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Entries in leonard michaels (6)

Tuesday
Dec072010

In Which Leonard Michaels Engages With His Thoughts And Feelings

from Journal

by LEONARD MICHAELS

Jimmy sits at his typewriter high on cocaine, smiling, shaking his head. He says, "I'm so good I don't even have to write." He's six foot three and charcoal brown, the color of a Burmese cat. His chest is high and wide. From neck to belt he is a hard, flat wall. No hips. Apple ass. Long legs. Long hands and feet. He looks as good in clothes as he looks naked. In two senses, clothes become his body. A woman said he is so clearly a man he could wear a dress. He sits at his typewriter, smiling, shaking his head, his long beautiful hands turned up, lying open and loose in his lap. There is nothing wrong with him. He doesn't even have to write.

Boris tells me he really loves Y and he REALLY wants to fuck X. Montaigne says there is more wildness in thinking than in lust.

I tell Boris my grief. He says, "I know I'm supposed to have a human response, but I'm hungry."

Kafka imagines a man who has a hole in the back of his head. The sun shines into this hole. the man himself is denied a glimpse of it. Kafka might as well be talking about the man's face. Others "look into it." The most public, promiscuous part of his body is invisible to himself. How obvious. Still, it takes a genius to say that the face, the thing that kisses, sneezes, whistles, and moans is a hole more private than our privates. You retreat from this dreadful hole into quotidian blindness, the blindness of your face to itself. You want to light a cigarette or fix yourself a drink. You want to make a phone call. To whom? You don't know. Of course you don't. You want to phone your face. The one you've never met. Who you are.

In the American South, it's said of a medical student, "He is going to make a doctor." For writers there is no comparable expression, no diploma, no conclusive evidence that anything real has been made of himself or herself.

I phoned Boris. He's sick. He gets tired quickly, can't think, can't work. I asked if he'd like to take a walk in the sun. He cries, "It's a nice day out there. I know it, believe me."

They say "Hi" and kiss my cheek as if nothing terrible happened yesterday. Perhaps they have no memory of anything besides money or sex, so they harbor no grudges and live only for action. "What's up?" Just pleasure, distraction from anxiety and boredom. Impossible to sustain conversation with them for more than forty seconds. The attention span of dogs. Everything must be up. They say you look great when you look near death. They laugh at jokes you didn't make. They say you're brilliant when you're confused and stupid.

Henry comes to my office. "Free for lunch?" I jump up and say, "Give me a minute." He glances at his watch. I run to the men's room, start pissing, want to hurry. The door opens. It's Henry. Also wants to piss. He begins. I finish. Seconds go by and then a whole minute as he pisses with the force of a horse. He would have gone to lunch with me, carrying that pressure.

Self-pity is a corrupt version of honesty.

Boris asks my opinion of a certain movie that has been highly praised. I know it isn't any good, but I'm unwilling to say so. He'll ask why I think it isn't any good. I'd have to tell him, which would mean telling him about myself, becoming another object of endless, skeptical examination. I prefer to disappoint him immediately and not wait for the negative judgment, the disapproval and rejection, like one of his women who never know, from day to day, whether they are adored or despised. I confess, finally, that I disliked the movie, but I understand why many others loved it. The woman I live with has seen it several times. He laughs. He approves. I feel a rush of anxiety, as though I've said too much. I'll be haunted later by my remark, wondering what I told him inadvertently.

The pain you inflict merely trying to get through the day. Pavese talks about this great problem. He had a woman in mind. Pavese does his work he kills her...Pavese reads a newspaper he kills her...Pavese makes an appointment to see an old friend...Finally, he killed himself. Sartre says to kill another is to kill yourself. He spent hours in coffee shops and bars. He liked to carry money in his pocket, lots of money. He compared it to his glasses and cigarette lighter. So many companions. He'd never have killed himself.

Women are tough. They know what they want. Men know more or less what they need, which is only what they like, not even what they need. King Lear wails, "But, for true need..." then can't define it. That's a real man.

Boris said that his first wife was a virgin. She came the first time they had sex. Worse, he says, she came every time after that. He watches my eyes to see if I understand why he had to divorce her.

The secretary said a long goodbye. A minscule flake of mucus, like a fish scale, trembled in her right nostril. Her face shone with cosmetic oils, as in feverish sweating. I thought she loved me, and I was reluctant to meet her eyes. I could have kissed her, perhaps changed her life, made her a great pianist, or poet, or tennis star, kissing her every day.

I phoned my mother. She said, "You sound happy. What's the matter?"

I visited a monastery in the wilderness. The monks had carved every stone by hand. It took years to complete. They were content, but their work was so ugly it seemed to comment on their faith. I wandered in halls and courtyard looking for a redeeming touch. There was none. In works of self-abnegating faith is there necessary ugliness?

Writers die twice, first their bodies, then their works, but they produce book after book, like peacocks spreading their tails, a gorgeous flair of color soon shlepped through the dust.

Boris tells me, apropos of nothing, that he has been rereading certain novels and poems. It's as if he is talking to himself, yet he is curious to hear my opinion. He says the novels and poems mean different things whenever he returns to them. As he talks, he picks up a small lacquered bowl which he brought back from Japan. It is very old, very good. It has the aura of a museum object whose value has emerged over time and declared itself absolutely, but he studies it with a worried, skeptical, suspicious eye.

Spoke to her on the phone. She cried. Said she missed me. I feel like a ghoul wandering in the darkness.

Eddie said he ran into his former wife in the street in New York, and they talked. They talked as if neither of them knew how to say nice to see you, I'm expected somewhere, goodbye, goodbye. They went to a restaurant and ate and talked some more, and they went to her apartment, and they made love. Then she said, "So why did we get divorced?" Eddie smiled at me and said, "See?" as if he were an idiot of circumstances, shlepped into pain and confusion by his cock. "You know how long I was divorced before I remarried?" he asked. "Not three days," he said. I was sad for him and for her, and her, and her. The feeling widened like circles about a leaf fallen onto the surface of a pond.

I eat standing up, leaning over the sink. I wouldn't eat like this if anyone could see me.

New York. Mother's apartment. Moritz visits, tells a story. One freezing morning everybody had to go outside and and watch a man be hanged. He'd tried to escape the previous night. Beside Moritz stood a boy, the man's brother. "His nose became red. It was so red," said Moritz. "That's what I remember." Moritz's eyes enlarge and his voice becomes urgent, as if it were happening again. His excitement isn't that of a storyteller. he can recite passages from Manfred in Polish, but he isn't literary. The experience is still too real to him. His memories are very dangerous. He fears another heart attack, but he tells about the camps. It should be remembered as he tells it. Freezing morning. The boy's red nose.

Her voice is flat and coolly distant, so I imagine things aren't over between us.

Boris drove past me in his new car, speeding down Euclid Avenue, picking his nose. he didn't see me. He was watching the road, driving fast, obsessed with his nose. Each life, says Ortega, is a perspective on reality.

I talk to Annette only on the phone. Afraid we might touch.

Every wildness plays with death. Washing your hands is a ritual to protest against death, and so are all the small correct things you do every day. Aren't there people who do nothing else? They pay their bills on time and go to the doctor once a year. They have proper sentiments and beliefs. They are nice people. I wanted to do dull ordinary chores all day. I wanted to be like nice people only to forget death, only to feel how I'm still alive.

The waiter does everything quick, everything right — no sauce on the fish, dry wine, salad dressing on the side. Then he bends over her and whispers, "Why are you angry?"
She says, "I'm not angry."
He says, "I can see that you're angry."
"I'm not angry."
"Didn't I bring you everything you asked for?"
His voice becomes bigger, self-pitying. "Fish, soup, bread, wine. Everything you asked for."
She says, "I shouldn't have to ask." The waiter walks away rolling his eyes. He doesn't understand American women. I rise, go to her table, and say, "Do you mind if I join you?"
She says, "What took you so long?"

Evelyn's four year old son had a nightmare in which Evelyn appeared with a big knife stuck in her head. She has scheduled him for psychotherapy five days a week.

Billy phones, says, "Want to play?" I think about it, then say, "The traffic is heavy. It will take forever to get to your place. I can't stay long. I'd feel I'm using you. It's not right. I don't want to use you." She says, "But I want to be used." I drive to Billy's place. She opens the door naked, on her knees. We fuck. "Do you think I'm sick?" she says. I say, "No." "Good," she says. "I don't think you're sick either."

She was once making love and the bed collapsed on her cat, who was asleep underneath, and broke its back. Since then, she says, sex hasn't been the same for her. Then she dashes to the sink, grabs a knife, and looks back at me, her teeth shining, chilly as the steel, welcoming me to the wilderness.

Annette claimed Dr. Feller "worked hard" during their sessions. "I trusted him," she says. "So many therapists sleep with their patients." As if it were entirely up to him. That hurt my feelings. Later we met his girlfriend at a party. I was friendly, as usual, but Annette was furious, confused, depressed. I asked, "What's the matter?" She wouldn't answer, but then, in bed, unable to sleep, she announced, "I will confront him, tell him off." I ask, "Why?" She hisses, "I trusted him." I begin to wonder if I'm crazy. Dr. Feller took a fifth of my income. I feel a spasm of anger, but fall asleep anyway, imagining myself taking a three point shot from the sideline with no time on the clock. The ball feels good as it leaves my hands.

Feelings come for no reason. I'm tyrannized by them. I see in terms of them until they go away. Also for no reason.

Margaret doesn't like oral sex because she was once forced to do it at gunpoint, in a car, in the parking lot next to the railroad tracks, outside the bar where the guy picked her up. I wish she hadn't told me. I hear freight trains. I see people coming out of the bar, laughing, drunk, going to their cars while she crouches in misery and fear, the gun at her head. How easy, if I had the gun at his head, to pull the trigger.

Schiller says, "When the soul speaks, then -- alas -- it is no longer the soul that speaks." William Blake says, 'Never seek to tell thy love/Love that never told can be." They mean the same as Miles Davis' version of "My Funny Valentine," so slowly played, excruciating, broken, tortured.

Afterward, afterward, it is more desolating than when a good movie ends or you finish a marvelous book. We should say "going," not "coming." Anyhow, the man should say, "Oh god, I'm going, I'm going."

Kittredge loves pretty women, but he is blind, can't pursue them. So I take him to a party and describe a woman in the room. He whispers, "Tell me about her neck." Eventually I introduce him to her. They leave the party together. Kittredge is always successful. Women think he listens differently from other men. In his blind hands they think pleasure is truth. Blind hands know deep particulars, what yearns in neck and knee. Women imagine themselves embracing Kittredge the way sunlight takes a tree. He says, "Talk about her hips." As I talk, his eyes slide with meanings, like eyes in a normal face except quicker, a snapping in them. Kittredge cannot see, cannot know if a woman is pretty. I say, "She has thick black hair." When they leave together I begin to sink. I envy the magnetic darkness of my friend. To envy him without desiring his condition is possible.

Sonny reads in the paper about a child who was sexually assaulted and murdered. She says quietly, as if to herself, "What are we going to do about sex?"

The distance between us is neither long nor short, merely imperishable, like the sentiment in an old song.

My neighbor is building his patio, laying bricks meticulously. The sun beats on him. Heats rises off the bricks into his face. I'm in here writing. He'll have built a patio. I'll be punished.

Deborah wants to have her eyes fixed so they'll look like white eyes and she hates her landlady who gave her the Etna Street apartment, choosing her over 157 other applicants. Her landlady assumed Deborah is a good girl, clean and quiet. "A Japanese angel," says Deborah with a sneer. I was shocked by her racism. I hadn't imagined she thought of herself as Japanese. She showed me photos of her family. Mother, father, brothers, sister — all Japanese, but I hadn't supposed she thought she was, too. What the hell did I imagine? Never to have to think of yourself as white is a luxury that makes you deeply stupid.

Evelyn told me that Sally, her dearest friend — "Don't ever repeat this!" — came down with the worst case of herpes she'd ever seen.

Feelings swarm in Eddie's face, innumerable nameless nuances, like lights on the ocean beneath a sky of racing clouds. Eddie could have been a novelist or poet. He has emotional abundance, fluency of self. He's shameless. "Believe me, I'm not a faithful type. I've slept with a hundred women. More. But it's no use. She hits me, curses me. She says 'I don't want to be touched. I don't want to be turned on.' No matter. It begins to happen. She relaxes, lets me disgrace myself. She tells me, 'Lick the insides of my legs while I make this phone call.' My father slaves six days a week, year after year, just to put me through medical school. For me to do this, to lick this woman, he went to an early grave."

Margaret tells me her lover is wonderful. "He makes me feel like a woman," she says, "without degrading me." I don't know what she means, but can't ask. What is it to feel like a woman? or to be made to feel that way?

Sonny was six years old when she went up on a roof with a boy. He pulled down his pants. She pulled down hers. They looked. Years later she still worried about what she'd done, thinking she could never be famous because the boy would tell everybody she'd pulled her pants down. She was a success in school and had innumerable boyfriends. None of that changed anything for her. At the age of six, in a thoughtless moment, she ruined her life.

It was cold, beginning to rain. Deborah was afraid she wouldn't find a taxi. She'd have to walk for blocks in the rain. She didn't want to go, but her psychotherapist wasn't charging her anything. A few months back, she told him she couldn't afford to continue. He lowered the rate to half. Even that became too much for her, so he lowered it to nothing. She stood, collected her things, and pulled on her coat like a kid taking orders from her mother, then fussed with her purse, her scarf, trying to be efficient but making dozens of extra little moves, rebuttoning, untying and retying her scarf, and then reopening her purse to be sure there was enough money for a taxi if she could find one. She wanted to stay, to talk more, but couldn't not go to her psychotherapist. She felt he really needed her.

I told Sonny I love her. She said, "I'm a sucker for love."

Leonard Michaels died in 2003. You can purchase the diaries of Leonard Michaels here.

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Tuesday
Dec152009

In Which Time Was Fractured There Was No Cause And Effect

from Sylvia

by LEONARD MICHAELS

"Go, I don't love you. I hate you. I don't hate, I despise you. If you love me, you'll go. I think we can be great friends and I'm sorry we never became friends."

"Can I get you something?"

"A menstrual pill. They're in my purse."

I found the little bottle and brought her a pill.

"Go now."

I lay down beside her. We slept in our clothes.

       JOURNAL DECEMBER 1960

At the end of the summer we returned to New York. Naomi moved out of the MacDougal Street apartment, Sylvia and I moved in. By then, fighting every day, we'd become ferociously intimate.

Like a kid having a tantrum, she would get caught up in the sound of her own screaming. Screaming because she was screaming, screaming, screaming, as if building a little chamber of rage, herself at the center. It was all hers. She was boss. I wasn't allowed inside. Her eyes and teeth were bright blacks and whites, everything exaggerated and contorted like the maelstrom within. There was nothing erotic in this picture, and yet we sometimes went from fighting to sex. No passport was required. There wasn't even a border. Time was fractured, there was no cause and effect, and one thing didn't even lead toward another. As in a metaphor, one thing was another. Raging, hating, I wanted to fuck, and she did, too.

Fights often began without warning. I'd be saying something ordinary and neutral, but Sylvia was suddenly rigid, staring at me. She knocked the telephone off the shelf. I stopped talking, startled, jerked to attention. She knocked the cup and saucer that had been sitting beside the telephone to the floor. They smashed to pieces. Now she was screaming, denouncing me, and I was screaming back at her. She went for the radio, to fling it against the wall, and I lunged at her, trying to stop her. She twisted loose and came at me. Then it was erotic; anyhow, sexual. Afterwards, usually, she slept. Neither of us mentioned what had happened. From yelling to fucking. From unreal to real was how it felt.

Ordinary or violent, the sex was frequent, exhausting more than satisfying. Sylvia said she'd never had an orgasm. As if I were the one who stood between her and that ultimate pleasure, she announced, "I will not live my whole life without an orgasm." She said she'd had several lovers better than I was. She wanted to talk about them, I think, make me suffer details.

I began trying to write again. Sylvia began taking classes at NYU, a few blocks away across Washington Square Park, to complete her undergraduate work. She asked me what she ought to declare as her major. I said if I were doing it over, I'd major in classics. I should have said nothing. She registered for Latin and Greek, ancient history, and a class in 18th century English literature. She had to learn the complex grammars of two languages, read long poems and fat novels, and write papers, all while living in squalor and fighting with me every day. It seemed to me a maniacal program. I expected confusion and disaster, but she was abnormally bright and did well enough.

There was no desk in the apartment, but Sylvia didn't need such conveniences, didn't even seemt to notice their absence. I don't think she ever complained about anything in the miserable apartment, not even about the roaches, only about me. She studied sitting on the edge of the bed in a mess of papers. Her expression would go flat, her body limp. She would be utterly still except for her eyes. She didn't scratch, she didn't stretch. She was doing the job, getting it over with. I'd sit with her sometimes for hours, reading a novel or a magazine. We ate together in bed, usually noodles, frozen vegetables, and orange juice, or else we went out for pizza or Chinese food. Neither of us cooked. My mother often gave us food. I'd carry it back to MacDougal Street after our visits downtown, two or three times a month.

One night, after dinner at my parents' apartment, my mother slipped away to the bedroom with Sylvia's coat and sewed up a tear in the sleeve. AS we were about to leave, she surprised Sylvia with the mended coat. Sylvia seemed grateful and affectionate. In the street, however, she became hysterical with indignation, saying she'd been humiliated. I tried to make her understand that my mother was being sweet, doing something good for Sylvia. My mother intended kindness, not a comment on Sylvia's coat. I didn't say that Sylvia made a pitiable, waiflike impression in the torn coat. I said my mother wanted Sylvia to like her. Saying such things, I embarrassed myself.

Then I became angry. What difference did the motives make? Sylvia wanted to be pitied; my mother wanted to be liked. Who could care? What mattered was that my mother's gesture had been affectionate. To defend her against Sylvia brought up questions of loyalty. Maybe that was the point. But, to my mind, my mother needed no defense. I was wrong to defend her. I shut up. Sylvia could interpret things however she liked. I couldn't instruct her in feeling, and I refused to sink into a poisonous and boring morass of motives.

Thereafter, I visited my parents alone.

Leonard Michaels died in 2003 at the age of seventy. The above excerpt is taken from his novel Sylvia, which you can purchase here.

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Friday
Jun262009

In Which You Can Shelter Me And I Will Shelter You

from Journal

by LEONARD MICHAELS

The distance between us is neither long nor short, merely imperishable, like the sentiment in an old song.

My neighbor is building his patio, laying bricks meticulously. The sun beats on him. Heats rises off the bricks into his face. I'm in here writing. He'll have built a patio. I'll be punished.

Deborah wants to have her eyes fixed so they'll look like white eyes and she hates her landlady who gave her the Etna Street apartment, choosing her over 157 other applicants. Her landlady assumed Deborah is a good girl, clean and quiet. "A Japanese angel," says Deborah with a sneer. I was shocked by her racism. I hadn't imagined she thought of herself as Japanese. She showed me photos of her family. Mother, father, brothers, sister — all Japanese, but I hadn't supposed she thought she was, too. What the hell did I imagine? Never to have to think of yourself as white is a luxury that makes you deeply stupid.

Evelyn told me that Sally, her dearest friend — "Don't ever repeat this!" — came down with the worst case of herpes she'd ever seen.

Feelings swarm in Eddie's face, innumerable nameless nuances, like lights on the ocean beneath a sky of racing clouds. Eddie could have been a novelist or poet. He has emotional abundance, fluency of self. He's shameless. "Believe me, I'm not a faithful type. I've slept with a hundred women. More. But it's no use. She hits me, curses me. She says 'I don't want to be touched. I don't want to be turned on.' No matter. It begins to happen. She relaxes, lets me disgrace myself. She tells me, 'Lick the insides of my legs while I make this phone call.' My father slaves six days a week, year after year, just to put me through medical school. For me to do this, to lick this woman, he went to an early grave."

Margaret tells me her lover is wonderful. "He makes me feel like a woman," she says, "without degrading me." I don't know what she means, but can't ask. What is it to feel like a woman? or to be made to feel that way?

Sonny was six years old when she went up on a roof with a boy. He pulled down his pants. She pulled down hers. They looked. Years later she still worried about what she'd done, thinking she could never be famous because the boy would tell everybody she'd pulled her pants down. She was a success in school and had innumerable boyfriends. None of that changed anything for her. At the age of six, in a thoughtless moment, she ruined her life.

It was cold, beginning to rain. Deborah was afraid she wouldn't find a taxi. She'd have to walk for blocks in the rain. She didn't want to go, but her psychotherapist wasn't charging her anything. A few months back, she told him she couldn't afford to continue. He lowered the rate to half. Even that became too much for her, so he lowered it to nothing. She stood, collected her things, and pulled on her coat like a kid taking orders from her mother, then fussed with her purse, her scarf, trying to be efficient but making dozens of extra little moves, rebuttoning, untying and retying her scarf, and then reopening her purse to be sure there was enough money for a taxi if she could find one. She wanted to stay, to talk more, but couldn't not go to her psychotherapist. She felt he really needed her.

I told Sonny I love her. She said, "I'm a sucker for love."

Leonard Michaels is the senior contributor to This Recording. He died in 2003. You can find the first four entries in Leonard Michaels' Journal here, here, and here, and here.

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