There was a time in my life when I had a job as a staff writer at the Village Voice with no office hours and I could get up anytime I wanted because I didn’t really have anything that pressing to do. So every day had the same rhythm, and every morning felt like Sunday morning…Tuesday morning, or Wednesday morning, any damn morning for that matter felt like Sunday morning, slow and lazy and hazy through the scrim of a hangover. I was in love during at least some of this time with Helen, and she didn’t have a job, so we could get up at eleven, or noon, or whenever we wanted and walk through the park, or go looking for Philip Roth who lived in her neighborhood and was out and about around the same time we were every day. Philip Roth. There he was, head down, bent forward against a winter wind, thinking the Great Thoughts uttered by Nathan Zuckerman in “My Life as a Man.” Wow.
She loved writers, especially Great Writers, which was probably why she spent a month or more nearly every summer at writers’ colonies like Yaddo and MacDowell where they were said to accumulate in large numbers. I don’t know why she loved a Non-Great Writer like me, or if it was even love we felt for each other, because to be in love at that time was…well, damnit, what was it? It’s hard to say. It was confusing, maddening, weird and wonderful. It was like rock and roll, like the Rolling Stones blaring the anthems of the day, and then the anthems changed, there was no pattern. I know we did a lot of running around. Nights in New York. Hanging out in pimp bars watching evil get elegant for two bucks a beer…hookers in micro-skirts, pimps in floor length snow white mink coats, always flashing green, lots and lots of green, flashing eyes, flashing rings, flashing the flash that was now here and then gone.
Ride a mahogany elevator to a penthouse on Central Park South, a very large penthouse with a very large view of Central Park, being served drinks in cut-crystal glasses while we – take your pick – supported McGovern, protested the war, supported women’s liberation, gave money to elect the new black mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, which was somewhere 20 floors below us in another state in another time.
Running around, always at night, looking for something. What was it. We didn’t know. So we’d get dressed up and jump in a cab and shoot off for a party, any party, for the latest disco, for dinner at Elaine’s, looking for something. In love. Was all that running around part of being in love at that time in that place? I don’t know.
We had this feeling our lives were controlled by an outside force, something we could neither see or feel, but we sensed it was there. One night in Times Square we passed a strung-out acid casualty hippie carrying a sign that explained in very small hand writing in elaborate detail how the CIA controlled him through electrodes and antennas they had implanted in his brain one night while he slept. The CIA is controlling me, he declared. Shouldn’t you ask yourself if the CIA isn’t secretly in control of you. The guy was smiling.
That’s it, I cried out in the neon night. That’s the answer! It’s the damn CIA!
Come on, she said. We’ll be late for dinner.
We laughed and skipped down the sidewalk. The guy was a street crazy, a nut case, but there was something in his eyes, paranoid yet complacent, that spoke for us all. There were powers we didn’t understand out there somewhere controlling us. We had no say. Our vote didn’t count. We couldn’t stop the war. We couldn’t end poverty. We couldn’t stop racism in Jackson, Mississippi from 20 floors above Central Park South with lots and lots and lots of money. We couldn’t accomplish any of the things we wanted because of the powers that were controlling us.
So we searched, and most of the time, we searched at night. We used…or I used…the idea of Helen taking a hit of mescaline was unthinkable…drugs, LSD, coke, mescaline, hash, marijuana, and good old fashioned booze. Some great minds got burned up like charcoal briquettes because they figured The Answer lay in a small tab or capsule. Some great pairs of eyes were glazed-over by Knowledge with a Capital K, gleaned from a galaxy of gurus. Some of our friends meditated on mountaintops. Others did it in Central Park. Some traveled far and wide to India, Tibet, Morocco, Mexico. Some never left their apartments.
There was an answer out there somewhere: a message, a solution. We were convinced and nothing could un-convince us. We were willing to take risks with mind body and soul in search of it. It was such a serious heavy thing. The classic image during the acid days was of catching a glimpse of the cosmos during an eight hour study of a crack in the wall. Such significance. Such deep truth. The gap could be closed, after all.
We’re not living life, we’re chasing it. We hunt life like an animal. Helen told me this late one night in her apartment on East 83rd Street. We were spending a typical night together, strutting like a peacock and peahen before going to bed. Talking. Talk talk talk talk.
The next morning she got out of bed and looked down at me: We are so obsessed with ourselves, you and I. All of us.
I sat up and peered into the semi-darkness. It was December, cold and gray outside. Across the room on the desk crowded with letters and unopened bills and family photographs and old New Yorker magazines and travel brochures from Italy and Corsica and Greece, resting next to all of this was her hairbrush, long and slender and silver with natural bristle. On the nightstand was her glass of water and two aspirins, untaken. Hanging on a hook on the door was her nightgown, ankle-length pale pink silk with lace around the square neckline. On the floor was the white phone from the living room. A long white cord snaked out through the bedroom door and down the hall into the living room disappearing behind the green-and-white zebra striped sofa. The curtains were drawn, as they usually were around noon, and outside East 83rd Street snarled with midday traffic.
I flopped back down on the bed and tried to think of what we did the night before. I couldn’t. My head hurt too much, but my eyes still worked and drifted. Between her pillow and mine was the little pillow. At night she would cling to it, a six-inch by six-inch square of fine linen almost completely devoid of down filling. I remembered one night I was unable to sleep and lay there watching her cuddle the little pillow. The word to describe the scene would have been pathetic if she wasn’t so content with the little pillow against her bosom, a thin bandage of a smile pasted to her lips. She was unashamed, explaining that she couldn’t sleep without it. I touched the little pillow and picked it up and held it to my cheek to see if there was some magic in the thing that helped her sleep. It felt limp and very, very soft. I tossed it on her big pillow and closed my eyes, hoping to catch a little nap while she was in the bathroom. The little pillow was only one of the things I couldn’t figure out about Helen. It felt like Sunday morning, it always did, but what day was it? What time did we come in last night? What did we do?
Lucian…Lucian, where are you? She spoke with a lilt carrying the peculiar urgency of purpose that creases the voices of the wealthy landed gentry of the South, like Peerage English slowed down and sweetened up. In it you could hear tables set for 12 or 18, fires blazing in stone fireplaces in paneled studies, leather-bound books and polo mallets. Her tone was impatient, insistent, and since it reminded me of my family, maddening.
Hurry up in there, will you? I retorted. I could feel my head throb.
What for? She asked, still in the bathroom, her words coming with a slight echo from the tiles. You don’t have anything to do. Well, do you?
Hell no I didn’t have anything to do and she knew it. I figured that was one of reasons she was in love with me, or said so anyway. Having me around gave her an illusion she grew up with, of old-fashioned ease and elegance. She didn’t have to go to work, I didn’t have to go to work, we could rise at noon and spend the day getting ready for the night when we would launch into discussions of Things That Really Mattered, not mundane shit like what happened at the office today, dear? But it was all illusion, the way we lived. Take her place on East 83rd Street. A three and a half room co-op in a fading building off Lexington Avenue wasn’t my idea of real elegance, nor was it hers. Neither were my levis and fringed leather jacket and cowboy boots, or her plastic wet-look winter coat, knitted gloves and three year old Gucci’s. She didn’t work. Money came from somewhere, seemingly lots of it at least to me, but I was never told how much or how it came. I worked for the Voice and I earned $80.00 a week, which was enough to live on then believe it or not, and I had no office hours and being a staff writer gave me lots of freedom. And time. Lots and lots of time. Time was on our side. That’s what she was thinking, I told myself as I heard her wander down the hall, humming a Kris Kristofferson tune. Not one of the popular ones like “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” which would have fit rather nicely, or even “Me and Bobby Magee.” She always hummed the ones I couldn’t remember because they weren’t all that good, but she thought they were great. Every one of them, even the neglected ones, every last word and note he sang.
Now I remembered. Last night she said she loved his lyrics so much, she wanted to write a song for Kristofferson. I tried to tell her that he didn’t cover other people’s songs, that he had gotten his start writing for other people and only recently had he been able to record his own stuff with only one album out so far.
But you don’t understand, she countered. Our tastes in music and art and literature didn’t intersect very often and when they did there was usually a clash, like with Kristofferson.
Now I recalled what had kept us up so late last night after whatever party we had gone to. There was always something, because when time is on your side you tend to burn it in quantity like you had a massive stash and couldn’t imagine smoking your way to the end of it. So we’d always stay up late arguing and drinking, pushing ourselves to mental and physical limits as if nothing else mattered, like two sophomores in a college dormitory eager to crowd the dawn with ideas and emotion, wishing to experience one another’s minds almost in the same way you wanted to explore each other’s bodies. It always seemed important to talk, talk, talk the night away, endless talk. She used to say it was very Jewish, what we did. I told her that was anti-Semitic. We were a couple of outrageous screaming hysterical WASP’s obsessed with ourselves, which is to say we were obsessed with music and politics and writing but most of all with ourselves.
Her wanting to write a song for Kristofferson set me off. She was always dreaming about what she was going to do, where she was going to go, what she was going to write. She was always saying she was going to do something and usually it was so far removed from reality that there wasn’t much sense in even attempting it, so she didn’t. Like, I’d make some off-the-cuff probably obscene remark late at night, and her mouth would drop open in appreciation and suddenly what I said was the beginning, or the middle or the end of a short story. She had talent, and because it was flattering that she would write a short story based on something I’d thrown off at 3:00 a.m. I would half-believe she’d write it. But she never did.
She yelled at me that I just didn’t understand about Kristofferson, I just didn’t understand about creativity, that I was too young to understand and I probably was. I was tired and it was late and I got caught up in her dreams as I always did. She was infectious that way. A dream to her wasn’t just a plan for another day, it was a flight of fancy, an idea she could skip across the night like a you skip a piece of slate across a creek. For her dreams were as easily disregarded as they were come by, but for me to dream was to step from one world into another and not know where you were going or if you would return. Dreaming had wonderful possibilities, but like a field that was farmed-out, dreams too often yielded ideas stunted by the psychic lapse between our world and a nether world outside of ourselves.
I figured the difference was mescaline. She’d never been near the stuff, but my experience with psychotropic mind-altering substances like mescaline hovered always somewhere nearby. When I stopped to think about it even when I was absolutely straight, I could still feel the slipping sliding sensation of travel from one reality to another, the diaphanous reds and oranges that served as doors through which you’d pass without knowing whether the doors swung both ways, trusting finally not the drug but your own animal instinct for survival to lead the way home. It made me skittish about dreams, even about day-dreaming. Still, I was caught up lightly, easily in her spell every time and moved into her dreamscape without fear. It was part of her magic, part of what drew me to her, and it was something I felt had come from a place that sounded very familiar to me she called “The Big House” outside Raleigh, North Carolina, in the country, in the South.
So I leaned back against her shoulder on the green and white sofa – it usually took a couple of good arguments before these two WASP’s would touch — and I closed my eyes, and she was off, her mind like an Irish Setter in deep grass, sleek and fast like the color and flash of her eyes.
We’ve all got permanently romantic notions of ourselves that we rarely admit to, she said, warming up. You’re different, Lucian. Your notion of yourself changes when you change clothes. You find it easy and amusing not only to entertain romantic fantasies, but to live them out: the rough-hewn intellectual, the sensitive outlaw, all your other ridiculous notions of yourself. But most people find it very difficult to let such inner feelings out. Oh, they might indulge in some risky sport like skiing or white-water canoeing, but for most people, romantic ideas are paid attention to only in passing, like when you read a novel or got to a movie or listen to music. But novels and movies and theater and songs, they’ve got to be subtle in their simulation of romance. They must enable us to transcend ourselves, to see bits and pieces of ourselves quietly in the characters of the story or song until finally what’s hidden takes shape. Ideally, the transition is so subtle you never really identify, you just become, see?
I saw, sort of.
Popular music is different, she explained. Kristofferson knows this in his bones. The idiom allows him to beat the listener over the head with clearly delineated imagery and still carry off the transcendental effect so difficult in a novel or in movies or on the stage. Popular songs aren’t written to illuminate. They’re written as background music, as a soundtrack to our lives. You don’t listen to them, you absorb, and the openness of the process allows for more clumsiness and mistakes which would be embarrassing otherwise. Look at some of Bob Dylan’s stuff – the imagery in the songs he wrote in “Blonde on Blonde” is so simplistic and awkward in retrospect that it’s embarrassing!
I yawned. “Blond on Blonde” was my favorite album of all time, and I was having a hard time following her train of thought. But then again, it was probably 3:30 a.m. by now, and I hadn’t even grabbed at one of her breasts.
You take a line of Kristofferson’s like “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” she continued, and because it’s in the same lyric with “windshield wipers slapping time,” it works perfectly. Put that line in a novel or a play and some reviewer would be sure to flush it out and point a finger and call it childish and give you a literary spanking.
But your sensibilities are too delicate and subtle to write the kind of stuff you’re talking about, I said, gazing up at a flap of paint peeling off the ceiling in the corner. Kristofferson would get where you’re coming from, but he’s not wielding a pillow, he’s swinging a brickbat. He’s the Andre Kostalanetz of country-rock, and you’d be coming at him with something that was more than Muzak. So go ahead and send him a song. If he gets back to you at all, he’ll probably write – the words are in his deep voice block-printed on a lined page out of a notebook – Sorry, ma’am, your song was real good, but my band has left me and I’ve been in this motel room in Memphis for a week and I don’t know when I’ll be getting back to Nashville to show it to my manager, so long and thanx, Kris. You’ll never write your song for him because nothing would ever be the same for you again if he rejects you. Failure changes things, and you want your world to stay the same.
You’re so full of shit, she said, settling her head against my neck. She sighed a southern sigh and fell asleep.
I remember I was drinking the good Scotch she saved for special occasions and it was making me all steamed up and twisted and mean. I picked up an issue of the New Yorker – her coffee table was always about an inch and a half deep in back-issues – and tried reading a story she had wanted me to read by a Famous Writer she had met up in Vermont or New Hampshire at one of those writers colonies. The story pissed me off almost from word one, I mean this guy got everything wrong including the words “and” and “the” as Mary McCarthy famously said of Lillian Hellmann. I was getting crazier and drunker and my head felt swollen and bursting with bullshit ideas and it was past 4:00 a.m. She was still asleep leaning against me and I yelled out something stupid and she woke up, gasping and choking and went out to the kitchen for a glass of water. She looked like she was about to cry. I had scared her, she said. I was acting primitive and uncaring and mean. All I did was keep her up late at night and curse and make a fool of myself. As she walked away from me toward the bedroom I tackled her. The glass of water arced into the air and landed on the dining room table sending broken glass and water everywhere. She threw her head back and laughed out loud. Blood ran down my arm. Her eyes danced and the white blouse she was wearing was snowy against the dark blue designs of the Persian carpet we ended up on.
I’ve never met a man like you, she said, her dark hair streaked prematurely with gray splayed on the carpet. She was lying, and we both knew it. I was just another lumbering beast moving through the world with his hands up grasping for breasts.
I don’t know exactly when it was that I lumbered into love with her, or even if I was in love with her or she with me. I do know it was smack in the middle of what I think of as the rock and roll years. To fall in love at that time was to crumble under the force of the music, to drench yourself in the electro-sonic beat of the hour, to yield to a music that spoke for us and not to us and was incredibly wonderfully LOUD. “Visions of Johanna,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Truckin’,” “Down on Me,” “Layla,” “Purple Haze,” “Black Magic Woman,” “Whipping Post”…we could go on for the rest of the page, couldn’t we? Suffice to say the music was out there somewhere, a screeching din of guitars and lyrics filled with Truth. We fell in love at a time when our music dominated not only the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine, but also the covers of Time, Newsweek, LIFE and LOOK, and symbolized a new concept floating around out there in the ether: lifestyle.
You wore your lifestyle, smoked your lifestyle, listened to your lifestyle, danced your lifestyle. And the music hovered above the age in a mechanical cloud of high performance loud speakers blaring a wall of noise and craziness. It was impossible to stop long enough to sink roots in ground vibrating and pulsing with rhythmic anxiety and a sense of having lost something and not known what it was.
Those years could hardly be described as romantic, because we didn’t think we had time to be romantic. So when we fell in love, it wasn’t romantically but politically. I loved Helen because she was rich and beautiful and strange and so different from the rest of them. She had rejected what she called “all of that,” and this made her a languid delicate rebel whose only cause was flinging off privileges like so many scarves. I represented freedom – of owning little or nothing, the excitement of being young and a writer, one who was even being paid to write and actually earning a living at it during a time when the city was in our minds the most exciting place in the world. Being with me enabled her to preserve a little of the old world while exploring the new, for in many ways we were very much alike. Both of us came from old Southern families. The backs of our hands even looked alike, hers thin and bony streaked with delicate blue veins and mine thick and meaty but streaked with my own bulging blue Randolph Charlottesville veins. We used to sit together sometimes gazing at our hands and wondering if we might actually have been related way back there somewhere, but nah, that would make too much sense and break the spell, wouldn’t it?
You couldn’t say we had a romance. We were much too modern for that. We were in what had come to be known as a “relationship.” The word was a perfect description of the friction between men and women at that time, for it is a mechanical word, a word that appeared time and time again in texts I studied at West Point in thermodynamics, mechanics of solids, mechanics of fluids, electrical engineering, all subjects of applied science and technology. Gears related to each other; particles spun about the nucleus of the atom in relationships of one to the others. In structural engineering problems dealt with the resolution of forces which related to each other according to a set of known rules and constants.
So did men and women relate to one another…mechanically, politically, in an age obsessed with the establishment of a new order in the universe, fascinated as much with laws as with feelings. There were times when I was glad to have been a student of engineering at West Point, because it gave me an edge on those who had not studied the perfect orderliness of calculus, the rules of logic, the resolution of questions both microscopic and magnificent, the classical axioms of Newton and Pythagoras and Einstein. Ours was a mechanical age and rock music served it perfectly, and the louder it blasted from high-tech amps and loudspeakers the better.
Rock and roll pounded out the rhythm of our lives. It bombed and screeched and jerked and blasted at ear-splitting volume with an equal mix of arrogance and idealism. Rock didn’t represent our lives; it drove them. It was anti-romantic; it had guts; it told the truth; it was real, and everything else was out there somewhere in a fog invisible to us who were inside the music.
To worry was perhaps the worst sin we could commit. We spent time trying to figure out how to live without worries, but we ended up anxious about anxiety itself. We didn’t want to be uptight, so we strove mightily to live life loosely, with as few attachments as possible, with as many options as we could think of. If you sat at night and listened to the music of Bob Dylan, you’d get a snapshot of what I mean. Dylan was our Eliot, our Pound, our Kerouac, our Mailer all combined into one. On stage he was our frail Charlie Chaplin in baggy trousers with a shaggy head of hair, at one moment stiff, robot-like, the next completely at loose ends, out of control, or so it seemed. Helen loved him for his poetry but I loved him for his music and most of all his voice. As my friend Harper Barnes once said, it was his instrument and it gave his words meaning which, for me at least, they lacked on the page. His voice was reedy and thin and harsh, full of and yet at the same time critical of the painfulness of our time. He blessed us and cursed us at once. He was the only musician to admit to the schizophrenia of the age…
How does it feel
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone…
He was singing about a girl who had left him, and the angry, sarcastic tone of his voice said she — and we — could go back home the moment we felt uncomfortable or threatend, and it was lucky for Dylan that so few caught his sardonic edge because it would have cost him a lot of fans at a time when we all felt alone and without a home and completely unknown.
Yet while Helen and I lived and loved amidst the confusion and wild craziness of the music and the time, we were not inside it. All that mattered was us. We were in love with the idea of ourselves as much as with each other. We were fans more than lovers. Our life together wasn’t a game, it was a private club.