and got the papers. See, no AIDS. Next question? The son of a bitch had more!
The most disturbing thing was that I’ve never spoken with a journalist who had done his homework better. He seemed to know more about me than was possible. When I asked where he’d found all this information, he said he had spent a month and a half on special assignment researching my background. I suddenly knew what it must have felt like for people to go in front of Joseph McCarthy’s committee in the 1950s and be questioned about meetings they had attended or people they’d talked to twenty years before. It was frightening, but more than that it was terribly, terribly depressing. Once I got used to them, his questions were really no more than annoying; but what was awful, Rose, was that I started feeling like a drowning person whose life was flashing in front of her before she went under for the last time. And what I saw, I hated.
What have we done to deserve grace or forgiveness? I gave up a career because it left me empty at the end of the day, which scared me. But have your life spread in front of you like a map, or flash in front of you as if you’re a dying man, and you cringe at the mistakes, the gluttony, the waste. I desperately wanted a computer printout like that AIDS test, a simple piece of paper that said in black and white that I was all right, clean. Only this paper would testify in crisp scientific numbers and reassuring medical terms that I’d lived okay. There’d be a range from zero to ten, and if you fell anywhere in there, you were following an essentially valid path and needn’t be concerned. But I didn’t have a paper to shove in his face. This nasty little nematode threw details and facts at me: comments from old lovers and acquaintances (he even had a statement from our beloved eleventh-grade English teacher), reviews of my work going all the way back to the first film, ticket sale numbers on the flops… and it all added up to a big so what.
When I was a little girl, my parents were lent a summer bungalow with a big back yard. Mom invited a friend over for coffee one afternoon. While the two of them were talking, I was up in my favorite tree, practicing Indian war cries and having fun. Mom told me a few times to calm down but I wouldn’t. Finally her friend got ticked off and said, loud enough for me to hear, “What that girl needs is a good inferiority complex.” Well, thirty years later it’s happened.
I didn’t tell you about this, but I’ve been doing volunteer work at the children’s hospital in Vienna. I said I’d do anything they wanted, so they assigned me to a special ward of terminally ill kids who speak only English. I go every day and read to them or play games—basically, whatever they’re in the mood to do. I got the idea from Weber after he told me about working with cancer patients in New York.
As you’d expect, seeing those heroes battle not only for life, but for just a little peace and comfort in their day, makes me feel that my own turmoil is stupid and repellent. Every day I leave that building feeling secretly happy to be healthy and alive—only to get home and fall right back into the apathy and self-loathing that seem to be permanent guests now in my life.
The shocker came last night. I had just walked out of the hospital onto the street. It was a beautiful, rich summer evening when everything smells heavy and warm. I’d played Monopoly for three hours with Soraya and Colin. They’d screamed and argued and cheated like normal, healthy kids. Great stuff. I stood on the sidewalk with my hands in my pockets, in no hurry to go.
At that minute there was a scuffling sound behind me. I turned and saw a very attractive young couple: the woman on her knees and the man bent over, trying to help her up. Then I realized he was trying to pull her up, but she wouldn’t stand.
She stayed on her knees and started pounding her fists into her thighs. “It isn’t fair! It’s not right! It isn’t fair! Oh, God, it isn’t fair!”
The only word for it is keening. She wasn’t crying or moaning; she was keening. The woman sang her grief. The husband was embarrassed but was crying too. He kept tugging at her arm and saying, Come on, get up, come on. But she wouldn’t. What had happened in the hospital? Had their child died? Had they been told it would die? Had they visited it for the fiftieth time and seen suffering and misery no child on earth deserves?
I ran over and asked if I could help; was there anything I could do? Both froze and looked at me as if I’d laughed at them. There was hatred in their faces. I’d interrupted their grief, so somehow everything was now my fault. The woman staggered to her feet and, pushing me out of the way, ran down the street. The man ran after her. Looking back once at me, his face said, “You should die!”
And they were right. If life was fair, what good do I do anyone, including myself? What good have I ever done, besides entertaining people for a few hours and then sending them back to their lives no better, wiser, calmer? I have no children, love no one special. I have more money in the bank than is decent, yet I worry that I won’t have enough to live on for the rest of my life. But what life? I don’t even know if I have ever loved anyone, and that in itself scares the shit out of me. I read my books, walk the dog, and work in a hospital where kids fight battles I cannot even imagine fighting, much less enduring, from one day to the next.
Here is my resume: A. Ford made some movies, fucked a lot of men, worried about herself an obscene amount of time, and was discovered by an Italian journalist and a Viennese couple to be exactly what she was—a shadow, a fake, an empty pocket.
Hi, Rose, honey. Yes, I’m sending a tape instead of a letter. I’ve had a strange couple of weeks that I want to talk about. When I sat down to write to you about them, my fingers couldn’t keep up with my thoughts. I wanted to tell you everything fresh off my mind; that’s why the tape. If I ramble and repeat myself, please forgive, but I’m going to try to tell all this and analyze it at the same time. You know how that gets muddled sometimes. But if I can’t ramble and get confused with you, then who’s left?
As I’m sure you got from my last letter, life on this side of the water has been very dark and full of doubt for me lately. To tell you the truth, it got so bad that I realized I had to try to get out of this black hole, or else. One way of doing it was by jumping back into the outside world, rather than hiding away on my hill like a Kafka character.
Now, don’t short-circuit and call to see if I’ve hanged myself on one of the grapevines yet. All’s well. In fact, it’s so well that it makes me frigging nervous. Okay, um, how do I begin?
Well, it began with the opera. Vienna has a giant festival every May where they pull out all the cultural stops, and just about every big name in music appears here at the Opera, the Konzerthaus, Musikverein, or one of a dozen other places in this music-mad city.
I’ve never liked opera. Yeah, I know, it’s where the human voice becomes the most beautiful instrument of all, the music is transcendent… I’ve heard the arguments, but it still don’t grab me. Maybe because the singers don’t act; they stomp around, if they move at all, flinging their arms out like Big Bird trying to take off. Nope, I pass.
But I am trying to turn over a new leaf here, so I bought a ticket to a premiere and put on a nice dress. And everything that led up to the damned thing was delightful: the grandness of the building itself, the snobby audience whose faces were all frozen with money and disdain. You got the feeling you were in a place that was best friends with history.
But twenty minutes after the lights went down and the howl went up, I got totally claustrophobic, and I was out of that seat in seconds, shoving to get outside. I didn’t give a damn who I was disturbing—I had to get out of there before the top of my head blew off. Ever had a panic attack? I never did, and, boy, it scared me right down into my soul. You have absolutely no control over yourself. None! Everything’s pushed aside by fear like hot lava bubbling up and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. I charged out of the theater and right into a woman in front of the building who luckily was happy for my ticket when I offered it to her.
You remember where the Opera is—right at the end of the Kartnerstrasse, that snazzy walking street downtown? In nice weather, street musicians and other performers play for passersby. I was so glad to be out of that airless, stifling place that I felt like dropping money in every hat or violin case that I passed.
Ambling down the street, I stopped and watched two or three groups play. With no plan in mind, I kept walking and ended up at the Danube Canal. It was a beautiful summery evening. People were wearing shorts, eating ice cream cones, and walking slowly. Whole families were out on their bicycles, and groups of teenagers sat around on the benches by the water, smoking and laughing ten times too loudly.
At Schwedenplatz there’s a permanently docked old Danube steamship named the Johann Strauss that’s been turned into a restaurant. I’d never been on it, but it looked great that night: warm lighting, people all dolled up and excited to be there, women holding their husbands’ hands. The men acting like big shots, squiring their ladies on board. Ahoy, mateys! It was so nice. I stood around and watched. I wasn’t jealous or sad. I felt like a kid watching her parents get ready for a big night on the town.
I don’t know how long I stood there before this friendly woman’s voice came up behind and over me like a sonic boom. “Are you with the A.I.S. prom party?” she asked in pure New York City English.
I turned, and there was the face to match the voice—a big smiling woman in an ochre party dress.
“This is the boat, isn’t it? I’m confused. My husband shooed me out of the car and said, ‘Just go down the stairs and there’s a big boat. Get on it and you’ll find them.’ Easy for him to say; he’s parking the car. But look—there’s another big boat down there. I know one is the sightseeing boat and the other’s the restaurant. We want the restaurant, right? Which do you think it is?”
Now I wanted to know how she knew I understood English. Then it hit me: I was standing in a formal dress next to a big boat, so of course she assumed I was with her group, whatever it was. I played along and asked for the name of our boat.
She squinted at the boat, then started waving at someone up there and said, “The Johann Strauss. Oh, look up on deck! There’s C. J. Dippolito. This’s got to be it. If that’s C.J., then my son’s gotta be nearby. Come on. I didn’t catch your name. I’m Stephanie Singer.” We shook hands and I mumbled something, but Stephanie was already moving and I was part of it. She swept us both onto the boat and right into the middle of the senior class prom of the American International School of Vienna.
I didn’t go to our school prom and was always secretly sorry, although I never admitted it to you. Every girl should be granted one magic night in spring with a date wearing a new haircut, English Leather cologne, and a white dinner jacket. You get to wear something silk or floor length, a corsage, and you have your hair done. The way I see it, after that life’s all downhill. I never had that midsummer night’s dream, and it terminally deprived me. But now by some marvelous fluke, my opera dress and Stephanie Singer were giving it to me. A prom in Vienna on a boat on the Danube!
The Johann Strauss was a vision of goofy-looking boys in white dinner jackets and girls looking like angels with cleavage. You could tell under their dresses many still had baby fat around the edges, but they looked happy and proud to be with their guys. Stephanie found us a table, but before settling in with her, I excused myself and wandered around looking at the kids. Some of the couples were in love, some were showing off, others were terrified to even look at their partners. But this was their big night and they were all trying to do it right. It turned out that the reason Stephanie and her husband, Al, were there was that the school needed some parents to help chaperone the dance and the Singers had been volunteered by their son. A girl about sixteen told me this later. While she spoke, I realized she thought I was a parent too. That shook me up until I realized, hey, I am old enough to be mother to some of these kids. And that was okay because it was a special night and everyone there was looking as good as they ever will.
So Mama Arlen walked around with a glass of cheap champagne, having a great time. One of the things that impressed me was the international mix of the students. Although it’s called the American International School, these kids weren’t only American. Arabs and Africans in djellabahs and dashikis, girls wound in saris… A California blond boy had his arm tight around an exquisite Indian girl named Sarosh Sattar. Isn’t that a beautiful name? There’s a branch of the United Nations in Vienna and it would have done all those bureaucrats a lot of good to be there and see how diverse people really can get along.
I’d been on the boat about fifteen minutes and was sitting with the Singers when a girl came up and asked very hesitantly if I was Arlen Ford. When I said yes, things changed a little but not much. Some of the students wanted autographs, and a couple of the boys asked me to dance, but generally I was just another chaperone having a good time watching the dancers having fun and acting like adults for a night before they went back to their last days as kids.
Everyone had a camera and was taking pictures. Flashbulbs popped and kids shuffled their friends together for shots of them laughing and holding their fingers up behind one another’s head. Guys stuck flowers down the front of the girls’ dresses or made silly faces. Photos you find curled in the back of a drawer twenty years later when you’re doing a thorough spring cleaning. You pick ‘em up, blow the hair out of your eyes, and the nostalgia from the pictures hits you so strongly you have to sit down. You remember the smell of that night in the car, driving over to the party, and the way your date kissed you when it was almost over.
I hung around another hour and was interviewed for the school newspaper by a boy named Fadil Foual. All Fadil really wanted to know was whether I’d ever met Billy Joel or Stephen King, so it was a comfier interview than the one I did with the Italian journalist.
I went back to my car feeling much younger at heart and very grateful to the Great Powers for allowing me to have the night.
A few days later, the Easterlings called to ask if I’d like to go on a picnic with them and Nicholas, their little boy. We met at their place and drove to the Lainzer Tiergarten, way out on the edge of town. It’s a big forest reserve that used to be a royal hunting ground. But it was turned over to the people of Vienna and is a nice place to go if you’re in the mood for an afternoon of back to nature. Animals run free, and you can take it for granted you’ll see deer or wild boar somewhere along the way if you spend a couple of hours there. When we drove up, I thought that’s where we were going, but Walker strapped on the carrying bag with the baby and led us on a path alongside the park to a staircase that went straight up forever. When I asked if the top was worth the climb, Maris and he said yes. Unconvinced, I asked what was up there. Maris said, “The Happy Hill.” I couldn’t very well say, “I’ll wait down here,” so I took a deep breath and followed.
The staircase did go on forever, and when we finally got to the top, the two of them kept going. I thought we’d at least stop for a cigarette break, but no way. We walked through woods a while until Walker veered left, and suddenly we were out on a huge open meadow with a great view down over the city. They called it the Happy Hill because it was one of the first places Walker brought Maris to when they first met. They made me promise never to go up there unless it was a great and special occasion. This was only the third or fourth time they’d been there together, and they’d decided to go there that day because they wanted to bring their baby and show him.
Their Nicholas is a cute kid, fat and robust, but he was born with a big hole in his heart. Maris said that’s a relatively common occurrence and he’s in no real danger. Surgery will have to be done to correct it in a few years, but now he’s just a big happy baby who can’t sit still and who laughs all the time.
I’d brought the wine and dessert; they had everything else. Cold chicken and salad, three kinds of cheese and crackers, fruit. Just seeing all that food spread out in the bright sun on a blue-and-white tablecloth, a breeze flicking its corners, and holding Nicholas in my lap while he patted my face with one hand and drank his apple juice with the other… it was sublime, Rose. I had a baby in my lap, nice people sitting near, food… I must have sighed fifty times, I was so glad to be there. I kept thanking Maris and Walker for inviting me, but how do you thank people for giving you peace, even if it’s only for a little while?
After lunch, Walker got out a Frisbee, and we put Nicholas on the cloth while the three of us spread way out over the field. We threw it back and forth and watched it go crazy in the gusts. Right when we were growing tired, a man appeared with a beautiful Viszla that looked very much like my Minnie. Only this was a male named Red and his specialty was playing Frisbee. He caught it no matter where or how far you threw it. He was amazing. The baby was asleep by now, the dog was leaping ten feet off the ground to catch, Maris and Walker held hands… it was bliss. Life doesn’t get better than that. I didn’t want to walk down that hill again.
But things weren’t finished. When we got down, Maris suggested we walk into the Tiergarten a few minutes to see if any wild boars were around. And almost as soon as we were through the gates we saw a small pack being fed stale bread by one of the gamekeepers. Have you ever seen boar up close? They’re adorable, ancient-looking beasts; they remind you of what animals must have looked like in cavemen times. These guys were not exactly tame, but they’d come close for dinner. The keeper called them by name—Mickey Mouse was the biggest, the head of the clan. He got first dibs on whatever was thrown. A crowd had gathered to watch, and the gamekeeper came over and handed me a loaf of black bread. I was wary, but went close enough to smell them. Indescribable. Talk about the forest primeval! Their snorts and tusks were enough to knock you over. When I turned around, I noticed lots of people were taking pictures, but assumed they had Mickey Mouse in mind and not me. I was wrong. You’ll see why in a minute.
Okay, I took a little break and now I’m back for the next installment.
Walker was going out of town for a week, so before we said goodbye, I invited Maris and Nicholas to spend a day at my place. It gave me a good excuse to do something I relish these days—clean the house. I know, I know, I used to be one of the world’s great messes, but this is my new phase. Or else cleaning my house is only good therapy now when I don’t have a clue about how to clean up the rest of my life. Whatever, I went at it hammer and tongs even though it was already tidy. I mean, how much is there to do when you own five pieces of furniture? The answer is if it’s already okay, then polish it or get down on your knees and attack, swab, scrub it to death. Or maybe my obsessive ground assaults result from not having slept with anyone since moving to Europe. That’s the truth! I told you I was going to refrain, and I have. I am gradually regaining my virginity. Someday my prince will come and this time I want it to be an event.
After cleaning, I went into Vienna to shop at the Naschmarkt. I’m a sucker for open-air markets. Seeing all that variety laid out in front of me, smelling the sexy spices, the spreads of strange foods you can only guess at. It makes me want to cook colossal meals that take forever to prepare. I never enjoyed cooking till I moved here. Then Weber started sending over great cookbooks, and the last few times he came we spent whole days in the kitchen while he taught me how to do things right and well. Another thing I’m grateful to him for. I’m lucky to have you all as friends.
Anyway, I drove to Vienna with a shopping list a mile long. Besides the Austrian stands at the Naschmarkt, there are Turkish bakeries, shops of natural foods, an Islamic butcher, and a store that sells the world’s most wonderful peanut butter from Indonesia. Fresh fruits and vegetables from Bulgaria, Israel, Africa. Big tomatoes from Albania, Emmenthaler from the Alps… it’s a place you get lost in for hours.
I was so involved in shopping that I didn’t notice the sound till my bag was almost filled. The Naschmarkt is all noise anyway, so it’s hard to pick out one as small as a camera click. But as I was squeezing a melon, I heard the sound and looked up. The woman who ran the store was smiling at something over my shoulder. I turned and saw a big man aiming a camera at me. I was in a good mood and mugged for him, putting a melon to my cheek and making a face like a girl in an advertisement. He smiled and took a few more shots. I put the melon down, waved at him, and moved off. Vienna’s a town full of people taking pictures. I paid no attention.
Until a few minutes later, when I heard the sound again and saw him still aiming it at me. That time I frowned and turned away. I have too many bad memories of people who didn’t give a damn about how I felt and only wanted to take pictures. At least ask, damn it. Remember when we were at the Sundance Festival and the lunatic from Japan did that crazy thing with his camera bag? Even if this Naschmarkt guy was harmless and just liked the way I looked, I didn’t want it. I turned and walked away fast.
About halfway down the market on the other side of the street is a funky old caf'e called the Dreschler. A lot of heavy-duty characters and low-rents hang out there, mumbling into their beer. But the place has a real Vienna-1950s feel to it and I often stop in for coffee before heading home; take a window seat and watch the action at the market. I did exactly that, and instantly realized I was being watched right back by my new nemesis, Mr. Camera Head. He made no attempt to hide—he stood directly across the street and pointed his Nikon at me. It was equipped with a telephoto lens as long and wide as a weightlifter’s arm.
I tried to ignore him but couldn’t. And he wouldn’t go away. Exasperated, I started to move to a table back from the window but then thought, The hell I will! Why should he ruin my peace? I was on the verge of giving him the finger but got up instead, told the waiter to leave my coffee where it was, and marched out. To his credit, the guy didn’t move. Most photo creeps have no guts when you confront them. They’ll take pictures of you in the nude or having sex or committing suicide, but face them off, and they run like chickens. This guy saw me coming but held his ground. In fact he kept shooting as I steamed across the street, battle flags flying.
I know I live in a Germanic country and am trying hard to adapt, but I still jump into English when I get mad.
I said, “What do you think you’re doing?”
He had a nice face. Mad as I was, I couldn’t help noticing that. Plain, but alive and amused.
“Taking your picture. I don’t often see movie stars.”
“Goody-goody. You’ve got enough, so stop now and leave me alone. Stop sticking your lens in my day.”
His face fell. No, it collapsed in confusion. Then he asked if it really bothered me.
“More than you can imagine. If you know who I am, then you know I’m retired. No more movies, no more public face. No more pictures, okay? Be nice and go away.”
He did something strange: put out his hand as if we were being introduced. He said, “My name is Leland Zivic. I’m very sorry, Ms. Ford. I’ll stop. I only thought—” He was on the verge of saying something more but stopped and shook his head.
“Thank you, Leland. I’d be grateful.” I started to leave, but an ugly thought stopped me. “What are you planning to do with them?”
He held up the camera. “With these? Oh, don’t worry! They’re only for me. I’m not going to sell them or use them. Please don’t worry about that.”
“Good.” I turned and walked back across the street to the caf'e without looking again. When I sat down at my table, I glanced at where he had been standing, but he was gone.
I had so much to do at home that I didn’t think about him again until that night in bed. I hoped he was telling the truth when he said he wouldn’t use them for anything more than a souvenir. But there was nothing I could do about it. Anyway, what difference did pictures of me shopping make?
The next morning I got up early and went outside to walk the dog. Usually we have a good long walk then because Minnie’s full of energy, and if I keep her outside for a while, she’ll race around till she’s exhausted. Then we come back home and she curls up in her bed and sleeps for hours. We went over the vineyards and into the forest where you and I sat that day and talked. Remember?
When we were coming back up the path to the house, I saw a large manila envelope propped against the front door. I live so far away from the main routes that the postman leaves packages out in the open like that without worrying they’ll be stolen. But it was eight in the morning, too early for him, so it had to be either Federal Express or special delivery. But they required signatures when they bring anything. I picked up the envelope, sat down, and opened it on the spot.
There were seven large photographs inside. The first one stopped the air in my throat. The second made me curse, and the rest were so startling that they zipped both my mouth and mind totally shut.
The first was of me through the dirty window of Caf'e Dreschler. One hand’s in my hair pulling it back off my face. That sounds like nothing special, I know, but the art of the picture’s in the framing of the scene and the expression it’s caught. You know me, Rose: when it comes to visual images of Arlen Ford, I’m the world’s coldest, cruelest critic. What was so stunning here was the look on my face and the way the hand was pulling at the hair. It made you think this woman, whoever she was, was going through some heart-searing pain. The head’s thrown back, eyes closed tight. The mouth’s so twisted that it makes you think she’s either crying or snarling. She’s just found out someone she loves has died. Or the man she adores just said fuck off. She looks as if she’s tearing her hair out and being killed by whatever she’s heard. Even crueler, behind her in the caf'e is an old woman walking by with a deadpan face. Outside on the street, directly in front of the window, is a couple passing in the other direction, laughing. Mystery, isolation, and pain all together in one photo! It was so haunting. If you saw it in a gallery you’d want to go forward and recoil at the same time. You’d wonder, Oh, God, what’s happened to her? How was the photographer able to catch that moment of agony and the world’s indifference to it?
When I saw the photo, I was so shocked that for a few seconds I didn’t even realize it was me there; that I was the woman. I didn’t remember pulling back my hair. I certainly wasn’t unhappy in the caf'e that day. Maris and the baby were coming to visit. The only memory I had was of being glad to sit down after shopping and then my annoyance at realizing the guy was still taking pictures. That’s all.
I flipped to the next one. Lainzer Tiergarten the day of the picnic with the Easterlings. I’m offering bread to Mickey Mouse, the boar. We seem to be smiling at each other. Love at first sight. Maris is standing nearby with the baby in her arms. Nicholas has his hands in the air and is laughing. If that first picture was Hell, this one was Heaven. Everyone, including the boar, is happy. I’d been shaken by the first picture, but this one exuded such happiness that, despite myself, I grinned.
As I said, there were five other shots: two on the Johann Strauss the night of the prom, one in front of the Opera, one walking my dog down by the river. The last was of me from behind as I crossed the street back to the caf'e. An old man in a silly hat is watching me and pointing. He’s telling his wife something and they’re both laughing. That son of a bitch photographer took another picture of me five seconds after saying he’d stop! But it was such a funny picture that I giggled; if you didn’t know what was going on, you’d think the old man’s pointing out my ass to his wife. After I’d looked at them over and over, I dropped them into my lap and pulled the dog over to hug. Who was this guy? How long had he been following me around taking pictures? And what pictures! Each one was startling, special. I was suspicious, but intrigued as hell. It was perverse and impressive.
Maris came over later that day. After she put down the baby for his nap, I got out the pictures and showed them to her without saying where they came from. I wanted her first impression. You know how famous Maris is becoming for her model cities. I wanted to hear what an artist had to say before I took any further step.
They were in the original order. She spent the most time on the first, but stopped almost as long on the one of me walking the dog. When she asked if they were done by the same person and I said yes, she said it was hard to believe. One looked like part of the series of me in Vanity Fair by Herb Ritts, but the Opera one reminded her of a 1920s Bauhaus photograph, something by Moholy or Herbert Bayer. The corker, though, was the caf'e shot; it was as good as any picture she’d ever seen. Who was the photographer? She wanted to know if he had a book out because she’d get hold of it.
I told her how I’d met the guy. She shook her head but didn’t stop looking at the pictures. I asked if she didn’t think the whole thing was bizarre and she said yes, but they were brilliant nevertheless. Maybe it was her own strange sensibilities, but she didn’t think the man who took them was strange. I rolled my eyes and said, hey, he followed me around for days, obviously, without my ever knowing it. He was James Bond and Peeping Tom rolled into one! Not to mention a good photographer. How long had he been there before I knew it?
She said if he ever came around again and bothered me, I should just tell him to go away. But she didn’t think he was going to do that. Then she said something that got me. “We’re afraid of everything these days, you know? Terror dominates pity.” I had no idea what she meant by that and asked her to be clearer. Shuffling through the batch, she held up the picture of me in the caf'e. “This man doesn’t want to scare you. He doesn’t want anything from you. If anything, he wants to tell you something. He’s saying that you’re in trouble.”
My stomach clenched and I asked whether it was so obvious. She said, “Well, kind of.”
I have that small television in the kitchen which I usually turn on to CNN when I’m in there for any length of time. Once in a while I look up if something sounds interesting, but usually it’s only background noise in English.
Yugoslavia’s only a few hundred miles away from here, and since it exploded, Austrians have kept a close eye on what’s going on down there, for obvious reasons. Dubrovnik is the favorite target these days, and it’s obscene the way they’re destroying that beautiful town for no reason other than spite.
Two days after Maris’s visit, I was making lunch while listening to the latest report from the battle zone. Bombs exploded and people ran for shelter. There was the sound of machine gun fire and an ambulance raced by. An old woman loomed up in front of the camera, hands to her face.
A reporter’s voice came on, describing what was happening. I was chopping onions and trying to remember if I’d bought chives. The voice on TV said, “Blah blah blah Leland Zivic.” I knew in the back rooms of my brain that the name meant something, but I was too concerned about chopping and chives.
Another voice came on, this one smoother and sweeter than the other. I looked up only because someone laughed, which sounded strange in the middle of all that gunfire.
There he was! His name was written across the bottom of the screen with PHOTO JOURNALIST below it. I grabbed a marker and wrote it with indelible ink on the wood chopping block. I’d worry about scrubbing it away later.
The reporter said Zivic was famous for his photographs of trouble spots around the world. He’d been in Rumania when Ceausescu fell, Liberia when Doe was executed, Somalia at its raging worst. When asked what he thought about the Yugoslavian conflict, he said something like “Forty years of peace in this country. Then from one day to the next they’re going into maternity wards and shooting newborn children. Does anyone besides the politicians understand how that happened? The trouble with wars is that they all look alike to the people who aren’t involved. Only the skin color of the dead is different.”
The reporter said, “If that’s so, why do you keep risking your life to take these pictures?”
Zivic nodded as if the reporter had made a good point. “Because if I do my job well, people will see wars aren’t the same; they aren’t just body counts and anonymous casualties. Death should be shown in such a way that it will be remembered.”
I know one of the film correspondents for CNN. After a long time on the phone, I got through to her in Hollywood. Explaining what was up and where I’d just seen him, I asked her to trace down Leland Zivic for me. Good woman that she is, she didn’t ask why I was interested.
It turned out he had an apartment in London and was represented by an agency there. She gave me both of the addresses and phone numbers. I assumed if he was on television in Yugoslavia, it wasn’t likely he’d be answering his phone in London, so I called and left a message on his machine: “This is Arlen Ford. Please call me when you get a chance.”
I expected to hear from him soon but didn’t. At first I thought he hadn’t answered because he was still on assignment. In grisly moments it struck me that he might be dead. I tried to put the whole thing out of my mind, but his photographs sat on the table in the living room and naturally I looked at them a lot. His London numbers were stuck on a yellow slip above the telephone, and “Leland Zivic” was big and black in my handwriting on the chopping block. I’d give it a week or two before trying to wipe it off.
Opening the mailbox one morning, I saw it was empty except for a postcard. The writing was unfamiliar: neat block letters; postmark, Sarajevo. A 1930s’ photograph of New York’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Giant floats of Pinocchio, Uncle Sam, and the Tin Woodman of Oz drifted at odd angles above the street, casting huge shadows across the buildings. They were tethered by ropes to ant-sized people below.
I read: “I’m afraid to call you and will do so only if you give the all clear. Since I dropped the pictures off, I’ve been wearing a crash helmet in case you go nuclear. On a scale of one to ten, how angry are you at me for them? How did you get my telephone number? Is there life on other planets? Answer any or all of the above questions at your leisure.”
Sarajevo had recently been under fierce attack. Was that still going on? I pictured him in an underground shelter or command post, writing the card as bombs flew overhead. How amazing of him not to mention what was going on there! People have so little courage nowadays that when we do meet someone who has it by the pound, it’s hard not to be impressed. Only a little twist of fate had permitted me to know what Leland did for a living. Otherwise, I’d still have thought him just another geek with a camera who’d gotten too close. Yes, I was uncomfortable with what he had done to me, but also touched and intrigued that this interesting, modest man liked me. I called his London apartment again and said only, “The coast is clear,” and then started waiting again.
Did you ever notice how life picks up when you’re expecting an important or interesting call? The telephone itself starts to dominate the room. You’re always on edge as you move around the house because any minute it could ring and be he. And if it doesn’t ring at all, you become even more nervous. Or I do. I didn’t know this guy, yet he had taken these remarkable and distressing pictures and last been spotted dodging bullets in Yugoslavia. Days went by. God knows, I wanted him to call. Then I thought maybe my phone message had been too curt and he’d been scared off. I thought about what to say if he did call. Ask about his job? Or why he took the pictures? Would he turn out to be interesting, or only brave and dull, with an eccentric fix on retired actresses? I never said his name out loud but once in a while would try it out on my mind’s tongue. Leland. That sounded American. Zivic did not.
It was late at night. I was in bed, rereading Mariette in Ecstasy – have you gotten it yet? Please do. It makes life in a cloister sound transcendently beautiful and full of possibilities. The phone rang. I was sure it was you because you’re the only person who calls so late. But I didn’t recognize the voice, so when he said my name, I asked, “Who is this?”
“Leland Zivic. Can we talk?” His voice was completely different from the way I remembered it. Of course, what did I have to remember from the only time we had talked? Three sentences? Thinking about him, I must have imagined many different voices to suit the image in my memory. The one I heard now was soft and neutral. Low, but not so that it was distinctive or anything special. He said he’d planned to be witty and make excuses, but he couldn’t today; he just wanted to talk. Was that all right? I asked what was the matter, and he said he was in Yugoslavia near the war. I told him I knew because I’d seen him on TV. His voice got very quiet then and, oh, wow, you should have heard it. He said he’d seen things the last couple of days I wouldn’t believe. He was a photographer and took pictures of war. Normally it never bothered him because it was just a job. But maybe because his father’s family came from there, this time it was bad, really bad. Wait a minute, Rose, I’ve got to stop and light a cigarette. Just remembering his voice gives me a chill.
Here we go. Anyway, his voice sounded scared and lost. He’d called because he wanted to talk to me. His words were rushed and breathless, like a confession to me and a conversation with himself. It took me completely off guard. I’d hoped when we first spoke that it would be interesting but relaxed. This was already a hundred thousand volts in my ear. I told him to say whatever he wanted and tell me anything. I sat up in bed and pulled my pajama top tighter. I wanted to look presentable for him even though he was a world away!
He said, “I’m in a slasticarna. That’s a Yugoslavian pastry shop. There’s cake all over the floor. Can you imagine that? Cake. The whole floor is fluffy goo. The man and woman who own the place are down on their knees, trying to clean pink and blue icing off the floor. All the windows are blown out of the shop and everything’s a mess, but their phone’s working and they let me use it.”
I asked whether there was fighting where he was and he said yes, but it wasn’t bad now. It had been a couple of hours before, but it had calmed down. He said it was very kind of me to talk to him so late. I told him it was nothing, that I’d only been reading and trying to fight off the urge to sneak into the kitchen for something to eat. He asked me to tell him about my kitchen, which took me completely by surprise. When I said, “What?” he said, “Describe it. I want to have a picture of Arlen Ford’s kitchen in my mind.”
“Um, okay. The kitchen. Well, it’s white and wood. Very simple, but everything’s there.”
“Do you like to cook?”
“Me too. That’s when I feel cleanest. Everything makes sense. A woman who smokes and likes to cook. That’s good.”
There was a loud metallic noise, a scraping sound, from his end.
“It’s outside. A woman and boy are dragging a man on an upside-down car hood past the store. There’s a hospital near here.” He stopped and there was a long pause. I felt I was right there and could see that man on the car hood. I asked if he wanted to talk about what he’d seen there. There was another silence, as if he were trying to decide. “No. I want to tell you why I took those pictures of you.”
Naturally my heart hopped into my head and started pounding all across my temples. The moment of truth! Let me tell it to you in his words, as best I can remember. It was so beautiful and touching.
He said, “I’ve been down here for a few weeks. It was all right at the beginning. I was here before on vacation and on assignment for the winter Olympics a few years ago. But now the whole country’s eating itself alive. When it got too much, I asked for R and R in Vienna. Give me a few days off and some calm scenery and I’ll be ready again. I’ll give you all the blood and flames you want for your front pages. They said okay, so I went up there and just walked around, did nothing. Went to museums, took off my watch, made no plans. But I couldn’t stop thinking about what I’d seen, which is rare for me. Maybe because there are so many Yugoslavians in Vienna. I’d see them and wonder if they’d lost someone in the war, or if they were worried about family back home. Overload. Sometimes you get overloaded doing this and can’t shake it off by closing your eyes or taking a vacation. It sticks like a cockleburr on your brain.
“I rented a bicycle at Nussdorf and rode it up along the river to Klosterneuburg. I was black. My thoughts were so dark and sad that day. What was I going to do? Go back to Yugoslavia and take more pictures of dead people? Blood and bodies? I know a photographer who changes the position of bodies so that they’ll look more fascinating in his pictures.
“Right in the middle of that darkness, I saw you. You and your red dog. Unbelievable! A vision! As God said, There are nice things in the world too. Arlen Ford walks her dog by the Danube. What were the chances of that happening? Meeting up with you like that?” He stopped and said something in another language to someone nearby. They spoke quickly back and forth before he came back on. I asked what was happening. He said the guy who owned the store “wanted to know when he was getting off, so Leland had just given him a hundred dollars American and would hand him another fifty if we talked much longer. I told him that was crazy, but he said it was the best-spent money in weeks.
Then he said, “Let me finish this story. I was about to take a permanent swim in the Blue Danube when you suddenly appeared, looking even better than you did in your movies. I felt like a thirteen-year-old. First, I almost fell off the bike, my eyes bulged out… So I stalked you. I admit it. There you were; I had a camera. I wanted one shot. One great shot of Arlen Ford to put up against all the others of Hell I’ve had to do recently. And then I got greedy. After that one by the river, I followed you home and staked out your place.”
Naturally, I told him that made me very uncomfortable. He said he knew and apologized, but wasn’t sorry. That’s kind of ballsy, huh? I mean, especially if he wanted me to like him. But he did it because they were necessary pictures. That was his word. It wasn’t only me he was photographing; he was trying to take pictures of things that would keep him alive. Good things: movie stars and their red dogs, people in wine gardens, old couples sitting in their Sunday best on a bench by the river. It became a kind of crusade for him. There’s that nice Heuriger down the street from my place, and the Gasthaus that has the good fried chicken? He sat there and talked to people, then watched my house a while. I told him it was weird and wanted to go on with the thought, but his voice hardened and he said, “Wait a minute.”
Lulled by our conversation, I’d forgotten where he was and what was going on around him. I heard him speak another unknown language to someone nearby. A man barked something and Leland said, “Shit! They’re that close?”
I asked, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” He said they were about to be a bull’s eye and he had to go. He’d call again when he could. Was that all right? I said of course, but he’d already hung up, and that was that. Imagine what I went through trying to sleep that night!
The next postcard arrived two days later from a town named Mostar, which reminded me of North Star. I went around thinking he’s on the North Star now. All he wrote was:
Two friends meet on the street.
FIRST: “I just married a woman with two heads.”
SECOND: “Is she pretty?”
FIRST: “Well, yes and no.”
That was it. No message, no further report.
“Then I came in from shopping one day and saw the answering-machine light blinking: “Arlen, it’s Leland Zivic. Sorry you’re not there.”
I was furious that I hadn’t been home. So furious that, stopping myself in the middle of my rant, I smiled and said, Well, well, well. What’s happening here, missy?
After that he didn’t call for a while, which would have worried me if the mail hadn’t started bringing things I’d only previously seen typed on the inside of my forehead. His postcards and letters were full of observations, soliloquies, quotes from what he was reading at the moment, more jokes. Altogether in one. I didn’t know who he was talking to, but was glad to hear what he had to say about most anything. Here’s a few:
So many soldiers are crazy—their daily life of war has kicked them in the head and crushed a small but key center of balance and longitude in there that’s critical.
Old men should have gardens. Unlike men, old women have an inner peace. They’ve done their job the best they can and know it; they’ve used their energy-well and are now done. But from the look on their faces, life is never finished for old men; never enough, never complete. So put them in gardens, where they can pretend their work is useful or they’re keeping order. They’re pathetic; humor them.
Seen in a ruined town: a pair of red plastic children’s handcuffs at the base of a tree.
My brother likes reading books about famous failures. They reassure him that no matter how dull his life is, at least he’s safe and sound. He’s in no danger of the kind of self-made catastrophes that destroyed the likes of Fitzgerald or even Elvis Presley. My brother is dull and unmemorable but he’s safe, which is more than can be said for those other dead legends, fireworks and all.
Then this quote from Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses:
A breath is cooked air; we live in a constant simmering. There is a furnace in our cells, and when we breathe we pass the world through our bodies, brew it lightly, and turn it loose again, gently altered for having known us.
Cooked air? Photos that showed me parts of myself I was never aware of, letters I carried around and reread constantly… Who was this guy? I tried hard to reconstruct what he looked like, but all I ever came up with was a nice face, glasses, tall. So when he called again, the first thing I asked him was to tell me what he looked like. He said enjoyment, spontaneity, and affection. I went, Excuse me? And he said, You asked me to describe myself. I said, Yeah, physically. Know what he said?
“I knew what you meant. Next question.”
I took a deep breath and said, “Will we ever see each other again?”
“I don’t know. Do you think it’s a good idea?”
I said, “Don’t be coy.”
“Oh, I’m not being coy. If we were to meet and it was a disaster, what then?”
“Well, it wouldn’t be, because we’ve already had our disaster; the day we met I thought you were a camera creep.” He said, “I am. I’m a professional camera creep. I don’t know, Arlen. I love writing those cards to you; they’re my oasis down here, but getting together… ahh, that’s something else.”
“Because we both have expectations. We each know how we want the other to be. But hopes don’t usually work out in real life. As long as I can talk to you in postcards or over the phone, then you’re the Arlen I love from the movies—Lady Cool, pretty… And face it: you were put off by my photos, but I was the one who saw you that way. Why would you want to meet the guy who insulted you?”
I screamed at him that I wasn’t insulted. I loved most of them, and the others… Medusa wouldn’t be thrilled to see herself in a mirror! I told him Maris saw the one of me in the caf'e and said I looked like the Masque of the Red Death!
He laughed and said, “But don’t you love that story? All those dumb people trying to party their way through the end of the world? Death has a sense of humor. He didn’t just come in and bust up their soiree; He dressed up in a costume like them and walked in with a drink in His hand!”
I was not interested in Edgar Allan Poe and asked him point-blank when he was coming to Vienna again. He said he didn’t know and wanted to think about it some more, the shit! I was dying, Rose! I was throwing myself at his feet, and he had to think about it some more. Talk about a smack in the face!
So fade out on that and fade in on Minnie and me sitting out on the front step, taking in the first sun of the day, when he arrived. My eyes were closed and my hands were wrapped around a hot mug of coffee. The best part of the morning. Then I felt her tense against my leg. I slowly opened my eyes when I heard the sound of a car drive up nearby and a door click open. A taxi stood at the bottom of the hill and someone was bent into the back door pulling a duffel bag off the seat. When he had it out, he turned and waved at me. Oh shit, oh shit, there he issssss! I didn’t have makeup on, hadn’t brushed my teeth, and had had garlic soup with dinner last night… Great, huh? Perfect timing. But that’s what he looked like! Everything about his face came back in a second, and I didn’t know whether to stay where I was or go down to greet him. I was calm; not one quiver or tingle of worry. He was finally here. I guess I’d been ready all along.
I stood up and started down the path, Minnie running ahead of me. While she stood at the gate, waiting and wiggling to get out, Leland closed the door of the taxi, which took off. He tried to pull the bag onto his shoulder but stumbled and let it fall heavily to the ground. I was close enough to see him lick his lips.
I kind of joked and asked if it was such a heavy bag. I opened the gate and Minnie launched herself onto him.
He said it was just a little tricky and I asked whether I could help. He said no but that he’d done something to his side. I looked and saw he was bleeding! He smiled and said that was the problem. He was wearing a white shirt with the sleeves rolled to his elbows. Right where the roll touched his side was a large patch of dark red. I asked him what happened and snatched the bag away.
Absolutely calmly, as if he were describing breakfast, he said he’d been hit by shrapnel and that he’d have a nice scar if he was lucky. Macho idiot. I told him to come in the house, for God’s sake. He said I couldn’t carry his bag because it was too heavy. Can you imagine, saying that while bleeding through his shirt?
The bag was heavy but I got it up to the house and put it down at the front door. When I asked if he should go to the hospital to have the wound checked, he said no, it wasn’t serious, just messy. I said that sounded a little too fucking heroic.
Once we were inside, I asked if he was hungry, and as I started for the kitchen, he touched my arm. “Was it all right to come here? I know I should have called first—”
“Of course it’s all right! Now sit down and take it easy. I’ll make you something.” But he followed me to the kitchen and sat at the table. Minnie kept right up with him and lowered herself onto his foot. I asked whether he’d like some bacon and eggs; he loved the idea. I said, Fine, now tell what happened to you.
He’d been riding in a UN convoy when some bastards strafed it. I said that hadn’t been on the news, and he laughed. A lot of stuff isn’t on the news, he said, and that’s one of the first things you learn as a journalist. They say they’re telling people the news, but usually it’s cleaned up and defanged, no matter how gritty it looks. People say they want to know the truth, and think they’re interested in seeing death and bodies, but show the reality, and they’re horrified.
After I digested that, I asked what really was going on in Yugoslavia. He said everybody wants to be free of everybody else these days. Fifty years ago, you had wars because one country wanted to own another. Today it’s because parts of countries want to be free of other parts. The Croatians from the Serbs, Czechs from the Slovaks, every part of what used to be Russia.
While I was cooking, I listened with my back turned. When I glanced over my shoulder to check on him, he was resting his head on his fists and seemed to be speaking to the far wall. I wanted to ask lots of things but knew he needed to talk about what mattered to him, so I kept quiet.
Minnie was lying next to him and he asked her name. I told him and said if she gets to be too much, give her a shove. She thinks everybody loves her as much as she loves them.
He nodded. “You know what’s funny? When I got hit and they were patching me up, I couldn’t think of where to go. I mean, I have my apartment in London and there are people I could stay with, but still. It’s no big deal—it’s a flesh wound, but it frightened me. When I was most scared, I realized I wanted to come to Vienna. I wanted to see you. After we talked last time, I was sure I wouldn’t do that, but here I am. I hope I’m not intruding, breaking your peace… If I am, just say so.”
“Your eggs are ready. You’re not intruding on a thing. Notice how busy I was when you arrived. Here, eat.” How else could I have said it, Rose? I’ve never been so happy in my life to see a man? That would have gone over big!
He eats just like me: hasn’t swallowed a mouthful of food before the next is going in. I told him that and he said it was a habit from being in dangerous places—you eat when you can and as fast as you can. I told him he could slow down because it wasn’t dangerous here. He stopped and, pointing his fork at me, said, “Wanna bet?” My heart vaulted into my throat and there was this big silence, but then I got up the nerve to ask why he had come.
“Because I still need to write my life in what remains of this moment.” That was what he said, exactly that.
The line stung and thrilled me at the same time. What a strange, compelling thing to say! I understood it at first, then didn’t. I wanted to ask him to say it again but instantly knew I shouldn’t, because when he looked at me after saying it, his look said, “Understand me.” I didn’t, but never would have told him that.
Thank God Minnie broke the tension by biting her ass and chewing at it furiously. We both watched, smiling, and I was glad for the distraction.
He went back to his food, and when he was finished he stood up slowly and asked if I knew of a good hotel nearby. I said, “Don’t be ridiculous, stay in my guest room; there’s a separate bathroom, clean towels.” But he wouldn’t do it. The Gasthaus down the road has a couple of rooms above it, so I called and found the rooms were available and reserved one. I didn’t know whether I was happy or sad that he’d refused. My mind was a sewing basket full of different-colored, tangled emotions. He was wounded, I wanted to talk to him, get to know him better. But his staying with me would mean a whole bunch of other things, and we both knew it.
Now, was I attracted to him? No, he’s not my physical type. At first glance I thought he looked like an old college fraternity brother. Nice face, very animated when he spoke, but not one that would stop you dead if you saw him on the street. He looked like someone’s likable brother, if that makes sense. So no, it wasn’t that. You know I think about sex a lot, particularly when I haven’t been with someone for a while. Leland made me feel that he was listening carefully to every word. He seemed a good person to confide in, but not someone you’d jump on and drag into the bedroom.
We brought his bag out to the car and I drove him to the Gasthaus. On the way, he said he was very tired and was going to sleep for a few hours. After that he’d be fine again; could he call? I invited him for dinner and offered to pick him up. He said dinner was great, but he’d walk over, because it would be a joy to go somewhere on foot without having to worry about being shot at along the way.
The rest of the morning I cleaned and planned. I pored over my cookbooks and came up with something delicious but easy to prepare. It needed the freshest ingredients, so I drove back to the Naschmarkt in Vienna for the things I needed. Passing his hotel, I smiled and said a quiet “Hello there.” And when I got to the market I kept thinking about the time I’d met him there and what had followed.
Because I knew he’d been there and was so near now, the city itself took on another kind of pleasant weight and feel. You know what I mean? When he felt better I would show him the places I liked. We’d go there and there. I wondered how long he’d stay.
“Because I still need to write my life in what remains of this moment.” Jeez, what a line!
The ride home was one of those small, wonderful half hours you later think back on and cherish. There were fresh strawberries in the bags, leeks and fresh Hungarian paprika for the soup, vegetables big enough to hold in two hands. I thought about how I’d spread them out on the white kitchen table and prepare them as best I knew how. I’d made the meal before and it was always good. A long afternoon in the kitchen ordering and anticipating. Use the good china and beautiful Czech crystal glasses. Was there enough wine? Should I buy a cake for dessert?
Standing in the kitchen again all ready to begin, I almost didn’t want to start, because every step would lead me closer to completion and his arrival. In comparison to this day, how quiet my life had been recently; how peaceful yet faint. Weber once sent a postcard saying, “Live every day as if your hair is on fire.” For a long time, I thought I’d had enough of that fire, with all the years of California burning up my head. But now I knew by the excitement in my heart that the months in Vienna had been too much the other extreme; too quiet, removed, and monklike. The time had made me think too much about life and frankly scared me with the darkness that was there. Leland’s arrival was the best deterrent to biting into myself with my own poisons.
I’d only just begun to cook when the doorbell rang. He stood there, holding a bouquet of flowers.
“I thought you were going to sleep!”
“I did a little, but it’s too nice outside to sleep. May I take Minnie for a walk?”
I suggested he take her up to the vineyards and she’d show him her favorite path. I stood at the door and watched them head out. She ran a way, then turned to see if he was following. He ran after her a few steps and I worried that he might hurt his side. Oh, God, Rose, I was so happy watching them. So happy and excited!
The rest of the day was great too. The meal didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped, but he devoured it and complimented every dish. The conversation filled me much more than the meal did. You think you’ve led a zippy life till you meet someone like Leland; after hearing his life story, you feel as if you’ve spent all your days in a mouse hole.
He dropped out of college at nineteen when he realized the only thing he wanted to do was take pictures. Went to New York and worked as an assistant to Ovo, the fashion photographer, but the glitzy scene disgusted him. He quit and went on vacation to what was then Rhodesia. Their revolution began about five minutes after he arrived, so he was stuck in the country with little to do but take photographs of what was going on. That’s how he got started in photo journalism, and since then, it sounds as if he’s been in every ugly and dangerous place on earth. I asked if he was ever scared. He said all the time, but fear made the experiences richer and more satisfying. For fun, I started naming odd places, and he’d either been to most of them, or his plane had touched down in their airport on the way to somewhere even closer to the end of the world. He rode in a camel caravan with Mauretanian slave traders, saw a ghost hovering outside a Buddhist monastery in Nepal, was in Beijing when the Chinese army cracked down on the students. Stories on top of stories. He’s been in remote jungles and seen animals named the bongo and the armor-plated pangolin…
What do you ask someone who’s done all this? I wanted to know if he’d come to any conclusions. He said, “You know those strange spiderwebs you run into when you’re walking down a major street sometimes? What are they doing there? How’d the spiders manage to stretch their strings all the way from there to there without breaking them? How did the webs survive all this time without someone walking through them?”
I asked what he meant by that but he shrugged, got up, and said he had to go to the bathroom. He didn’t come back for a long time and I got worried. I went to the doorway and called to see if he was all right. No answer. I walked to the bathroom and saw that the door was open and the light was off. Where was he? I scooted around the first floor of the house looking for him, sure he was collapsed on a floor or leaning against a wall with his eyes closed, barely able to stand. I scolded myself for not remembering that he was wounded and that talking had probably tired him out terribly. There was a decent hospital in Klosterneuburg and I could have him there in ten minutes if necessary. But where was he?
I stopped and realized that I was so worried, I hadn’t noticed the front door was open.
“Leland? Are you out there?”
“Yes, come quick. Look what we found.”
This is what I saw when I rushed out—but there’s no way in the world I can ever do the picture justice with words. He was sitting on the front step with his back to the house. Exactly where I’d been that morning when he drove up. Minnie was against him with that wonderful full-bodied lean she uses when she loves someone and wants to be as close as she can possibly be. Just the two of them sitting out there on that stone step together, looking like drunken sailors, was enough to make me put a hand over my mouth and almost cry. Then I noticed she was craning her head up as far as it would go to see whatever it was Leland held in his cupped hands. The picture reminded me of a parent and child, or a teacher showing a student something interesting. I walked over and came up right behind him. Before I focused on his hands, Minnie looked at me not with her normal crazy excitement, but with calm love in those golden eyes.
There was a small gray-and-brown fur ball in Leland’s hands and I was about to say something when it slowly uncoiled from its protective tuck and stuck a tiny, shiny black nose off the edge of his fingers. Kilroy was here. That time I couldn’t stop an oh! from jumping out of my throat. It was an igel, Austria’s version of a hedgehog. It’s the cutest animal in the world, and sometimes at night, if you’re lucky, you see one tiptoeing slowly across the ground, stopping here and there to look around arid sniff. Minnie isn’t interested; if she does come across one, she’ll nose it and move on. But when you touch one, it normally tucks itself into a tight ball like a porcupine and stays there till the danger has passed. Here was my dog looking at the adorable thing as if it were a friend. And the igel was unafraid enough to come unwound and snoop around in Leland’s hand.
I asked where he found it and he said it’d been on the step when he came out. I was amazed—who was this guy? Robert Capa, Indiana Jones, and Saint Francis of Assisi? He asked what the creature was called, and I told him and said I’d always wanted one for a pet. Did I want that one, he asked, but I said no; I just liked the picture of the three of them together. He turned around with a beautiful smile, then put the igel down on the ground. The little thing just waddled off in no big hurry. Minnie didn’t move, but looked back at me as if to say, “See? Did you see that?” I asked Leland how he felt and he said fine. He put a hand on Minnie’s head and she leaned into him even more. The sound of a plane swept over us, and a few seconds later its flashing lights and dark shape moved across the sky. Leland took his hand off the dog’s head and reached up. He pretended to grab the fist-sized plane and bring it down slowly. Then he opened his hand to me and said, “It’s for you.”