Query: LOVE STORIES
In this 60,000 word collection of true-to-life narratives there’s Elizabeth, a moody chain-smoking Georgia O’Keefe look-alike, who worked her way through graduate school in England by playing guitar and singing sad songs in pubs, and who could never get over having given up her daughter for adoption.
There’s Catherine, who quotes from Les Liaisons Dangereuses that “the best swimmers drown,” and is chronically depressed because she just can’t seem to hold onto any of the men she’s drawn to.
There’s Joan, a 50-year-old Philadelphia Main Line Ph.D. psychotherapist who was married once—for a week before she had it annulled—and now can’t look her current lover in the eye the next morning.
And Zether, a mathematical genius, a breathtakingly beautiful professor at Drexel, who on a first date recites The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock in its entirety, and then after a flurry of intense, romantic emails abruptly ends the relationship before it begins. Why? She won’t say exactly.
But at the beginning and end of this meticulously detailed kiss-and-tell is a portrait of Leila Hadley Luce, a dazzling charismatic author and world traveler who made an indelible impression on every one of the talented and powerful men she bedded, including Joseph Cornell, Al Capp, Richard Condon, Robert Ruark, Al Hirschfeld, Tom Hyman, Charlie Adams, Edgar Bergen, Sid Perelman, Marlon Brando, Al Capp, and a multitude of others, including me.
Below are excerpts.
From LOVE STORIES:
During my first visit to her penthouse, Leila and I shared a settee near a low table, and we talked for hours and gradually filled a bronze ashtray with crushed butts, one after another. Hers were Larks, mine were unfiltered Pall Malls. From time to time Sheila silently refilled Leila's silver coffee pot and brought me a fresh bottle of Chivas when the one I was working on ran dry.
In the nearby living room, a glass box roughly the size and shape of a coffin was filled with hundreds of variously shaped and colored seashells, which Leila herself had gathered on beaches in the South Pacific and elsewhere around the world. She pointed to one and said that the Queen of the Nicobars had guided her to that particular shell, as well as many of the others.
An antique harmonium, with foot pedals and a tarnished mirror on its front in which you could watch yourself play, stood solemnly against the north wall. On the floor was an intricate, faded Persian rug, which she said contained a flaw put in deliberately by the weaver to honor the fact that only God can create perfection. In the corner a grandfather clock, the sun and the moon on its face, its gold disc pendulum swinging slowly back and forth, tick-tocked gravely. On a marble pedestal was a strange, dark brown ceremonial cup from Tibet, made from the sawed-off skull of a child.
Books, books, books. They were everywhere, on shelves in every room. Wobbly stacks in corners on the floor, on the end tables, and on Leila's messy office desk. Clutter, chaos. Yvor's mother, a psychologist, used to tell Leila that compulsive neatness is a sign of interior chaos, a reaction formation, a defense to ward off the feeling that one is going to pieces. Leila's own mother, Beatrice, insisted that there must always be a place for everything and everything in its place. Everything easy and quick to come to one's hand. Quick.
"Yes, quickness is the opposite of being dead. Don't you think?"
Among the fat file folders and piles of torn-out sections of newspaper and magazine articles was an enormous Rolodex with hundreds of cards with the names of actors, authors, book publishers, editors, magazine writers, movie stars, and numerous blueblood relatives. Many of the cards were typed, and some were hastily scrawled with blue felt-tipped pen.
Leila began assembling this large collection of names, numbers, and addresses when she was a publicist for the famous cartoonist Al Capp. You've heard of Lil' Abner and Grandma Yokum and the Schmoos, haven't you? "Al," she said, "is an insatiable Satyr. Each and every day he has sex with three different girls. It's true! These days he just hates anti-Vietnam war protesters."
She also did publicity for the TV show Howdy Doody. Oh, yes. Everyone knows Howdy Doody. Then she collaborated with Bergen Evans on naming an over-the-counter medicine. He came up with Quil. She came up with Ny. Or was it the other way around? They both got $500 for it.
Well, anyway, Sid Perleman—"a darling man, an absolutely fascinating and talented man"—came back from the Far East and told her that she ought to quit all this ridiculous PR stuff and do what she was meant to do, which was to travel the world and write about it. She realized he was absolutely right. So she quit her job, packed up, and booked passage on a steamer. And then while she was in Bangkok—and in surely what was a stroke of magic or predestination, she encountered the three-masted schooner California and talked the four young sailors into taking her and her six-year-old son, Kippy, aboard as crew.
Kippy was her son from her first marriage to Arthur Hadley, a grandson of the economist Arthur Twining Hadley, president of Yale University from 1899 to 1921. As an undergraduate, Arthur was editor of The Grotonian and she was editor of Tit Bits at St. Timothy's School, so she truly thought they had a lot in common. Anyway, at first the California crew members refused her request to join them, but then when a dear editor friend of hers from New York showed up and told them how valuable a story this would be, they finally agreed. And one of those handsome, golden, and acutely intelligent young men was Yvor Hyatt Smitter. After that long journey to Naples, they talked long-distance, and he invited her to visit him, and she flew to the West coast, and they married. Yvor was Victoria, Matthew, and Caroline's father. After that she wrote a book about the sailing adventure, Give Me The World. Nadine Gordimer provided her title, from Yeats. Philippe Hallsman took her photograph for the cover, and she just adored that picture! Yes, she had an extra copy, which she gave me to read.
"Oh, that schooner California! It had three masts of sails, one of them gaff-rigged. Which means square, not triangular."
She inhaled deeply, paused, and blew out a cloud of pale blue.
"Joseph!" she said, radiantly beaming. "Now there's a truly extraordinary man. An amazingly talented surrealist with a true vision of the ineffable. He's addicted to all sorts of sweets, sugar covered doughnuts, and so on."
"What do you find so amusing?" she asked.
"You leaped from the sailboat to an artist," I replied. "I'm just curious: what's the connection?"
"Ah," she said, "you must understand, darling, that all things in the universe are somehow inter-related, and it's just a matter of digging down, finding the links. The word California subconsciously took me to the early typesetters. They used a metal composing stick, a flat steel device that held the type they selected from what they called a California Job Case! Which is a large hardwood tray divided into various sized compartments containing lower and upper case letters, and numbers, and various other symbols. Now, the shallow case resembles Joseph Cornell's famous glass-covered shadow boxes. Both have compartments that contain essential elements of language and images, of thought, of meaning. Don't you see?"
"Yes," I said. "I see."
Leila told me more about her great multitude of dear life-long friends, her numerous lovers, her mentors. For the most part she used only first names, as if somehow I would know who they were. Joseph, whom she had just alluded to. And Nadine. And Lev. Sid, Hank, Patty, Charlie. And Gloria, Hank, Arthur, and Joseph. And, of course, Hank.
Hank! Her prickly cactus, martinet, marvel. Her marlinspike, her darling boy! Since the departure to the Philippines of her husband, Yvor, and even long before that, Hank was a truly important part of her life. She was a bridesmaid at Hank's first wedding, to Patty, at Lu Shan, his mother's country home, and she remembered the flower-banked altar in the sunken garden, and Patty's gown. It was ivory satin with a close-fitting bodice, and a long veil of heirloom rose point and Brussels lace, which of course was worn decades earlier by her great-grandmother, Mrs. William Livingston.
She remembered Patty's bouquet, too. A collection of camellias, gypsophilla, and bouvardia. The bridesmaids wore white taffeta with coronets of pink roses. Now, Hank was present at her wedding to Arthur, Kippy's father, at the chantry of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, on Fifth Avenue at 53rd Street, in New York. Her gown was ivory-colored taffeta with a bodice finished with a heart-shaped neckline edged with heirloom rose point lace. Interesting, isn't it? That Patty copied it three years later? Guess who caught her bouquet? Hank, of course. Why? Well, to show the bridesmaids how to do it.
Currently Hank was Time's bureau chief in London and Claire, his second wife, was with him. Thank God he took that job, because before then he didn't know who and what he was. Sometimes he telephoned her, but most of the time she called him. Hank told her not to call him during business hours, and of course she couldn't call him at home at night because Claire might pick up the phone. It was clear Claire thought she was a man—Hank's animus actually, his despised self, and part of Leila's own despised self as well!—which might explain why Claire kept encouraging him to be friends with Ted, whose wife happened to be a Lesbian. But Claire insisted her happiness was Hank's happiness, and that was good for Hank, but then she was turning into a fat lush.
Hank had one annoying habit that she couldn't ever get quite used to, and that was he hardly ever kept his appointments or dates with her. He may promise to be at The Four Seasons for lunch several weeks hence, confirm it, and then later she'd hear from his secretary, "Oh, so sorry, but Mr. Luce must cancel because of other pressing business." She didn't like this at all. It was untrustworthy, unreliable, and not worthy of her or of him. Leila would never do that sort of thing, so why on earth should he do it to her? Hank would say, "as soon as possible," but it usually meant next year. Or never. It was a sign of his submerged anger. Toward her, toward his fearful father, toward everyone. "But since he refuses to talk freely about these things, he's just stuck with them! Along with his silences, he's reluctant to be kind or generous because he fears being exploited, taken advantage of. The rich man's curse, what?"
As for sex, well, Hank was absolutely insatiable. He always said—and she agreed completely—that one may have many sexual objects, but only one love object. Much of Hank's libidinous energy was tied up in numbers, beginning when his grandfather taught him fractions. He actually got an erection when you read to him the Dow Jones Industrial Index or the money exchange rates. She witnessed it one time in the limo on a back road on Fishers Island.
But at the same time he was obsessed with business and politics and philanthropy. He surrounded himself with old men—former cabinet officers, senators, governors, corporate board members, all those dreadfully stuffy, pompous, humorless people. Why? Perhaps because they made him feel more important than he was, or because he enjoyed proximity to power. But all that to Leila was so awfully boring.
"You know that last year Hank's father, Henry Robinson Luce, co-founder of the Time-Life empire, passed away. Hank was primary beneficiary, and got 71,555 shares of Time, Inc. common stock. Millions. Millions. Millions! And Hank is determined to make at least another million each year to add to his fortune. Why? Well, why not?"
About this she was ambivalent. On the one hand he was an adorable man, ever so sensitive and vulnerable. On the other she often thought he would never sacrifice anything for love because he was incapable of loving anyone except as an extension of himself. As the son of a world famous, wholly work-driven figure who barely had time for him (ha, ha!), Hank was immersed in a contradictory morass of great privilege and cold neglect. He always got everything in the way of material things and comforts he wanted, but he hardly ever saw his father.
"Think of the narcissistic wounds that come from trying to move out of a truly great man's shadow! In that horrid circumstance how on earth can you expect one to form a mature sense of identity?"
Charlie Adams kept telling her he didn't understand how she could love a man like that. Well, maybe he was right. Maybe Hank was her invention, her creation. Maybe she was giving him all sorts of qualities he simply did not possess. She was quite good at that.
Hank had a close friend and business associate in Saudi Arabia, a sheik actually, who had palaces and sprawling villas all over the country, each with a harem of hundreds of girls. Eunuch staffers recruited them from elementary and high schools. Hank thought it was fascinating that the sheik reserved each Thursday for the deflowering of a virgin!
"A virgin every Thursday, can you imagine?"
This was right up Hank's street. He also was enormously drawn to pairs of women, and most exciting of all to him would have been a mother and her virginal daughter. A ménage a trios.
"But that happens to be every man's fantasy, no?"
Perverse? Perhaps. But various world cultures have vastly different ideas about what is proper and acceptable, and what is not. Don't you agree? You must read about Captain Cook in the South Pacific in the 18th century. The native islanders organized some entertainment for Cook and his ship's officers. They sat near a blazing campfire and were mesmerized by a naked six-foot Tahitian man insouciantly fucking a slender fourteen-year-old girl. The Captain later wrote in his log that neither of them was embarrassed—indeed, the young girl appeared to know exactly what she was doing and what's more she was thoroughly enjoying it.
Now, for a long time Hank was captivated by the idea of a ménage a trios. Hank, Victoria, and Leila. He was obsessed with the notion. And he had the nerve to tell her that often she came on too strong to him, sexualizing the word "come," and he didn't even see the irony.
As Leila rendered her endless rapid-fire labyrinthine monologues, I did not want her to think I was too lower-middle class, too conventional, or too contentious. I wanted to appear as worldly and sophisticated as she was subtly suggesting I might actually be. Plus, I thought her arguments were not wholly without merit. After all, look at the Polynesians in 1775! In their nakedness and open sexuality, they were a peaceful, fun-loving and happy people. That is, until the soldiers and pious missionaries put a stop to it and everything else. Rudyard Kipling nailed it perfectly:
"The wildest dreams of Kew are the facts of Katmandu, and the crimes of Clapham chaste in Martaban."
Soft lights, warmth, the faint echoing of Vivaldi. Rain made a rushing sound against the windows. I was on my fifth or sixth or seventh glass of scotch. Hell, I'd lost count, and my head was swimming. Leila took both my hands, inspected them closely. Remarkable!
"Your hands are very much like Hank's. Beautiful long-fingered hands, like those of a sculptor, or a conductor, or an artist, or an architect. Did you know that if a thumb is shaped in the form of a waist—as opposed to being plump and straight—it’s a sure sign of high intelligence and artistry?"
No, I didn't know that, and I was enormously pleased to see my thumbs were indeed in that category.
"Now, Hank sometimes speaks too loudly," she said. "What do you think that means?"
"Maybe," I replied, "he wants to win an argument with someone. Or to intimidate him. My father was like that."
"Well, maybe it's just because he wants to be heard!"
“Sure," I said, "that makes perfect sense."
"Hank's voice sounds soooo much more pleasant and resonant when he speaks normally.”
I wondered: Do I speak too loudly? Like my father?
Leila rose and left the room. She came back with an engraved silver box, in which were glass ampoules covered with roughly woven pale yellow cloth. "Just relax, darling!" she whispered, as she crushed one of the ampoules and placed it beneath my nose. I inhaled the scent of dirty socks, then suddenly came an enormously pleasant, warm, orgasmic rush.
"Amyl nitrate," she explained. "Poppers."
Leila was entirely at home in her world of upper class bluebloods of the right breeding. The Dowager Lady Eliott of Hallrule House, Roxburghshire, Scotland, and Sir Arthur Boswell Eliott of Stobs, a descendant of James Boswell, the biographer of Samuel Johnson, were her grandparents. She grew up hearing wonderful tales of kinsmen who were governors and viceroys in India. Her godmother was Julia Ward Howe. Luther Burbank, the great horticulturist, was among her uncles. Leila's family was comfortable but not super-wealthy. Which is why her mother married a rich man.
Leila attended Green Vale boarding school in Roslyn, Long Island, with Gloria Vanderbilt and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Henry, among others of that class, and then she went on to St. Timothy's school, in Maryland.
Leila always sought out and cultivated a variety of non-bluebloods, like writers, artists, musicians, cartoonists, and so on. She saw herself as eclectic about people as she was about furniture, china, silver, seashells, artifacts, and antiques.
But what on earth did Leila see in me?
I imagined that for her I was a minor diversion. Not her official lover, of course, but rather more like a transient sexual buddy. Or boy toy. A naïf with a few rough edges who found her history, lifestyle, legion of wealthy and famous friends, and her endless chattering fascinating.
Ambition, greed, and selfishness compelled me to go along with everything she suggested. I never dared to contradict or challenge her, I just nodded my head, and repeatedly said, "Yes, you are absolutely and totally right, I can't agree more." Well, I had plenty of experience in adopting this sort of passive sycophancy because I was reared by a volatile, self-absorbed father who was very much like her in his own vulgar way.
Leila and I had much in common. For instance, her father, Frank Burton, was an alcoholic. My father was a chronic drunk, and I was eagerly following in his footsteps. Leila was addicted to Larks, speed, and poppers. I was addicted to unfiltered Pall Malls and alcohol in any form. Frank abused her emotionally and sexually. My father did the same to me. Frank was the grandson of the founder of Burton's Irish Linens and Textiles, and thus in the "rag trade." My father owned and operated first a clothing store, then a tuxedo rental. Leila's stunningly beautiful mother, Beatrice, was emotionally unavailable. My mother, also breathtakingly beautiful, abandoned me when I was about a year old. Beatrice fired every single nanny Leila ever got deeply attached to and loved dearly. My father suddenly announced I could no longer see my mother anymore, since she "lived in sin." Leila, like her distant ancestor James Boswell, was a journalist. I desperately wanted to be a writer. Leila was a master of the language. I, too, was good with words, but she was better. Leila's father silenced her. My father silenced me. Thus Leila and I found in writing a way of finally saying all the things the tyrants forbade us to say. Like, for instance, the truth of the abuse we suffered at their hands. And so on.
Despite all this, I was perplexed when she continued to ignore the huge social and cultural gap that separated us. She always talked to me as if I were in her class, among her numerous friends and lovers, like Joseph Cornell, Al Capp, Richard Condon, Robert Ruark, Al Hirschfeld, Tom Hyman, Charlie Adams, Edgar Bergen, Sid Perelman, and Marlon Brando.
I got the sense—which I couldn't really articulate at the time—that for some unfathomable reason she was merely projecting onto me qualities I didn't have. I felt she wasn't really talking to me, but rather to her idea of who I ought to be. Or maybe I had a cold premonition that one day she would take back every supportive, adoring, and flattering thing she'd ever sent my way.
* * *
Elizabeth suggested that instead of being jealous, I might try thinking of her past love affairs as lessons learned about what she wanted and what she didn't want. I saw it otherwise. Nearly every one of those men hurt her deeply, and so she held back from love. She could not fully surrender to it, to me, as I hoped she would. Thus the men in her past not only hurt her, but they hurt me as well.
Like T.S. Eliot, Elizabeth worked in a bank. She produced software documentation for complicated financial programs. About a year into our marriage she couldn't take the suffocating corporate climate anymore and, with my encouragement, became a freelance consultant. She'd sit at the terminal, frowning, cigarette burning in the tray, tapping a rapid staccato. Her fingers were as adroit on a piano, or on the strings of her guitar. But her guitar chord progressions were a bit eccentric. Her brother always complained about her mistakes, as he called them, and tried many times to correct her, but she ignored him.
She got her formidable verbal ability from her father. From her mother she got a sense of order. She kept track of our finances on ledger paper. It was a strange system that seemed chaotic, understandable only to her, yet was accurate down to the penny.
Elizabeth’s first husband, Richard, took a photo of her in the bathtub. In it she has her hands crossed over her breasts and her knees are drawn up. Her eyes are wide and her mouth is set in a grimace. The exposure, she said, was excruciating.
For Christmas one year she wanted to do something for the less fortunate. She called up the shelter. We spent a snowy afternoon in that smelly place, her strumming the guitar and singing "You Made Me Love You," while I, wearing thin plastic gloves, ladled out sliced turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy to shuffling, blank-faced, haunted-eyed souls. The following Christmas she got watches for some retarded teenagers in a foster care home...six of them, Timexes, with luminous green faces.
One of her early letters: "Sometimes when I weigh the happiness I have experienced while 'in love' against the pain, I am stunned by the imbalance. And yet, we persist in seeking mates. OK, OK, so pain & disappointment are all part of the human experience. But why is it so disproportionate?"
When she turned 30 she said she arrived at some semblance of peace with her parents, but they remained capable of making her feel like a rebellious teenager. She told me she had a good friendship with her mother and a sort of non-relationship with the judge. They were never a fighting family, never overtly angry. Everything was always tacit. Tacit! Which engendered in her a fundamental lack of confidence in her instincts, feelings, visceral reactions to things. I—always the expert—told her she should trust what comes from the viscera. It's the ancient part of ourselves that has not yet learned to doubt itself.
When we married I was 52, she was 38. She said she supposed one is always seeking to recreate the parent-child relationship. An attempt to resolve parental issues. N'est-ce pas? Something to chew on as you chew on the rest of life's little issues. She said she understood long ago that most of the men she'd been involved with were like her father and, therefore, highly dissatisfying in the long run. But their age, she insisted, had nothing at all to do with their behavior. A young tyrant becomes an old tyrant. She pointed out that Bobby was four years her junior. He was, however, as aloof, emotionally inaccessible and incapable of displays of caring as her father always was. This was the mistake she hoped never to make again.
When she married Richard, the first photographer in her life, she soon realized that on his hierarchy of values, she was pretty far down the list. She was not a demanding woman in terms of needing attention, but she did think that a most important function of a relationship is to ensure there is at least one person in the world who thinks the other's needs, expectations, preferences are worth meeting.
She nearly went out of her head trying to figure out why her thing with Bobby didn't work out. How could he not love her? She was SO NICE! SO SMART! SO GENEROUS! And on top of it all could bake a dynamite apple pie! Then it dawned on her. Some men don't want a nice, smart, generous woman. Even with the pie.
During the disentanglement with Bobby she did some serious self-examination. That sociopath was just the most recent in an unbroken string of painful, failed relationships. Wasn't she just locked in a self-destructive pattern? Wouldn't it make sense to put an end to it all? In many ways the thought was appealing. But she decided to continue.
Reasons: First, she might be wrong about actually "needing" a relationship with a man to be happy. Second, there were lots of other things that made her happy. For instance, Friday nights when she gets home from work, she knows for 48 whole hours she does not have to think about computer systems or training the barely educable. There is "Turn on the Quiet" on WRTI, while she reads or writes with Buster sprawled across the page or purring in her lap. There is good coffee. There is Lake Eliot & full moon in high summer. There is music, Gershwin, Beethoven, and her own.
Early, early weekend mornings, when she is awake before everyone else, she has her coffee and she finds the ability to write things in her journal she wouldn't think herself capable of at other times. At crimson dawn, before her head and senses become clouded by external racket and worries, she can think and write with more clarity than any other time, of certain memories. Of a warm rainy January night in New York City with a lover she had not seen in six months, walking arm in arm from 52nd street to Washington Square singing songs. Of rowing around the lake with Margaret, talking about the men they craved. Margaret was mad for Paul Simon, she was convinced she would meet and win Bob Dylan. She was only 15.
Of seeing her only child for the first--then shortly thereafter--for the last time. It was painfully sad but unforgettable and, at odd moments comforting, worth living for. Of walking for miles through the Lancashire country side when she was in graduate school, feeling for the first time in her life truly, utterly autonomous, for the first time not feeling a want, not missing something, not feeling half full.
What was she afraid of? Disillusionment? Pain? Disappointment? Dying for loss of love? She said she didn't really know what the cause or source of her fear was. She only knew that when someone gets too close, she withdraws. Into jokes or cynicism or total silence. Or divorce.
In my courtship of Elizabeth I spared nothing. Letters, flowers, phone calls, photos, flattery. I wanted her desperately, and I lavished upon her as much love and tenderness as I could summon. But such an outpouring terrified her. She said she should have been able to achieve warmth and contentment on her own, in her reclaimed autonomy.
It scared her that a MAN like Bobby, the sociopath, sent her into a tailspin of such proportions that she denied herself nourishment, denied her sanity, instincts, needs, desires, self-definition. It scared her that another MAN was now trying so hard to restore it all.
Elizabeth struggled to clarify and more fully define her terror. When I said he would never deliberately hurt her, she knew I meant it. But not ever hurting someone is an impossibility, like flapping your arms and flying to the moon.
She always dreamed of a day when being in love with someone had nothing to do with power or dominance. But deep down she knew that love never is fully balanced. She talked about George and Mary, a couple who had been married twenty three years. George's adoration for his wife was boundless, and it was mutual. If they were apart for 15 minutes they each felt the need to show themselves to the other, to reaffirm their mutual bonded existence, and see the loveflush come to each other's face.
Did she ever want to be that deeply connected to another person? And how did she want it to be for US? What was her fantasy?
Well, we’d find a house to buy. She would own it, I would share it. She would have her dogs and cats and power tools and I would have my darkroom and books and the house would need lots of cosmetic work which would become a years-long project. She'd plant a garden again, better than her rooftop garden in Cambridge, full of flowers and vegetables. And she'd try to grow a peach tree in this cold climate and she might fail. But she would try her hand at roses, too. And she would buy a piano and have a room to keep her instruments and music in, a room to keep her mind in, and room to house other projects of clay and paint and paste and paper--things she had always wanted to do but never did because it was too self-indulgent. She would buy a sewing machine, too. Why? Because she needed to explode all the negative myths about herself as well as expose the positive ones, and a negative myth she always had about herself was that she was hopeless as a seamstress.
She said she wondered what it would be like being with me--really with me--under one roof, with her at her worst, not always at her best. Which raised the question, was she ever anything less than at her best with me? And had she really found the person who would always bring out the best in her? Would being with me prove, to herself, that she really was loving, warm, generous? She told me she would test the truth of all this. When—if—she decided to go with me.
Our relationship always felt provisional, elusive. Rarely explicit. But she came close early on when she told me that in the whirlwind I had created she was incapable of concentrating on her job, was possibly in danger of losing it, because the great mind-work that he’d inspired was taking precedence over all else. What mattered now, she said, was the discovery of self and love and life—three things she had come so close to losing entirely.
But then, in the distance, the echoing howling. She simply did not know how to be happy. It was something that had always escaped her. When I served her coffee in bed in the morning, or when I got her ice cream, or I cleaned the cat box, or I returned an oriental rug that didn't fit the dining room, or I covered her face and her neck and her breasts with kisses, she said she felt it viscerally. And, on an animal, non-academic level, she glowed.
But soon she just had to question the comfort to which she was so unaccustomed.
Bobby, the sociopath. The figure in the darkness, smirking, at the foot of our bed. I insisted she cut him completely out of her life. She said she felt quite capable of resisting any urge to fish that wretch out of his swamp of self-loathing. Why would she want to return to a person who never had anything to say to her? A person who resented and feared her intellect, emotional nerve, her simple, unrefined talents? Why would she want to go back to that when she could, with me, bask in praise, adoration, admiration, affection? When she could wake up to the smell of coffee and know somebody cared enough about her small comforts to bring it to her in her bed? When she knew that if she was ill someone would care for her and bring her aspirin and orange juice and boxes of Kleenex? Someone who would share conversation? Or complete silence, simply sitting in a candle-lit room with a warm cat on her lap?
In her apartment in Drexel Hill one night there were lighted candles and chocolate cake and cups of hot tea. She performed an elaborate improvisation on the guitar, ending with a slow, soft arpeggio. She said she hadn't played her guitar for anyone in ages, years. But just then she felt quite comfortable playing for me. Not self-conscious, she supposed, because she knew I so much liked listening. In this ambiance of acceptance she didn't shy away from certain flights, innovations.
I closed my eyes, dreamed of a life with her.
If it wasn't Richard, it was Bobby. If not Bobby, then Burt. A thousand reminders to me of the men who had abused her. I bitterly complained that in the circumstances (we were lovers, weren’t we?) she ought to focus on me, rather than on all the others.
One afternoon, in exasperation, she asked me, "What can I do to make you feel better about this relationship?"
I smiled. "Do you really want to know?"
"Marry me," I said.
I must see some sun or fall in love or both--nothing else will do. I used to love the rain. Love! At the moment I can't imagine what love is. It has been a long time now. And I tell John I don't have a penis to think with, which may explain why.
And what draws me?
I reply that I like men who lean into life. Who laugh with their mouths open wide. Men who make me think of my father, and all the other glorious men I've known and loved. I want a man who ruffles my feathers, who makes me want to howl at the moon. I want a man with big brains, I want a man with a hard body, I want a man who knows what to do with a long slow night. And a little sunshine wouldn't hurt.
John tells me that I easily win first prize for bringing about the most intriguing and compelling dinner date he has been on for years. I reply that I enjoy his enthusiasm. He tells me that if I like to get telephone calls, he is capable of a barrage of verbiage. Just like what Cosima Wagner once said of her husband, which is that such a man expounds at length on all subjects, including those of which he is completely ignorant.
He also tells me he is impatient.
I quite like impatience in a man.
He smiles. What is my passion?
I tell him that at university I work in computational biology. The study of the mathematical structure of various problems that arise in molecular biology and genetics programs. He replies that all he knows of this is The Genome Project, which of course is not at all related. I tell him that while my name is Elizabeth, I have nicknamed myself Z. Zed. Actually Zether, as in “Feather, Leather, and Zether Do The Big Apple,” a story I read in a literary journal.
He tells me about his experience last week at the Bravo Bistro, in Radnor, just off the King of Prussia Road, near Villanova.
A cute young waitress brings the cart. “Today we have chocolate ganache tartlets with sweet cherries,” she says sweetly. “And this is our frozen raspberry zabaglione on meringues with chocolate sauce. This is especially good--a toblerone mousse fondue with meringues and fruit. Or you might like the Capri chocolate torte, or the Viennese linzertorte cake, or perhaps the pecan pie with Kahula and chocolate chips..."
I ask him if indeed the girl said all of that and he says, yes certainly, these things you can not make up. If you can not be in love, he says, a rich desert is the next best thing. No, John is not a fat man. Rather, he is tall and thin, an ectomorph.
Where were we? Yes. There are several significant advantages to mathematics as a profession over most others, especially writing, painting, photography. And that is, no one assumes they can do it when they have never tried, and no one ever expresses their opinions on its value.
As for family, my sister is the keeper of our history, which means the Irish side. My grandmother and her sisters were born here and my great aunt Florence always said she would go back to Dublin when she won the Irish Sweepstakes, which she never did. This is all left for me to do. Some unwritten legacy. It feels like wine coming to life in the cellar. I have these feelings. Do you? A foreign currency to be spent.
My father was the most glorious man in existence who died too early for me to demystify. You've heard of the strong, silent type? Actually, it is not at all clear that I've sought lovers to emulate him. Yes, that is a clue.
Now your turn, I tell him. And by the way, my father’s name was John.
He replies: For some reason I'm tongue-tied, self-conscious, blushing. If you'd like, I'll try to explain why.
I would love for you to tell me why. Perhaps love is too tame! I am immensely curious. Tongue-tied and blushing? Of course I want to know.
He tells me his reaction is similar to what he’s experienced only once before in his life, which is that he does not want to appear to be too interested, too impatient, or to be too quick to disclose the acutely romantic aspect of his personality, because it might scare one off. Scare YOU off. On the other hand, he says, what will be, will be. P.S., he says. I find a charming symmetry in the fact that I bear your father's name, and you bear my mother's...a balance almost mathematical!
More! More! More!
All right, Zed, Zether. By any objective measure you are the most beautiful woman in Philadelphia. The continent. The northern hemisphere. And even if you were less beautiful I would still be drawn to the vitality and the intelligence that shines in your eyes, to the sweet personality that is in your laugh, your gestures. I’m utterly captivated in every sense of the word. That’s exactly what he says.
Then he quotes Dickinson. My river runs to thee—Blue sea! Wilt welcome me?
Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky, like a patient etherized upon a table…
And I continue all the way to the last line. John sits, agape and transfixed, as I knew he would be. No one has ever recited the entire Prufrock to him before, from memory. Ever. It is among his favorites. I knew it was. I have a feel for these things.
Well, let’s eat then, shall we?
Have you seen the latest New York Review of Books? he says. A particularly interesting issue. A discussion of the Analects of Confucius. The ancient philosopher believed that no moral precision was conceivable without absolute concentration on language. Don’t you agree? After all, choosing the right word is paramount. If words are not correct, language is without an object. If language is without an object, no affair can be effected. I say again, no AFFAIR can be effected.
I laugh. Go on, please.
When no affair can be effected, rituals and rites and music wither. When rites and music wither, punishments and penalties miss their target. When punishments and penalties miss their target, the people do not know where they stand. Therefore, whatever a gentleman conceives of, he must be able to say. And whatever he says, he must be able to do.
Ah! Thought always precedes action, I say. And there is no thought without language.
Precisely, he says. Therefore in the matter of language, a gentleman leaves nothing to chance!
More! More! More!
Confucius tells me that what I conceive of, I must say. So all right. Let me start with this moment, here at Xando with you. It is not so much a meeting as it is an astonishing recognition. And the only words that seem appropriate are the stock banalities of romantic novels. I don't want to be banal, I want to be clear. I have the sudden, odd feeling that the only way to bring about harmony in the universe is to move toward you, Zed. To move away would bring disharmony.
He takes my hand.
So enfolding your soft, lovely hand in mine feels profoundly natural. Shall I tell you more?
Yes! More. Go on.
D. H. Lawrence in "Women in Love" suggests that instinctual feeling, the opposite of sterile intellect, is the governing principle of romantic love. But your appeal is all-encompassing. It’s intellectual, esthetic, emotional, spiritual, sensual, sexual.
When we met only an hour ago I felt not just recognition, but an almost overwhelming astonishment as well. Because my vision of a soul mate is largely an ideal. It has an abstract, fictional quality. It resides only in my imagination. But suddenly here you are at my side, breathtakingly perfect in every respect. Such things can not be! But, here you are. Smiling.
You haven't told me to stop. Dare I presume you wish me to continue?
I say nothing.
So how should I presume? He says.
I know precisely what will happen very soon, but I do not tell him. I decide I will instead allow this to unfold for him as he thinks it will. Who said love is the sea where the intellect drowns? This man John is drowning. It’s perfectly clear.
Leila Hadley Luce
We sat on stools at the big chopping block of a table with our coffees and toasted English muffins covered with butter and marmalade. Leila was very eager to talk, and rattled on and on, but rarely looked at me. Either she was putting more marmalade on her muffin, or going to the cabinet for something, or staring down at her plate or closing her eyes as she spoke, as if reading from a script in her mind. Very much like Joseph Cornell, who did the same, indicating he took his cues from his inner world rather than the ones everyone tried to impose upon him.
Caroline, she said, was desperate to get money because breaking up with her professor husband had left her penniless. “Now Victoria, thank God doesn’t want money. But she’s on the internet with a website that has all this Narcissistic stuff about how she was abused as a child, and she gets comments from abuse victims from all over the country. Who share.”
Thence to a repeat of how Victoria called Journey an UGH book, full of lies.
“And she got upset and denied it when I said she used drugs, even though she was totally addicted to LSD and pot and God knows what else. But Matthew of course knew about this. And in the book I told the truth. Like about her getting her various lovers’ pubic hair and tying them in little bunches. It was all true, those details. I couldn’t have made them up. When you tell the truth you don’t have to think and remember what you’ve said, it’s just there.”
“You wrote that Victoria kept those pubic hairs in a shoebox,” I said.
“Exactly. A shoebox.”
Was Leila about to discuss our having sex nearly forty years ago? Or about my having sex with Victoria? She hadn’t written anything about it in Journey. And in our letters and telephone conversations the subject had never come up. She acted as if it had never happened, and I just followed her lead by never mentioning it.
“You must let me know whenever you go out,” she said, “and when you expect to come back,” Leila said.
I said I would.
“Did you come in at all last night? The light was still on in the hallway.”
“Yes, I was back at nine, and I thought I’d turned it off.”
“No, you didn’t. I had to.”
“Well, I must be much more attentive to leaving on the lights.”
“Yes, you must,” she said.
Then she said that “they” had fixed me food for the weekend. “It’s in that refrigerator over there. Go look.”
I did. There was a piece of paper taped to one of the shelves with scrawled block letters that said “Mr. John.” And a list of the contents of the four or five plastic covered plates on the shelves.
“Ah, yes. It looks very nice.”
The phone rang. It was Hank.
“Oh, sweetheart, you got a letter from the Olympic Committee,” Leila said. “They sent you a badge. They want you to give them money. Or something.” Pause. “Well, you can keep the badge and throw the letter away.”
Then she said Ian McEwan got a mention on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, and then again on the back page. “Yes. Of course. Love you. Bye.”
Hank, she said returning to her seat, was driving her crazy. A dear friend of hers, a shrink, told her that Hank suffers from a certain personality disorder that’s characterized by not having any feelings or emotions, with the exception of anger or irritation.
“He thinks only of himself,” Leila said. “He has absolutely no empathy whatever. He experiences no authentic emotions, other than anger or annoyance. He’s very often thoughtless and uncaring and selfish, and says appalling things. He’s defensive because he feels neurotically threatened by things that in reality are innocent and simple. He’s often callous and indifferent. He’s hypocritical and phony, and is nice only when he feels he can get something out of it. He’s always afraid of doing something that could be misinterpreted as representing emotions he doesn’t feel, or cannot feel. Obviously I’ve been in denial all these years about this.”
But then, she said, it helps to know that if someone is not capable of empathy or kindness, as opposed to their being that way deliberately, well it’s not entirely their fault, is it? There’s a big difference.
To Hank a conversation is like a game of ping pong. Thwock, thwock. Thwock, thwock. At a Wings reception the other night he showed up even after Leila told him he shouldn’t come because it would bore him and he would embarrass her by refusing to talk to anyone. And she needed to stay at the rear of the room so she could leave quickly in case she got a severe emphysema attack. Now, did Hank ask her how she felt? Of course not, it just never occurred to him. Well, she said, in 15 years of marriage he never once asked her how she felt and she complained bitterly about it a few days ago, and then yesterday he said, “Oh, by the way. How are you?”
Then it turned out that one of her very best friends had been at the function, but Leila didn’t get to talk to her. Why? Because Hank hadn’t bothered to let the woman know that she was over there, in the wheelchair, at the back of the room.
And when Leila complained to him about this he looked at her astonished.
“Why would she want to talk to you?” he said.
“Oh, for God’s sake!” Leila replied. “She’s been one of my closest friends for 30 years, that’s why!”
All right, Hank never lies, he just doesn’t mention things when he doesn’t want you to know. Last week someone sent her a clipping from the Newark Star Ledger to the effect that Henry Luce III just made $6 million in the sale of his step-mother’s property in New Jersey. Which he never mentioned, as if it had never happened. And there she is, with credit card bills at nearly $100,000. All she can do is pay interest on this horrid debt, because that’s all she can manage with the miserly monthly allowance Hank gives her. You’d think that he’d say, great, now that I’ve got an extra six million besides all the other millions I can take care of that credit card bill for you.
“But oh, no. He just asked me how I found out about it. I told him a friend sent me the clip from the newspaper. Even though he has millions he feels things are tight. So I said to him, look, now that you’ve come into that windfall you can take care of that credit card debt for me, because it has been causing me enormous stress. And he said he couldn’t do it until the end of March, when all the papers are signed, and I said that would be all right. Can you imagine?
“By the way, do you know how much this duplex would cost if you wanted to buy it?” she asked.
“A million, at least. Or two.”
“No. Eleven million.”
“Yes. Hank is on the board.”
“So Hank and his board decide on who may buy and who may not?”
“Hank never reads for pleasure,” she continued, “just for information, which I just can’t understand. He can tell you every president and vice president from the very first one. I can’t do that because I don’t care about that sort of thing. And he gives a lot of money to art institutions because he loves art.”
Then she reported that she’d spent most of yesterday writing an article about the latest Wings honoree. No, she never uses the computer because she just can’t seem to get used to it. Rather she uses an old IBM Selectric, which she’s had all these years. Apparently the same one I used 40 years ago when I wrote my profile of Miles Davis.
She types her articles the old fashioned way, and does revisions with her signature blue felt-tipped pen, and then of course she does actual cutting and pasting, with scissors and scotch tape, just like they used to do it in the old days before computers.
“I should retype it later today,” she said. “But instead I believe at three o’clock I’ll watch ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.’”
I laughed. “My god that’s funny.”
She did not look displeased by my comment.
“By the way, I just got a letter from Bill Hurt.”
“Yes. He used to be Hank’s son-in-law. But Hank doesn’t like him anymore.”
We talked for a while about Bill’s movies.
“Bring me some honey,” she said. “It’s in that pantry closet.”
I looked and looked, but couldn’t find the honey, but I finally did, and presented it to her in triumph.
“NO,” she said, “that’s not the good honey. Put it back.”
She brushed past me and found a small container. “THIS is the good honey. Now, give me a knife.”
She pointed to a big wood block on the counter with a dozen black handles sticking up out of it. An eleven to one shot here. I was bound to disappoint her still once again. I pulled the first handle, and its blade was like a machete.
“No, no. The LOWER row.”
I pulled another handle. Thank God it was a small knife, suitable for prying out the rather thick honey.
“Now, put the jar of honey back in the pantry shelf. Middle shelf. To the right. NO. NO. NO. Here, let me show you.”
Of course I dropped the container and it rattled around on the floor. I picked it up. She took it from me. And put it on the top of a jar of grape jam.
“Rinse out this coffee pot, but for God’s sake make sure you do not get water on the cord, and don’t drop it on the floor like you did the other day. No, do NOT pull the cord out because that will fray the cord and there’ll be an electrical short and the whole place will burn down. Just don’t let water get on it. Fill it up to here.
“Oh, take this up to Hank’s office.”
It was his suit, and a tie, and a shirt from the dry cleaners, hanging on the knob on the pantry door. “Take the plastic off. No, don’t try to rip it like that, use the scissors. Put that plastic in the trash can. Now, take it upstairs and hang it in his office. Put the scissors back in the drawer. First compartment.”
I opened the drawer and tossed the scissors in.
“Oh, no, no, no NO! You do not throw items in carelessly like that, you place them carefully, like this.”
Presently Hank appeared. We exchanged hellos and he stood in the entranceway, as if he were not sure if he wanted to enter the room, or go back up the stairs. As before, he looked rumpled, unkempt. But his white hair was combed neatly back on both sides. His jacket was opened, revealing his big, bulging belly.
“Would you like to sit here beside Leila?” I got up from the chair and moved over to the couch.
“I guess I will,” he said.
“You are right on time, perfectly, my dear,” Leila said. “I don’t know how you do it. I really don’t. You’re an absolute darling.”
Hank nodded, as obviously he fully agreed with her assessment.
Leila and Hank discussed her upcoming birthday party, which will be held in May, rather than on September 22 when her birthday actually occurs, here in New York at the 21 club. They had agreed on only 50 guests each. They talked about who should come and who should not. I sipped my ginger ale and said nothing, but smiled and nodded whenever Hank looked at me, as if he were expecting a reaction. Which is to say that neither he nor Leila were excluding me in this cheerful conversation. It was as if I were a member of the family. Which I found exceedingly bizarre.
Then out of the blue Leila launched into a detailed description of the latest outrage from Victoria. “Did you know that she has posted a statement on the internet to the effect that I repeatedly sexually molested Matthew when he was eight or nine? Absolutely incredible.”
I blinked. Of course I could imagine it. I had witnessed her rushing into Matthew and Caroline’s bedroom, and had pulled the covers off his nude little body and had played with his little cocky-locky, as if it were the most normal thing you could do.
“And, “ Leila continued, “Victoria actually called Matthew to tell him about what she’d just done. He said that she seemed giddy. ‘I did it! I did it!’ she told him. Matthew, of course, immediately called me to let me know what she’s up to now. I saw her website. And it’s absolutely and totally ridiculous.”
Then Hank, addressing me, said that Victoria had actually picketed the book store when Journey With Elsa Cloud came out. “She was out there marching up and down the sidewalk, waving a sign saying that the book was terrible.”
I shook my head. What could I say?
The Law and Order actor arrived with a porcelain plate of half-dollar-sized discs of white bread covered by bright translucent orange beads of salmon roe. Hank took one, then Leila did the same. I carefully lifted one from the tray. Salty, rich, fishy. Delicious.
“The book is nothing but a long love letter,” Hank said. “So I can’t imagine why Victoria can’t see that.”
“She called it an UGH book,” Leila said.
“She’s just crazy,” Hank said.
Neither Hank nor Leila seemed at all distressed as they continued to talk about this subject. No sense whatever that they were afraid of the outcome of the lawsuit. Very soon both Leila and Hank would be giving depositions to Caroline and Victoria’s lawyers, but it didn’t seem to matter. I watched Hank and Leila carefully. They appeared to be genuinely puzzled by Victoria and Caroline’s behavior. Either that or they were giving an Academy Award performance.
Rick Moody and his wife arrived. Rick looked bald but wasn’t exactly. He’d obviously shaven his head and now about a 16th of an inch of growth was sprouting. Both he and his wife were totally relaxed. They had a life-long connection to Leila and Hank—in that they lived on Fishers Island, and Leila’s gardener bought manure from one of Rick’s relatives who owns a horse farm on the island.
Leila asked Rick if he would prefer to read aloud from his memoir before, or after, dinner. Rick replied that it would probably be better before, and then he would answer questions. Leila said she was surprised that her assistant Jade had called a dozen book stores in Manhattan to get copies of The Black Veil to pass out to guests, but can you imagine? Not a single store carried the title.
“That’s probably because PEN has already bought them all up,” Rick said pleasantly.
In any event, Leila said, she’d gotten other books of his, a large assortment over on the piano. His short story collection, The Ice Storm, and so on. He could autograph them, no? And Rick smiled, and said yes, he would be delighted to do that for anyone who asked.
Rick told her he wasn’t planning on reading a long excerpt, but rather a short one at the beginning of the book. Something very humorous. All about wax beans. Leila smiled. Yes, of course, she said.
What in hell, I wondered, do wax beans have to do with the dark narrative that details Rick’s descent into insanity, his drug and alcohol abuse? Perhaps Rick decided that the assembled guests might be put off by all that heavy, gloomy, disturbing stuff, or that he’d look bad in the eyes of these people. Better to ignore all that and go for some laughs.
It seemed to me the right time to ask him a question. “I’m reading conflicting accounts about whether Nathaniel Hawthorne’s character who wears the black veil in your book is a relative of your family. Is he, or is he not?”
Rick smiled, and nodded. “After a lot of research we’ve finally concluded he is not. It was something my grandfather thought would be interesting dinner conversation. That is, to claim the ancestry of that famous literary figure. I can’t imagine why.”
Ah, there was Jon and Denise Rabinovitch.
“This is John Palcewski,” Leila said to the Rabinovitches. Just my name, and no more. No mention of who I was or what I did or the fact that we’d known each other for nearly 40 years. But despite the spareness of her introduction I was greeted warmly and they gave me bright smiles and firm handshakes.
Jon wore spectacles low on his nose. They were small black-rimmed circles, with an arch connecting them. Denise, his wife, was a lawyer for a stock brokerage or an investment firm.
“Did you say William Kunstler?” I asked Jon, when I thought I’d heard a very familiar name..
“No, I said Kinstler, the artist,” he replied. “Now you should talk to Denise about William Kunstler. She knows all about him.”
“So what about William Kunstler?” Denise wanted to know.
I told her my story about being a reporter and covering U.S. District Court in Lexington, when antipoverty workers in Kentucky were charged with sedition by the prosecutors at the behest of the powerful coal companies. She said that watching the great lawyer must have been fascinating, and I agreed. Back then he was on top of his game. He told Judge Combs that he had no choice but to convene a three-judge panel to test the constitutionality of the statute. And so on.
For a moment I considered pitching my book Drowning to Jon, because he was so open and friendly and he appeared to be favorably disposed toward me, but then I thought that might not be a good idea since Leila had not yet arranged a meeting with her agent. Better to just hold off. Besides, I didn’t want to appear to be too eager, too desperate.
A tall, hollow-cheeked, heavily made up Betsy Von Furstenberg entered followed by a slight, slender little woman who was a book publicist. Betsy and Leila exchanged greetings. Incredible, I thought. Here were two women who were intimately involved with the artist Joseph Cornell near the end of his life. Joseph liked Betsy, but he liked Leila more because she gave him a blow job. An event the artistic genius never forgot.
Then Lance Morrow and his wife arrived. Many years earlier, after reading one of his cutting and rather bitchy book reviews, I imaged him as a tall, slender gay man. But instead he was relatively short, and kindly looking, with an open, inviting demeanor. Very approachable, down to earth.
Jon asked Lance what he’d been up to. Lance replied that his new book was coming out soon. It’s entitled The Best Years of Their Lives, and it was about three young men who began their political careers together in the year 1948. Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, and Jack Kennedy.
“In the course of your research did you encounter anything about these men that surprised you?” I asked.
Lance fell silent, and stared at the floor. I wondered if he’d heard what I’d said.
“That’s an extremely interesting question,” Lance finally said. “And I think what surprised me was that Richard Nixon had a lot in common with the movie actress Lana Turner.”
Jon laughed. “You mean to say he was discovered in a drug store?”
“No,” Lance smiled. “And by the way, that’s just a myth about her. She wasn’t discovered, she went on casting calls and auditions like every other actress who goes to Hollywood to get into movies.”
“So then it must be that, like her, Tricky-Dick had a fondness for sweaters?” Jon said.
“No, not that either. But there were some remarkable similarities in their characters. For instance…”
Their conversation was suddenly interrupted by Leila, ringing a little brass bell, standing at the side of the grand piano. “Welcome everyone,” she said. “It’s time to proceed with the evening’s main event!” She launched into a long account of all the books Rick had written, and the beautifully wrought short stories in The Paris Review, and on and on and on.
Finally Rick opened his copy of The Black Veil. In a soft, confident voice he said he would read something rather light, which related to his early childhood at the dinner table. It was the time they all were forced to eat wax beans. Naturally, they all totally loathed wax beans. He began with a lengthy, detailed description of the dinner table setting and other objects in the room. The weather as it appeared through the windows. And then, at long last, the appearance of the beans, which as you might know were a golden yellow version of green beans.
Hank listened to Moody’s recitation. He leaned forward, arms on his legs, and he smiled, nodded his head from time to time in appreciative assent, and laughed loudly along with the others. He was captivated by Rick’s virtuoso performance.
Watching Hank I couldn’t help but think of Caroline’s description of him standing, hands on hips, boyishly smiling and cracking the tendons in his neck by tilting his head from side to side, as his erection bobbed shamelessly. Or her describing him running to the fridge for a stick of butter. Or her account of his drunkenly trying to get her to masturbate him. And there the old geezer was, in his rumpled suit and stained tie, laughing at Rick and his ridiculous wax beans.
Que the Twilight Zone music.
After dinner I joined Rick and Lance. Lance quizzed me about Ischia. “What drew you to that island?” he wanted to know. “How long have you lived there?” I replied that I went there to write a book, and that I'd been in residence for more than five years.
"So what is it about?” Lance said.
Oh, so glad you asked, I thought.
The woman in my novel, I told Rick and Lance, was Vittoria, Italian for victory, and she's named after Vittoria Colonna, the famous Renaissance poet who was a friend of Michaelangelo.
“Now Vittoria's story is actually based on my girlfriend, Maria. Who grew up in the village of Buonopane on Ischia.”
“So you went to Ischia to research her birthplace?” Lance said.
“Exactly. But as it turned out, she wasn't born on Ischia, as she'd always thought. Instead she was born in Naples, and had been given up for adoption by a very famous person.”
“A famous person?”
“Yes. She's known all over the world.”
“So tell us who she is,” Lance said.
“I really shouldn't say because there are some legal issues yet to be resolved. But I don’t imagine it will take you long to figure out.”
Lance thought for a moment. Then brightened. “Sophia Loren.”
I turned to Rick. “See? Lance is a world class journalist. He pried the secret right out of me!”
Rick shook his head. “This is an incredible story,” he said.
Incredible? Hmmmm, I thought.. Funny you should say. That’s what everyone is saying now. Not credible! Well, at least it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than a fake story about your family being related to Nathaniel Hawthorne, or….a boring exploration of wax beans.
“Who was Maria’s father?” Lance asked.
“Ah, yes, of course. Marcello Mastroianni.”