Excerpt from a new novel
The motorcycle resuscitating beside him. The hydraulic hammer bang-bang-banging at some construction site down the block. Quick horn blats from the yellow cab over there, and then the one behind it, pursued by a general revving of motors.
The man mimics each sound under his breath, searching out the rhythmic continuities as he waits for the light to change at the corner of Lafayette and East Houston, air candy on his tongue, steps off the sidewalk amid a flock of pedestrians fluttering across the intersection.
Only now it is this FedEx truck backwards beeping.
It is this forced laughter of that teenage girl in an open furry pink ankle-length coat, white V-neck, and washed-out kneeless jeans idling with her friends on the median as he passes by.
Or is she shouting at them?
Is that what she’s doing?
Is this how sadness arrives today?
That must mean she loves someone.
The man read a while, then fooled around with the in-progress portrait on the easel he keeps beside the fireplace. The subject is somebody else, an ambulance driver on break he bumped into outside Ben’s pizzeria over on Prince, so he has titled it Self-Portrait.
He had to get out of Britain. He had to get out of Los Angeles. It felt like this other person was using his mind to think with and he wanted his thoughts back. And next he was recording at the Hansa Studios, a dreary, cavernous, repurposed Weimar-era ballroom where the SS once held dances, where he could work on his music overlooking a no man’s land patrolled by East German soldiers and those cemented-up windows in the apartment blocks on the far side and feel intoxicated and trapped and rediscover Expressionism and let its jumpy distortions, ear-splitting colors, and blown-sideways perspective reanimate his own canvases.
He finds it difficult to design an answer when others ask him about his motivation. The satisfaction of doing a painting is never the satisfaction of doing a painting. The satisfaction is finishing the thing so he can move on to the next one. The process may be about the process, yet more it’s somehow about getting through the process with one eye on the what might come after.
He doesn’t see any point to getting bogged down in the piece he’s working with, all artsy and obsessive and immobilized. He can’t understand artists and musicians who do. If something isn’t going where it needs to go, why not drop it and wander somewhere else?
It’s not particularly pleasant, this tackling a new painting, this making a new song.
That catches some people up short.
Artists like to say so, like to say it’s the tackling that’s the thing, but that’s not right. It’s not enjoyment you feel. Enjoyment isn’t even close to what you feel. It’s something else. It’s—
That laugh-crying girl reminds him of someone from Berlin: that petite underfed German lover named—what was her name? She was a little needed time away from Romy Haag, the trans nightclub singer and dancer he fell in lust with at the start of his stay. Romy was like ushering a tornado into your subcutaneous tissue, everything and nothing in a whirlwind of splintered houses, an ongoing F5. But Katja—that’s it: her name was Katja—Katja Kinder—right—he could encircle Katja’s biceps with his thumb and forefinger, just like he could encircle his own back then.
Katja wore her black hair bobbed like women in the Twenties, caked white makeup at twenty-two, chili-pepper-red lipstick. Every light in every niche of her had gone out, even as she pretended as hard as she could to be some species of optimist. She was never very good at it. He could always detect desperation in an optimist’s voice. What Katja was good at was dodging her sorrow with counterfeit smiles and a meticulous system of reflexive evasion. Then she would slam into it all at once, full on, when her brakes let go. She was the kind of person who was going to be alone in life whether she was going to be alone in her life or not.
What he remembers most about their weeks as a couple in his Schöneberg flat above the auto parts store is how Katja and he would spend whole days lying in bed, listening to Kraftwerk and Cluster, reading Dante’s Inferno and Kafka’s Metamorphosis to each other, drinking warm gin martinis, smoking Gitanes, talking about the future they knew they would never share, and crying together.
They liked being unbrave in each other’s arms.
They could cry whole days away.
All the man could dream about were enormous bugs the size of babies flittering through his flat, dragging their insectile legs beneath them, he abiding in his nice white blousy dress, sailor’s cap, and white high heels in the shadowy bedroom, watching them swarm.
A tenth of a second to parse and place a sound, that’s all it takes the brain, and here there is a space-debris cloud of them: defunct launch vehicle stages, paint flecks, solidified liquids, bolts hurling 22,000 miles an hour in perpetual orbit.
The sonic mess of an incessant car alarm.
The heavy breathing of a resting bus engine.
The rumble of the subway beneath your feet smashing through black.
A form of happiness, he wants to say as he moves up Mulberry, air sugary and spring-crisp after last night’s rain, crowd dissipating behind him, all this restorative all-ness having nothing to do with him.
He has learned to turn anonymity on and off like his iPod playlist. It’s easy here. That’s what he adores about this city. Before, elsewhere, London, LA, it was the apprehension of constantly being seen. It was constantly being perceived as something not wholly human.
He became a sighting, a detection.
Here it’s a flat lilac-gray cap, cheap shades, shabby lilac-gray hooded sweatshirt, tatty jeans, and who are you, and even if I knew I wouldn’t give a shit.
It was John Lennon in house-husband mode wanting to show Sean the planet at the end of the Seventies, inviting a group of his mates to meet up in Hong Kong for a week’s holiday. Exploring the back streets one soggy afternoon, they heard a voice behind them. A cute kid, maybe ten or eleven, running up and asking, brisk with excitement: Are you John Lennon?
Without hesitation, John answered: No, but I wish I had his money.
Oh, sorry, said the kid, let down. Of course you’re not.
And off he trotted.
A couple months later, out for a stroll through the Village, waiting for the light to change on the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal, the man heard this squeaky falsetto pipe up behind him: Are you David Bowie?
Without glancing back, he answered: No, but I wish I had his money.
You lying bastard, the voice replied. You wish you had my money.
He turned to discover John in a Mickey Mouse t-shirt, army pants, and combat boots.
There they both stood on that corner, John and Davy, ludicrously trying to unLennon and unBowie themselves, outdo each other’s inconspicuousness as if the rest of New York hurrying around them didn’t have better things to do than waste time recognizing them.
At Caffe Reggio the man likes the antique bench beneath the chiaroscuro painting aping a Caravaggio near the main window.
From there he can watch people passing by outside, study those jammed inside, the student in the eggplant NYU hoodie to his right reading what book is that, Baldwin, God gave Noah the rainbow sign—no more water, the fire next time, the green-haired emo in front of him endlessly picking pellets of snot from her nose, imagining herself for some reason unobserved, and there he is, nothing more than some guy in that flat lilac-gray cap among the clatter and chatter, jotting down a few ideas in his 3.5 x 5.5-inch Moleskine notebook.
Until Iman, until here, until the peace two people can enjoy together when it’s their turn, his life never seemed entirely believable to him. In a way that thrilled him. In a way he relished finally reaching the far shore.
Now it is everything feels like Samuel Beckett’s father’s last words. Puttering around his house one day he suffered a stroke, collapsed onto the floorboards, declared, staring up at the ceiling at a point far beyond his son’s floating head, What a morning, and left himself.
That’s what the man wants to be able to say every day.
The rest is just the rest.
He orders an espresso, glass of water, and cannoli, waits for them and pops his statin before writing down the line that came to him strolling past Pasticceria Bruno on LaGuardia: In the villa of Ormen stands a solitary candle. It’s the line that fits the melody he awoke from his red dreams humming: B, C, B, A minor.
Except why a solitary candle?
He doesn’t know.
What does Ormen mean?
He hasn’t a clue.
Or, wait, he does: that’s the name of that tiny Norwegian village he visited decades ago. Yes: the country Hermione, that girl with the mousy hair, his magnificent first love, left him for in 1969 to romance someone else for a little while and appear in the film Song of Norway, that godawful bore of a musical, about Edvard Grieg’s early struggles, busy trying to cash in on The Sound of Music’s success.
Hermione and he were habit-forming.
Within minutes of meeting on the set of a BBC play in which they were both performing, they became romance junkies. Within two weeks they moved in together and became whatever it is that makes people feel uncannily connected and then searingly lonely, ruined, when they aren’t with each other anymore.
For a year they shared the top floor of a three-story Victorian in South Kensington before he was anyone, she nineteen, he twenty-one and looking twelve. It was him hearing himself demanding meals on the table just like his dad did, shirts ironed, a total affection, an unconditional attention, which he wasn’t capable of returning himself, and Hermione had other lives she wanted to live, and it was the woman you love hopelessly announcing one evening she doesn’t love you anymore, even though you both know she’s lying, trying to talk herself into it even as she knows she can’t, that she’s saying those words because you each get only one existence, and she wanted hers to herself.
He lost touch with her immediately, completely, then met his little darling blowtorch and decided to become someone else.
Hermione’s leaving crushed him, crushes him still. There was a fierce concentration to what they had, a continuous sense of newness and possibility that she pushed him out of when he wasn’t expecting it.
Who thought forgetting wouldn’t work?
Now the hours are reading, painting, writing, going for morning walks, doing business with Europe, phoning about the upcoming exhibition, the musical he has wanted to write ever since he was a kid, the new album climbing into the open before him, working out with a boxing coach, slipping into the Angelika to catch a new movie (and, without paying twice, slipping into a second one), almost never venturing north of 14th Street, and being with his wife, simply being with her, calling Duncan, who watched his dad grow up in the Seventies rather than the other way around, calling Lexi, who even at fourteen still delights in him taking her to MoMA and nattering about art as they wander from gallery to gallery—just to check in on them because he can, because this artlessness feels so good, because, precipitously, your family and friends have come to constitute both the living and the contrary.
Once it wasn’t this luxurious sensation of time slowing, dilating, this space accruing in which you can be both hushed and rackety, the concerns of a career receding pleasantly, helplessly behind you.
Now it is doing what you’re doing without knowing what to call it anymore, taking pleasure in the fact that its name is too big to be caught in thought’s failings.
That’s the solitary candle.
Of course it is.
That’s why he wore the navy-blue t-shirt with the film’s title on it, Song of Norway, in Tony Oursler’s video for “Where Are We Now?” He wanted to wave at Hermione from inside the time machine. In Berlin he heard she had moved to Papua New Guinea and married some anthropologist. In the late Nineties he googled her one night and found what had happened to her, that she was even making some artwork of her own. That brought him a smile.
He meant the t-shirt to say: Hello, Hermione Farthingale. I hope you’re doing okay. Look at us. We made it. I still think about you, you know. We’re still living on and on in our year together. Just think of me and we’re there.
It is B, C, B, A minor, the chords to the melody in his head, Hermione that ever-approaching fourth chord.
This is what he prizes about cafés, it occurs to him, taking first a sip of espresso, reaching over and clipping off a corner of cannoli with his fork. He savors the sweet ricotta, the ability to enjoy it after leaving cigarettes behind and regaining his taste. Cafés allow things to come together. There’s something distinctive in their din, the cozy congestion, the sparky scent of coffee, a peaceful corner amid commotion.
A way to cooperate with yourself, playing and listening at the same time.