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Entries in new york (32)


In Which We Reveal All In The Time And Place Of Our Choosing

12 1/2 Months


January. He is the surprising replacement for the host's brother at a themed dinner party held by my oldest, most literal friend Janet. "Here is Simon," she says. "That is not his name, but it is what he likes to go by." I never ask the story behind it, because I am truly tired of the games we play, naming things, asking what everyone wants to be called.

Simon is dressed very finely, but only if you take careful notice. "My apartment just burned down," he announces to everyone, and receives a round of condolences. He is living in a hotel. He confesses that he could move out of it, live in a short term lease that would be less expensive, that offers more space, but he does not really want to.

I ask what it feels like to have all of his things gone, and what started the fire. "It feels terrible," he said, "but I don't remember what's gone. When they asked me to make a list, I could not even do it." "You had insurance?" He doesn't answer, but Janet tells me that he did. I ask her if she was ever in the apartment. "Once," she tells me. "It was a sty. I'm not surprised in the least that it no longer exists."

February. He asked for my number. I gave it to him, not really thinking much of it. Lately, that is how it goes with these flimsy meetings. There is never anything like an attachment being formed; all contact seems so preliminary.

He does not call until the middle of the month. He asks what I want to do. Whatever I suggest, he says he has either already done it, or is not interested. Finally he tells me to show up in Bryant Park. I come early to write; he is already there.

He walks around looking at all the people. I ask him what he does for a living, but he does not tell me that either. The only thing he wants to talk about are the other people. Who did I think they were, where did they live, what were they doing in the park in the middle of the day?

He asks me to show him my apartment. When I say no, he reaches into his back pocket and gives me a little blank book, like some curio journal you would purchase in a small bookstore. He tells me not to open it until I leave. On the first page is a detailed, highly realistic drawing of my face.

March. Simon did not call me for all of March, and I figured I would not hear from him again. He left a message with Janet, who I gathered he had hit it off with, perhaps better than he had with me. She told me that he was in Los Angeles working on set design for a small film, but that he would be back in a month, and that he wanted to see me again.

I asked Janet, "Isn't it strange that he would use you to relay that message to me? It's kind of insulting." She said, "That's the way he is. Perhaps he sees me more accurately than you see me."

I bristled at the time, but now I think that is no doubt true.

April. He calls me the day he comes back, and he asks if I wanted to get dinner. I hate that stinking phrase, and I tell him so. "You're not the first eccentric person I've met," I tell him. "It's not funny, or more entertaining. Surprises aren't an artistic medium." He apologizes, and says our evening will not be like Bryant Park.

I wish I had not said yes, but I did. His body is surprising muscular underneath his light clothing. No one could be like that through no exertion of effort, of time spent in the gym or natural world. He showed no sign of this. He had, then, long blonde hair tied up. The one thing I did not like about that night was the apologizing. He seemed genuinely sorry about our previous meeting, but it went overboard. At first I thought I was seeing him as he is, but after some time I discerned it was simply another layer.

May. When he wakes in the morning the first thing he does is draw. He is basically non-responsive during this period, so I learn to do other things while he crouches over himself. It is a relief to not have someone desperately trying to get away from you. I am grateful he allows me into that space, and then I pity myself for being pleased by something so innocuous.

His mother visits from Sweden. She stays at a cheap hotel near Times Square. She is a small, insensate woman with grey and blonde hair who is always putting herself down. She strains her hip bending over to pick up a quarter she has dropped, but she won't let Simon take her to the doctor. "A little thing," she scolds herself, "a little thing."

His father couldn't make the trip, Simon tells me. I want to ask Janet if she knows what the story is here, but she is no longer returning my phone calls. The sex we have while his mother is here is multidimensional and very satisfying, like a lozenge on a sore throat.

"This is not exactly what I mean," Laura Riding wrote, "any more than the sun is the sun."

June. His mother flies out of JFK, giving me this weird, wooden hug. I felt embarrassed when it is the three of us. I want to explain how uncomfortable their coldness makes me. I'm not writing very much these days. It feels like my life is my writing, and my writing is my life, a state of affairs Levi-Strauss referred to as a "double-twist."

l am a bit tired, I start to think, by the time I spend with him. We have grown closer, it is true, but it is the kind of interdependence I have never sought from other guys. My friends tell me that they miss me, and suddenly I feel the same. I am not this kind of person to be so wrapped up in someone else.

Before I do anything, I try to talk to Simon about it. He is placid, then excitable, like a child who has never had to defend his playtime. (Somewhere in there he cut his hair down to a low buzz.) My therapist says this behavior was probably returned to him by his mother's visit. It scares me that someone I care for is so transparent.

With a start one night, I recognize the taste of the herbal tea his mother drank at every meal.

"We spend all our time in my apartment," I say. "Don't you think that is strange?" Cowed and dutiful, he finally agrees to take me to his hotel room. Drawings and whiteboards are everywhere. Plates of eaten and uneaten food. Stack of burned and bruised pages float on trays and underfoot. It is a mess, the kind you would not know how to start cleaning up. "I have another week here," he says, and reclines on the bed, his eyes darting back and forth like ping pong balls.

July. This is the month that I end it.

Before that, I let him keep everything salvageable in boxes within my apartment. A few of his friends show up to help him move; a Bangladeshi girl who could have walked right off a runway, and a medical student named Artis who chuckles when he sees the scene. "This is nothing," Artis tells me. "You should have seen what burned."

I am surprised at how much these two know about me; his mother barely remembered my name. We sit down for dinner in a Burmese restaurant where no one comes in for anything but takeout. Janet shows up unexpectedly, practically jumping into my arms. When I tell her that I missed her she says, "Yes, me too. Second place is the first loser."

Once Simon finds a new apartment with a roommate who is a lawyer in midtown, I tell him how things are with me. I force myself to breathe. I think he might cry, but he never does, just watches the people walking by, swiveling his head to get the full view.

August. By next week he has taken it in stride and asks if he can still see me at all. I hesitate - those last few times we had sex resembled a light frenzy, like the last burning off of a storm's horizon.

A few weeks later he wants to know what they all want to know. It is the word that haunts every romance that has never been witnessed by others, that remained hidden from view. Something that is half a secret is still a secret. If he doesn't know why, Simon says, he will never know how to grow from this. "How can I stop thinking about you?" he asks me. I tell him that I will let him know when I figure it out.

September. It is so hard to be alone again. Sundays are particularly unbearable. The only comfort is knowing I was right. Wasn't I?

I had to close the curtains because the trees lost their leaves.

October. Janet tells me that Simon has found a new girlfriend. Do I want to know who she is? At first I resent her for putting it to me in this fashion. It's not like I would have found out if she did not tell me. But I would have wondered.

So often now my curiosity is satisfied again and again. This constant satiation never happened in another age and time. I wish I did not know the end of every story, although I suppose I may never know what has become of Simon's mother, or why she came to visit her son at all if she was not going to touch him. I could write it myself, but I do not wish to do so, this time.

Simon's new squeeze is an artist, small and blonde, of intensely tiny paintings. In what Janet regards as a solid put-down, she informs me that they represent the size of the painter's world. She graduated from a New England college where she could not have amassed much more information about life than a squirrel does from living in one tree.

These are Janet's observations only. I go to see the paintings myself one morning when the gallery opens. Despite being of ordinary objects, for the most part, they are so finely focused I find myself staring in utter absorption before having to look away.

November. Simon calls me before Thanksgiving. He is living back in Brooklyn now, he says. He has a new place. Would I like to come over? The first time he asks, I manage to decline.

Almost everyone else I know has left New York to visit friends and family. I am not going home for Christmas. The city empties out, stores and restaurants are closed. The avenues are left to tourists. Wood floors in his apartment shine, newly buffed. He is not seeing Jacqueline any more, he says, if he ever was. She had another boyfriend, a businessman who travels a lot. The man promised to work from the home office from now on. His choice changed my life.

December. I say, "Some women want to know there is a specific type of future available, one that they can comfortably fit into. Maybe she did not think you were capable of providing that." Even as the words escape my mouth, I realize that they are meaningless.

His smell. One whiff is like the next day after you roast nuts, but just a bit sour. I cannot believe I was ever able to escape from this sensation of someone so fine, interwoven through and around me, an irrestible aspect of Linda. Without meaning to, I have impressed myself.

January. I turn him away when he comes to my door. At the end of my building's hallway, a mirror shows his despondent face. "Thought looking out on thought makes one an eye," offered Laura Riding.

Linda Eddings is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. Experience our mobile site at http://thisrecording.wordpress.com.

Paintings by Edite Grinberga.

"Aluminum Crown" - of Montreal (mp3)

"Virgilian Lots" - of Montreal (mp3)


In Which Malcolm Lowry Despised New York

Substance Abuse


Malcolm Lowry's biggest bout of binge drinking began when his suitcases were lost en route to New York in 1954. His wife Margerie was used to dealing with his inebriation; his other caretaker in the city was David Markson, a young novelist who had written a critical appreciation of Lowry's 1947 novel Under the Volcano. Markson later wrote,

The man could not shave himself. In lieu of a belt, he knotted a rope or a discarded necktie around his waist. Mornings, he needed two or three ounces of gin in his orange juice if he was to steady his hand to eat the breakfast that would very likely prove his only meal of the day. Thereafter a diminishing yellow tint in the glass might belie the fact that now he was drinking the gin neat, which he did for as many hours as it took him to. Ultimately he would collapse sometimes sensible enough of his condition to lurch toward a bed, though more often he would crash down into a chair, and once it was across my phonograph.

During a subsequent party held in his honor, Lowry pre-gamed by drinking a bottle of shaving lotion. Markson recalled that during the event "suddenly, cupping his hand to his mouth, he began to make sounds that can only be called beeps."

Lowry's favorite drink was a constantly evolving subject. He was not a mean drunk, particularly, although he was always careless. His constitution was actually state-of-the-art to be able to absorb the kind of damage he inflicted on it and survive. He saw drinking not as an art, or a path to understanding, but an inescapable part of his daily existence. Once Markson opened his eyes in the morning to find Lowry leering, "Do you have the decency to offer me a drink?"

Lowry and Aiken in Spain 1932Through Malcolm Lowry's life, people were always trying to get him clean. If they liked his writing, they were far more inclined to put up with his behavior, which perhaps seems obvious, but the one thing really has little to do with the other. 

When he first arrived in the United States to stay with Conrad Aiken, he carried only a ukelele and a bunch of notebooks.

with conrad aiken 1931

He absolutely despised New York. He wrote,

In my experience odi et amo that particular city it favors brief and furious outbursts, but not the long haul. Moreover for all its drama and existential fury, or perhaps because of it, it's a city where it can be remarkably hard or so it seems to me to get on the right side of one's despair.

Acapulco in march of 1946

In his drunken state, he often wrote letters. He would usually start penning screeds to his friends, agents and publishers just when he had approached rock bottom, so they took on something of a desperate tone. Writing to his agent in 1967, he managed, "Please don't say I'm a shit...for not writing more when you have dealt so kindly with me. It's just that my mind won't work. I am having a lot to contend with right now."

Lowry believed that versions of mescal he imbibed might provoke useful hallucinations, although in reality he was making a common error. The drink had nothing to do with mescaline. 

He was capable of getting in any amount of trouble while under the influence. On occasion he would drink himself under so badly that he resorted to asking witnesses if he had been violated sexually. But for the most part his tolerance was high enough that he did not black out completely.

February 1946

It seems stupid, in writing about Malcolm Lowry, to wonder why he drank so often and so much. Yet in his case, alcoholism constituted such a destructive act it almost demands an answer to a silly question.

Douglas Day wrote in his biography of Lowry that "Orally fixated types are prone to excessive drinking. Sons of austere and autocratic father are apt to express their rebellion against that parent by drinking. Guilt and fear, of sexual origin, are likely to express themselves in drinking. Reaction against a rigidly authoritarian religious upbringing may manifest itself in drinking."

March 1947

Day continues, explaining that "Lowry drank not so much because he chose to, as because he had to: from one source or another, he had acquired, by the age of eighteen, enough guilt — sexual and otherwise — and resentment and insecurity to have made it almost impossible for him to be anything but an alcoholic. He must have been an utterly miserable young man."

what became the Calle Nicaragua in "Under the Volcano"

The protagonist of Lowry's most famous work, Under the Volcano, spends about two-thirds of the novel under the influence. Even the book's most dedicated admirers seem to grow tired of this. The Consul's intoxication, at some point, ceases to be charming. He drinks primarily because he is lonely, but also because he is is afraid of sex, other people and the possibility he may be attracted to men.

Of the book Lowry argued that it was "designed, counterdesigned and interwelded that it could be read an indefinite number of times and still not have yielded all its meanings or its drama or its poetry." If only this did not sound like an excuse for his life rather than a strength of his literature.

Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in San Francisco. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about Simone de Beauvoir.

"That Old Manhattan" - Julian Velard (mp3)

"New York, I Love It When You're Mean" - Julian Velard (mp3)


In Which She Appeared To Be There For The Fight

Mal de Mar


Midwest summers in my grandparents house were hot and leaden with the smell of perfumed soaps and car oil. It was summer when Mom told me of her younger brother Ben’s death and handed me a photo from the mantelpiece. It was encased in a frame, and inside was a tiny unfamiliar body with hands smaller than my eight year old mitts. “It was a farming accident. Your grandmother never recovered,” she told me. We didn’t speak of him, or my grandmother, again. Idle after university I began to resist this falling away. I hungered for a history proven elusive with a ferocity that perhaps matched my grandmother’s hunger to disappear.

I imagined my grandparents’ world mirroring the seasoned black and white photos on our mantelpiece. The light hit sternly from above, giving them a ghostly hollow cheeked conviction. My mother rarely told stories of their lives, sound bites not to be elicited like announcements made over an airport loudspeaker. Their history felt fragile to me even as a child.

I followed my grandmother to New York; I imagined Pakistani cab drivers struggling to understand her sharp Norwegian consonants. It was here that I found myself, with a question more profound than its answer: a shoddy apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, trying to piece together an old narrative in a city pulsing with forward momentum. It was 2011; I was broke, aimless and lonely.

I had picked up a job at a bar in the East Village. Our busy season was ending with the dying of summer, as was my patience for sleeveless regulars. It was here I met Sophie. She came in for a job application but was quickly engaged in a fatal shouting match with the owner Lucia. Despite a crumpled resume in her hand, she seemed to be there for the fight. She plopped down in front of me and casually tossed peanuts into her mouth. Pulling me in by the shoulder, she whispered, “Don’t worry, I always carry a gun.” It’s laughably absurd in retrospect, but irony had died with the Bush era, so I said nothing and watched her kick a chair over on her way out.

Much later Sophie told me she dreamt about that day. Throwing back the rest of the peanuts she had taken me by the hand. The back patio opened up into an endless beach and we ran through a landmine field of cruddy drunk kids sprawled on the sand. Together we blew away in an overturned beach umbrella. We shared that desire to take sail; I was searching for something, while she was hoping to lose herself. From that first meeting I recall her tiny hands, fingernails filled with dirt, as though she clawed her way out of bed each morning with orphic desperation. I was not alone in my desire for her. She seemed destined for a great story, the femme fatale caged on the island of sirens.

My love of her was amorphous. I straddled a tightrope of detachment and lonely urges of wanting to belong. I needed her most when New York felt very far from the Midwest. I remember my mother calling me from the road. Her sister had skipped town leaving her five kids in a series of destructive events. She had gone to help out in her absence. I knew she wouldn’t tell those kids the truth. These secrets live behind her smoke colored eyes. “The rain is coming down hard now honey, I’m going to have to let you go,” she said. I knew she was crying. She dropped off the line.

I had forgotten where I was going; I dialed Sophie’s number. Ben’s death seemed to surface like a toxic oil spill. Without a sound, the tragedy had seeped into the drinking water of the whole family.

I chose to stay in New York through what I think of in hindsight as the lonely years. One year became two. I was still on the hunt for my grandmother’s story, imbued by a tragedy I wanted desperately to understand. Sophie and I would walk through her old neighborhood breathing life into corner stores and old shoe repairmen who might have once shared her space. I was unhappy and empty-handed, but Sophie seemed to tolerate my quiet spells, if not feast on my despondency.

We began moving in the same circles, her role in them much more glamorous than mine. My last spring in New York, though I did not know it yet, was anachronistic, marking the end of so many things. On this particular night I found myself at a going away party, an occasion that turned me into a cool spectator of my own sensations. I watched myself make grand plans I knew would never be kept, trips to places like Geneva for jazz, Brazil for some party. Youth afforded us these fantasies; we seemed to have all the time in the world to break them.

Sophie arrived with Martine, her boyfriend du jour. I thought of all her boyfriends this way, a sarcasm truly born from a jealous longing. It was the kind of evening you could feel; change hung in the air like words unsaid. At the time it felt like a beginning, but it is always harder to sense the ends of things. 

I had been skirting around the party all night, my third eye on the comedy show Martine and Sophie were putting on. Martine would make a crude joke and Sophie would double over or throw her head back- the mating dance. I hated this party. I lost sight of them and slipped to the bathroom locking the door behind me. I fell against it, closing my eyes against my reflection. I felt suffocated. Every time I retold the narrative of my life, I changed. I was whirling fast, falling away from anything that I knew, from the girl I was when I moved here. Leaving this party was my only option. I opened the door and ran straight into Sophie. Her pupils were dilated and sweat collected on her hairline. She cornered me in the bathroom doorway.

“You’re in love with me,” her lip snarled back in a mock smile. “You are tragically trapped, admit it.” She loved that word, spitting it out: tragic.

I had told her once that she was robbing it of its theatrical qualities. “This isn’t all a fucking act?” she had replied.

In the doorway, Sophie kept speaking, but I felt a strange quiet cloak us. Tiny flecks of dust floated between us, illuminated by the ambient light coming from the open door behind me. The patina warped her voice.

I saw myself, years later recalling this moment, predicting its nostalgic powers. My pretend future self couldn’t remember any of the words she spoke, but through the dust I could acutely see tiny drops of perspiration delicately balanced on her raised collarbone. They were lined up like dominoes, waiting for the impetus to join forces and take the great plunge to the floor.

We stopped speaking after that night. I didn’t feel resentment, and remember that moment as the critical push. I left New York a month later.

A few weeks ago I received a surprisingly early morning phone call from an old New York friend Dan. Sophie had died. “She had leukemia. I thought you should know,” Dan said. There was silence on the line. “She always cared for you.”

We look for a history to call our own; we try and cling to something bigger than the life in front of us. Bigger than pulling on a short skirt for a shift at an East Village bar, bigger than waking up to 6 a.m. to sunlight stealing through the blinds of a stranger’s apartment, bigger than the mingling smell of urine and seaweed salad at the bottom of the subway stairs. We risk forgetting that we are floating through our own story.

Maureen O'Brien is a contributor to This Recording. This is her first appearance in these pages. She is a writer living in New York. She twitters here and you can find her blog here.

Photographs by Thomas Bollier.