Lana's lengthy morning ritual: She sorted all the mail into separate piles and put them aside to answer or discard later. Then she read, cover to cover, all the magazines that had arrived that morning. Then she turned to the New York newspapers. Whenever she spotted an interesting item, or something relevant to her most recent literary project, she tore the article out and stuffed it into a folder, which would soon join hundreds of others in bulging cardboard boxes. When she spotted the name of one of her multitude of friends or acquaintances or ex-lovers, she hastily penned in a comment or two in the margin, ripped it out, stuffed it into an envelope, scrawled the person's name and addresses on the front, and put it into the growing stack of outgoing mail. Then, having brought herself completely up to date, she turned to the New York Times crossword puzzle.
I entered the dining room. Lana looked up, beamed at me. "Good morning, darling!"
Sheila brought me coffee, scrambled eggs, and buttered toast.
"So tell me," Lana said, still entering bright blue letters in those tiny crossword puzzle boxes. "How did your interview with Elsa go? Did she give you a lot of insights?"
Elsa Carter was one of Miles Davis' many ex-mistresses. She was the author of a best-selling first novel, The Infertile Seed, as well as a couple others. Her husband was a famed English literary critic.
"Actually," I replied, "she was quite evasive and didn't tell me anything I haven't already uncovered elsewhere. It's hard to believe she was sexually involved with Miles. I really expected that she'd have a lot to say, but all she gave me were short and dull answers. By the way, her breath stank of vodka. That would explain it. She was as much a dud as that rather lame book title of hers."
Lana looked annoyed, then resumed scribbling. But then she stopped, rose, and threw down her blue plastic pen, which clattered across the table and fell noiselessly onto the carpeted floor.
"Come here," she said, going into the kitchen. "What's that on the counter?"
It was a terra cotta pot with a slender-stalked plant with wide green leaves. "An avocado?" I said.
"Yes, of course, it's an avocado," she said. "Now if you had been observant, you would have earlier seen it and wondered what significance this plant has for me, or at least you would have recognized the connection it has to my dear friend Elsa. This plant was grown from a seed that was NOT infertile, don't you see? The significance goes further. An avocado was my very first gift to Harry several years ago."
It was in Harry's living room, and even though he told her that she came on too strong, she gave him a plant like that because it was the only present she could think of that meant something because she had grown it herself from a seed. She was so very impressed with Harry because he was everything she thought a man should be. But then she also knew—from the sound of his voice in their first phone conversation—that he could be equally wonderful or destructive for her.
"I didn't know that," I said.
She shook her head contemptuously. "Of course you didn't. But you should know a journalist is always wholly and fully aware of everything that surrounds him. A journalist absorbs and records every detail, large and small. Now, I even remember what I was wearing when I gave Harry that avocado plant. A dark green Austrian dirndl with silver buttons down the front."
Lana went back into the dining room. I followed obediently like a cowed little puppy.
"I have to tell you, John, that I am literally astonished and wholly taken aback at the horridly arrogant way you've just dismissed Elsa. I have known her for years and years and years, and it's utterly inconceivable to me that after trying to help you, you suddenly turn around and insult her—and me—the way you just have. It's outrageous and ungentlemanly, and coarse, and vulgar, and common, and it reveals an unbelievable and shocking lack of gratitude."
Her words cut me. Stunned me. My neck and face burned. "I'm sorry," I said. "I really didn't mean to offend either you or her."
"But you did offend me!" she shouted. "Can't you see that? You shouldn't have brushed her aside as if she were a mere ant on a picnic cloth. How dare you! How dare you! I invited her for the specific purpose of helping you write your article. And for my generosity I am rewarded with arrogance, contempt, utter thoughtlessness, and ingratitude. I just can't bear that, I really can't. It makes me want to scream, don't you understand? I need everything to be happy, harmonious, smooth as silk, pleasant, compatible, civilized, courteous, comfortable. You ought to know that by now, because everyone who knows me knows that. And your disgraceful behavior throws everything into disharmony. So how can you just stand there and deny your culpability, your responsibility for this? I heard what you said, and I heard your tone. It is horrid. Absolutely horrid."
"Lana, please," I mumbled. "I had no idea."
"But you obviously did mean to offend me because you are utterly thoughtless and insensitive and ungrateful and disloyal. You have no regard for me, and by the way, you most certainly don't have any regard for my property."
"Yes. Your cigarette burn on the end table in the den. I suppose you thought you could hide that from me indefinitely by moving the ashtray to cover it. As if I am too distracted with work and correspondence and a hundred telephone calls to notice these things."
"I'm sorry. I'll fix it."
It wasn't a valuable antique, like the table in the study near the window overlooking Central Park. It was rather an ordinary creaky little flea market thing covered with white sticky plastic, which comes in inexpensive rolls from the hardware store. But nevertheless she kept going on and on about how she detested broken or stained or ruined objects, it just made her crazy, and didn't I realize the terrible consequences of my inattention?
"And it's not just the table, after all," she said. "What would have happened if the rug had caught fire from your carelessly placed burning cigarette? Have you given any thought to that?"
I shook my head. Obviously I hadn't.
And then Lana returned to my vulgar, coarse dismissal of her precious Elsa. On and on and on, an endless stream of hateful, spit-flecked accusations. She paced back and forth. Her long pink crepe chiffon nightgown flew open, and billowed and fell like a flag at the entrance of the Waldorf.
"I'm sorry, Lana, I really am."
Finally she stopped. Her chest heaved, and she stared at me. "Will you take care of it? Immediately?"
"Absolutely," I said quickly. "I'll fix the table, as good as new."
That evening, while Lana was having dinner with a few hundred of her closest and dearest friends at 21, I wrote a long account of this bizarre episode in my journal, and I concluded with words to the effect that actually I was quite accustomed to this sort of extended rage-filled ranting. My drunken father had subjected me to it all the time. After a while you get used to this kind of crazy raving. You learn how to deal with it. When I finished writing, I hid the book under the couch in the den.
The next day I discovered that the pages I'd written earlier were missing. I looked closely. The fuzzy edges of the torn paper were clearly visible in the journal's crevice. I was deeply offended, but I dared not say that to her. No, that would surely send her flying into still another rage. Best to pretend it never happened.
Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex, the lover of Elizabeth I, was well aware his temperamental queen may on a whim reward him with great riches and power, or conversely condemn him to exile or prison or death. To survive, he did everything he could think of to please her. And above all, to obey her in all things. At least for a while.
I was young and arrogant and emotionally immature, and I mistakenly thought telling Lana the truth about Elsa was the best thing to do. But of course I should have lied. This is what I should have told her: "Elsa was fabulous, marvelous, wonderful, darling. She gave me a lot of insights into Miles's character, and I'm absolutely grateful to her, and most especially grateful to YOU, darling, for your generosity in making it possible for me to meet her."
A few weeks later I browsed the windows of Second Avenue junk shops and saw an old brass-trimmed kaleidoscope and bought it on impulse, intending it as a gift for Lana. I knew she'd laugh at the symbolism, the metaphor. The device turns random, meaningless arrangements of pebbles or gemstones or confetti into highly structured snowflake-like patterns, which suggests order, structure, significance.
But then, immediately recalling her psychotic harangue at me for not fully appreciating that drunk Elsa Carter, I decided no, I'll just keep the thing for myself. The kaleidoscope's transformations may be artificial and false, but they are entirely benign. Lana's harangue was artificial and false as well—but hurtful. To ME.