1. The End
I went home—after three hungry years, a dozen awful addresses, and too many leftover 60s prophets and 80s mental patients, and my father met me at the highway bus stop in his new-smelling imported car and announced, “You know, I’ve technically become a millionaire.”
“Really?” I was impressed for a second. But as he began to explain his accumulated “net worth” while he was driving, I started remembering rooms I’d lived in with walls so thin that conversation could be accurately recorded straight through them, not to mention the ceilings and floors. I’d learned to be quiet the hard way, amid the lonely rages, rantings and passions of neighbors.
The last time I was home, before college, we too had argued over anything that would make matters worse. So I was relieved that things clicked into place at home. Maybe my parents were just grateful I hadn’t gotten killed recently in any of my entanglements, which I won’t even go into. It helped that we saw each other only in passing. I worked every grungy job I could stand, or I stayed out dancing until the clubs closed. Even so, I couldn’t stick around long—I had a life to get back to, even then…But for a while I was happy to stay in the old house with the nearest neighbors fifty yards away, and they made no noise that the old oaks and apple trees couldn’t absorb. I had missed the place more than I realized because I’d cut myself off from my past for so long.
I’d been living as Cayle, which was a role I’d written for myself to play, or improvise, really—even the pronunciation of “Cayle,” rhyming with “isle,” had happened by mistake. Nonetheless, I’d lived to faithfully record the spontaneous overflow of accidents, I mean life, in poetry. I always sought the truth, but I was living the autobiography of somebody else. I didn’t lose my self-defining traits: my laughable skittishness, tragic shyness, and ectomorph body all remained with me in all-too-familiar forms. The problem was a void that also always stayed with me, and no knowledge or experience could stop its growth or counter its power to deprive me of everything.
Most stories end with death but I will begin there because I had to begin again in the ashes of having been somebody else. I had legally died, and I gradually learned what it means to be dead—in the bleak aftermath. I didn’t even want to remember the worst things, but some of them came back on their own, even many years later. And as I wrote this story I found it isn’t enough to go through Hell or Heaven or see the breath of God in the shape of someone’s face. I still had to go back to Cayle, the self I was before, to learn what people really meant.
I am like that Samaritan with a half-dead body slung over his shoulder and banging on doors, a man whose story in its time seemed immoral, offensive, and even degenerate to the Pharisees and Sadducees. (Who wants all that on their front step?) But I’ve been both the Samaritan and the half-dead guy. So I came the hard way to bring this story to your threshold.
2. After the end
The room itself was odorless though I woke to the pissing of an old man holding a plastic container. The winter light was gray but not unkind. My first thought that cohered was: ‘I’m alive….’ How awful-the unshaking world gripped my indifferent life. All hospitals were the same to me then. The decor, replicated more uniformly than inside any institution except The Army Tent, coolly depressed my eyes like a sterile sheet. Getting up was an ordeal—my body fumbled around and failed to rise. I hurt all over due to the overdose and whatever was done in the Intensive Care Unit. Settling down belly-upwards was sickening. There was nothing to see, so I curled up, unable to cry or truly feel I still existed. When I resigned myself to this, it ceased to matter at all, except for a short-lived humiliation that I had failed.
Sadness, to the nurse who came in, spurred a sequence of memorized kindnesses: pillow-fluffing, sheet-changing, pulse-taking, and the ‘vital questioning’….
“Do you know your name? Yes?… How many names is that? Now do you want water—Yes? Do you need the phone? Are you too hot?”
I liked the musical accent in her voice (latina?) Her face and neatly pinned chestnut hair were so pretty to watch that it made me almost glad she was there. Anyone was an improvement over my ‘roommate’ whose smell had strengthened by then. The emptiness stretched into hours after she left to fetch the doctor, and intense boredom made even him welcome when he appeared.
Dr. Steiger was stern and inquisitive. The world-worn wrinkles, retreating hair-line and lipless mouth betrayed a veteran psychiatrist’s ennui. Yet his eyes, like green lights, probed with a life their own. Our eyes met, person to patient. The glimmer of mildly critical curiosity showed his displeasure to me. I felt a queasy increment of guilt which, by itself, could not persuade me I was wrong to hate life. His questions lacked any sympathy, and consequently I could not recall his name three times in a row, and so many wrong guesses made me even forget my own name. I suspected he was testing me at a deeper level, so I had to mumble how my friends knew my ‘real’ name regardless of the day, place and name inscribed on my birth certificate. I’d started reading Sartre, so I wanted to say that who I was had to be more than those historical accidents. A human being was a project, an existential experiment in freedom even if that meant man was no more than “a useless passion” or a being burdened by total responsibility for his actions alone. I even started to explain this heroic philosophical stance.
But since I’d just tried to kill myself, he just repeated my legal name back at me, our location, the year and the date.
In just ten days and nights I would watch this humorless sketch in a white coat become the eminent figure in my survival. Only his signature could release me from ‘observation.’ The blur of his white hands would flesh out into strong, supple and ageless tools. The baritone drone would quip in agitated clips, sigh from bottomless experiences, and laugh with sardonic hope (lacking the naivete to hope purely). The face inevitably grew more human with every sentence though he never lost a protective mask of irony. At the end of this ‘trial,’ he declared I was sane, enough for release anyway.
“Why did you try to kill yourself?” he asked.
“I dunno. What’s the big deal about it?”
“Inadequate response,” said his eyes and frown, unconsciously, while his words eluded all emotional impulses.
“So, you are an actor, Cayle?”
I nodded twice before I realized he had just used my familiar name. Then I realized how self-conscious and crisp the question was. I laughed lightly at him. He was trying to trip me up, to see if I could really tell who I was. I saw through it because I was a good actor.
“What was that for?” His voice struck an emphasis for a first time (a sign of humanity), so I began to talk to him in earnest to reassure him that I knew who I was ‘really’ and ‘in practice.’ Actually, I confused these deep in my soul. To make matters worse, I had been in rehearsal in a play up until the time I was hospitalized. Speaking of which, I realized I was needed on stage….
Some weeks earlier, Jules had brought me along to a rehearsal of Last Gasps by Jeffrey Weiss, the famous New York playwright-director. With a vibrant spark in his eyes and an artist’s beret on his head, Jeffrey was so animated that he was more fascinating to watch than any of the awkward youths acting. When he finished directing the scenes and improvs, he surprised me by stepping straight toward me with his glowing smile and welcoming handshake. It didn’t even faze him that I used my left hand; whatever was wrong with my right hand didn’t matter to him because he had already impulsively decided to create a character out of me for the show. Without saying so explicitly, he let me know then that he needed someone to vary the all-white glow of the cast.
I had straight black hair, olive skin, a waist small enough to be declared missing (twenty-four inches), a punk’s impish naivete, a slapdash English accent, wide brown eyes, and a bagful of opinions invented to shock on every occasion. I was liked by some for the variety or charm of it all, but I was also hated for being obnoxious as a know-it-all. The character Jeffrey created out of me was a mute, moron thug and Bruce Lee wannabe, a bungler of all tasks his evil master commanded. I was named “Hat Chet Man” ….I was comic relief.
3. The Cast Party
The play ended around 11:00 p.m. when the final light-cue blacked out the very last deed of the last character. Instantly the entire cast exploded into delirious glee, tears, laughter, roars and hacking coughs. The cast party began backstage: drugs, cigarettes, drinks and hysteria were handed around the swarm which swelled in power like a giant beast unharnessed from the plow and allowed to fructify for, at most, one hour till the whip came down again. The party was lusty as a great breast bouncing back to its natural shape when its bra is swept off. A hundred people seemed to be reuniting in the semi-lit stage although only a few dozen people embraced at any moment, passionately, before moving on to the next body. This was the farewell of each to all.
Still in costume, I was dazed and crushed happily in the center of the cacophony. For the first time I felt how huge the emptiness of the fly-space above us was, and the dark theater stretched upwards like a black cavern. The vastness of that blank above made me feel small as a luminous dust speck. But when I breathed in the sweat and make-up, the space collapsed to the width of my shoulders again. The scent of sawdust and metal light-trees was suddenly too remote to make a lasting imprint. Yet I knew life was a totality so perfect in every thing that it was a joy to contemplate forever. On the other hand, if I felt that way, it was mostly because I wanted to, and I was due back at the hospital in twenty minutes.
Like the forlorn anti-hero in Beckett’s Molloy, I was lost in a forest in an indefinite country, hungry and frustrated on an indefinite mission. (I loved Beckett’s novels so much that I even got a Samuel Beckett haircut.) During this ‘quest’ a kind of archangel comes, a messenger to reassure the anti-hero: “Life is a thing of beauty, a joy forever….” Renewing interest in life for one moment, almost hopefully, the anti-hero asks, “Do you mean that including human life?”
While people shook my hand, hugged and kissed me, I worked outward to the edge of the throng. A magnetic sorrow dragged me away from the noise and wonder of so much affection. Then one girl named Cynthia gave me a long look, to stop me. In many affectionate scenes that lasted for as long as a gag, she had rehearsed opposite me. She was intrigued sometimes, but like a good actress, she was numbed to all attachment by prior disengagements. She was slender with honey-colored hair, and her costume was substantial as a wet paper towel.
She opened her smile up like a flower and her arms spread below as if to take root in another’s warm torso. I paused, apprehensive at the body-heat that rose around me near her. She gave me a kiss to cut me loose, while holding me. Then something happened. My legs and arms pulsed alive, brought me forward into the moment wherein intimacy makes the presence of an other meaningful. Suddenly she was nothing less than a whole history of doings, places-a soul and body replete with sins-absolutions karmic tasks-mysteries, and joys and pangs that shined around me as undeniable and alien as a moon. To me she was unique for the first time. So I kissed her back with a perfect, fragile sigh, and then with all my strength. Drawing her shoulder blades forward so that her heart pounded through us both, I kissed her so I would always feel that pure heat roll from her nape which my lips made moist, sinking in. I kissed her so my thighs would tell her all my fears and pains, the lonely and hungry self I had become, kissed her until a horror in me screamed ‘O O O O O……’ and in that instant something in her reversed. Resistance broke like a glass in air, she was collapsing, crying and crying in bewilderment as much at herself as at me. Then I realized a strange silence had been around us like an eddy in a whirlpool…. There we were alone, but the vortex of noise sucked us out of each other and back out to the chattering joy of delirium. I let the chance to embrace her again slip away. For a moment, I was happy enough.
This had been the tenth time in my life that I ever kissed anyone, excluding social and obligatory kisses, and I was ashamed at not knowing her very well but feeling so close. (I thought that I should only feel that way for Jenny, whom I’d known for more than half a year by that point). It meant so much more to Cynthia than to me that it seemed unfair. I only wanted, initially, to make it matter because I could, but when it seemed like love to Cynthia I was befuddled.
Some time after I was released from W-6, my other really close friend Jules asked me about this incident while we were hanging out in his apartment.
“You mean you didn’t know everyone was watching you two?”
“It was just a kiss, though, wasn’t it?”
“No, you both exploded in this weird light, and it even got silent around you for a second.”
“Are you serious? I mean, I thought so but, but—”
I reflected for a moment. Despite all the free-floating opiate fumes, he was right.
“She was even in love with you for a while there, Cayle. It was really-dramatic.”
“Really? Nah-yer joking…. for how long, anyway?”
“Hours… Think about it! Hours—”
I always trusted Jules because he was such an obscene genius: a virtuoso violinist, the composer of nearly all the songs in the Last Gasps production, a skilled artist, and a good actor. We’d met the previous summer when he used to study lying on the rug in the smoker’s lounge in the library with his shirt off, his sunglasses on, and his Marlboros handy. ‘My God,’ I thought, ‘an artist as crazy as me.’ But I was so shy that I responded to people in almost a mime-like way. In fact, the first times Jenny had seen me, she had mistaken me for a mime or a dancer. So despite Jules’ frequent welcomes, I only nodded and smiled back till one day I was totally broke and desperately out of cigarettes.
Immersed in a book, Jules was stunned when I nervously whispered, “Uh, ‘scuse me, but…. But, couldja spare a cig?”
He nervously offered one, then two, and finally insisted I take a fistful.
4. A Virgin Sacrifice on the Volcano
During one particular performance on those cold February nights, I felt free, larger than life and truly at home before the audience. I had some of the best and worst shtick in the play as a moron thug. I made Hat Chet Man a character analogous to myself, an impossible person who did not even try to be probable. Instead of the usual biographical bragging in the Program Notes on the players I had written:
I’m Cayle the professionally human character…. I just wandered in here by accident and they won’t let me go. At night they hang me on a coat-rack and at night it gets so cold I’ve got icicles growing in places I can’t scratch.
I was effective as an actor because life to me was always a play, and I truly identified with my character. I did the role with pathetic abandon, and when I felt the whole audience laughing hysterically the role took on a reality independent of mine but just as deep, and equally painful too.
In one gag a character named Jesus Kriebel offered Hat Chet Man some fortune cookies as a diversion from guarding the evil master, Dr. Wurst. When Jesus waved the fortune cookies in front of Hat Chet Man, he was amazed and gleefully mouthed “ORRCHHHNN OOKEEEZZZ?” Snatching them greedily, he tore open the bag with clumsy hands and snarling teeth, then chewed them up whole and spat out everything, spewing out the paper fortunes last. This cartoon-like glee became pathos, for the house was actually howling with hysterical joy in ferocious laughter.
At that moment, to my surprise, I felt my soul more naked than ever before, as I felt the primal hunger of that roar which could laugh at my dying if I did it in character and with style. Then, looking up at them I felt a kind of terror and beauty in this realization-and they laughed even harder. There were outrageous guffaws and yelps from them. But to me, playing an absurd Asian half-wit, I knew it was also my life’s core they feasted on. The frenzy of the maenads who tore apart the body of King Pentheus under the spell of Dionysus was like this. Dionysian comedy was tragedy, I knew. In this laughter there was a deep mystery, horrible and horrifying…. If death is the mother of beauty, this laughter was the father of beauty. That they could devour me this way was, in retrospect, a compliment. But right then I felt more like a virgin being sacrificed to a volcano. Much later, Jenny and her housemates Peggy and Celia who were watching from the audience would say to me how hard this was to watch because they knew who I was. In their living room, Jenny even said, “I thought you did a really good job…. But I thought it was a bad, stereotype part.”
I tried to explain how Jeffrey’s play didn’t stereotype in the usual horrible way-everything was deployed with self-conscious irony. I was a parody of a stereotype, not a seriously Asian moron thug. Besides, Jeffrey gave much worse tasks to other characters, especially the one representing himself in his youth.
But all this ironic art was lost on Peggy who just blurted out: “You were exploited!”
5. Other People’s Confessions
Prior to the final performance of his play, Jeffrey Weiss had surprised me by showing up by himself in Ward Six in a warm overcoat and a melancholy smile. Later, he confided in me that he too had been in this same place. Jeffrey had an openness and candor which one sees only in some gifted children; he was not a stereotypical artist even though his plays had won many coveted awards. He always extended his warm hand to shake, even to new acquaintances. I felt I had known him a long time after a few swift weeks.
Before I was allowed to leave I had to get clearance at the desk and change out of the hospital pajamas I was in and put on enough street clothes to stay warm in the chilly night. As we started walking we talked about many things. He had lived in Allentown all his youth and left for New York some twenty years before.
I said, “I hadn’t even been born then.”
I heard him sigh nostalgically, and then he became animated for me. “It’s strange being back there. You know, it hasn’t changed much at all….”
“Why were you of all people—I mean, how dijou get in W-6 anyway?”
“Huh, let’s see….It was so long ago. When I was a teenager I got hooked on morphine after an accident. And the hospitals used to just give it out like water in those days. So I had to be crazy, at least seem so, to get what I needed.”
“You were an addict….acting crazy to get drugs?”
“It wasn’t all acting….” Jeffrey laughed sotto voce with a playful innocence (which seemed more ‘play’ than innocence) and went on louder, “It seemed like the only thing worthwhile then. It was the early sixties. Everyone I knew from then seems to have gone through a hospital, a marriage, or a career…. It’s hard to explain how so much good could turn into such grist! But I’m fortunate, I’m a survivor.”
We walked among the patchy shades and bright pools of the streetlights along the colonnaded avenue. The pace was quick and his words were reassuring. I would survive too. Very little traffic passed as we went along.
“Do they treat you well in W-6, Cayle?”
“Uh, they’re okay but it’s a prison sometimes. Right now I feel free being outside again. Sometimes I get scared that they won’t release me.”
“But why? You’re perfectly sane. (Coming from me that may not be saying much! but….) And, you have all that time to yourself, don’t you?”
“No, they give us all these stupid activities to do. It’s like kindergarten sometimes, a nightmare kindergarten.”
“A nightmare kindergarten….” he echoed my words slowly and I wondered for a second if he was imagining the experience I meant or if he was thinking of the words for their poetic value.
I flashed back to the anonymous nights we all spent at the window where one could watch the lights of the low buildings that never changed. Gathered around an ashtray, smoking and talking, four or five others and I would always stay in the dark end of the hall by the elevators until we were forced to bed. They had all been there a long time. A deep horror gripped me.
Institutionalization: commitment. My life up for grabs.
“They accidentally put me on haldol after the Intensive Care Unit. You know-it screwed up my speech. I had a side-effect that made me aphasic. It took me five minutes to say ‘gi- gi- mu- mu- a- ah- ahhg- gla- sssss o- o- wa- wa- ta.'”
“Give me a glass of water?”
I nodded, continuing, “And they thought, from that, that I was crazy. Jules just visited by chance and he finally got a nurse to listen to me, and I wrote on a piece of paper for her that the drug was making me that way.”
“That’s terrible! But they know you’re all right now, don’t they? You shouldn’t have any troubles being released. They did give you passes to go out and finish rehearsals for the play, didn’t they?”
“I had to fight for that.”
I flashed back to the moment in W-6 when Steiger decided to let me perform rather than confine me continually among other suicide survivors (one of whom re-attempted while I was there), schizophrenics, and psychotic and neurotic personalities. I’d said that the play really needed me, and I felt worse missing it.
Jeffrey went on, “Don’t worry. We’ll kidnap you and hide you if they try to commit you, eh?”
This was a promise I knew he would keep. As far as he was concerned, I was a political prisoner. (The Divine Madness School of Art has always had its own exclusive underground.)
“Thanks,” I said.
His laughter burbled up from a strange and warm depth. I heard so much wonderful yet heart-breaking music in his laughter. It was a laugh that told many stories (as he himself did), and I felt through it how much courage he had. His laughter cried against the ridiculous, humiliating world-it sang like a healing mantra. Even at his own expense, his laughter seemed like a sacrament.
A majestic wall of glass shaped like a vast, shining A-frame rose up before us-we walked through the heavy glass doors of the Center for the Arts building and passed a gallery on the left—then being used as a coat room-and turned right toward another gallery next to the sturdy steel doors to the still new-smelling four-hundred seat amphitheater. The Center for the Arts, or “C – A,” as it was known, never failed to impress me. Once we were inside, Jeffrey stayed with me until some actor detained him to haggle over a line.
Jules was glad to see me. His musicians formed the ‘orchestra,’ which was a piano, a saxophone, electric guitar and violin. Really they were a jazz-rock ensemble of vast ability; I heard them tune-up and pick on each other unhappily like oversized funny-looking kids. The technicians were checking ropes, counting props, re-rehearsing light-cues, patching up last night’s last-minute patches, and actors and actresses were rushing to Wardrobe (in a backroom) and to upstairs dressing rooms. On the way up myself I stopped for a while when a girl I sort of liked asked me how I was. It was Sabrina.
I had always trusted her intuitively because she was as crazy as me in an analogous way. Aside from trying to kill herself and having a rotten family history, an unconscious sympathy linked us: she was a beautiful artist of the insane. After I got into costume and make-up and was heading back down to the stage with Jules beside me, she passed by again. Then suddenly she turned and stepped up close to me. Her eyes were tender and bewilderedly searched into mine, which were concerned with the opal blue of her eyes and her face forming a word she could not find. I wanted to hold the image of her eyes—she was so ethereal.
“I almost forgot,” she said. Then she hugged me gently and with care for a long moment. This was her way of telling me that she knew what had happened and was forgiving me without a word. (Poignant, mute expressions are part of being a Beautiful Artist of the Insane.) Then she started away again but Jules indignantly grunted to signal that he wanted a hug too. So she came back to hug him and left.
Because she was beautiful-or because we were fools—we stood there looking at her go upstairs. She loved to be looked at, and obligingly, everyone watched her, wanted her, and so on—but she was so messed up that even the fellow who actually loved her had been unable to sustain a relationship with her. It hurt him too much when she attempted suicide. On the other hand, being partisan to her side, I know how hard it is to need love. A wonderful time to lose a love, after suicide fails. And yet, if she or I had ever succeeded…. I identified with Sabrina because she felt people could only love her body. After getting to know her, she thought, they would tire—not an uncommon obsession. I too believed I was nothing without my own gifts, that is, nothing to love. If there had not been Jenny, I might have gone out with her-probably to the detriment of us both.
6. Heaven and Hell in Five Minutes
Before I left the cast party Mac the theater director also gave me a hug. His energy made my skin feel all crawly, even though I knew he would never try anything sexual on a guy. Jeffrey also congratulated me and said I was marvelous and beautiful. He gave me a hug so powerful and caring that I felt suddenly six years old. I was scared to feel so small but I could trust him. There was nothing fretful, tentative or fusty in his energy. But he was seriously insane all right, and an outspoken homosexual when it was very unpopular to be one. Perhaps in me he saw a younger spark of his own creative madness and joy. I felt he could not harm me without uprooting his own heart from its anchor of original innocence. His hug was not powerful in a way that possessed but in a way that gave. The same was true in his art; his plays testified to a deep integrity in life. His scathing satire did not spare himself anything, and the actors-including me—truly took less of the brunt.
Happy this ordeal of the play was over, Jules hugged me sideways, saying, “You did it!” as though I had passed an initiation.
I understood his awkward hug-love between straight friends usually shows itself indirectly. But weeks later-after I was released and living at his place-he was stoned and admitted he had a dream about me being a beautiful virgin whom he asked to marry. What would I have said, he then wanted to know, had I been a girl? I would have had to say “No way” because he would always cheat on anyone, and we both knew that. I didn’t blame him for his promiscuity (because sex was still another world to me), but he looked disappointed.
Kathy the choreographer also gave me a kiss goodbye. She had a warm smile that sparkled in her eyes, and her sleek mid-length evening dress shined to echo her bright eyes. Having seen her only in the dregs of off-duty dancers before, I was stunned and mystified by the constellated pinpoints of light in her wavy tresses.
Taking my hand, she said, “You were lovely…. You stole the show.”
“You too,” I said, at which she laughed without realizing what I meant.
“You mean the dancing?”
“No. I mean you, even in the audience.”
At that she blushed, suddenly coy. She cried out to me to ‘Take care’ while watching me go up the aisle and out of the theater.
And weeks later, when I was cut off from almost everyone, I was grateful to her for offering her kind smile when no one else did. She had innocent-looking ways of luring me near as if to whisper in my ear only to secretly kiss my cheek while the people around saw nothing. And one time when I saw Kathy appear once at the top of the stairs in the rear of the amphitheater, I shouted her name and ran, half-falling, up to meet her while she feared for my every stumble. Leaping two and three stairs at a time to reach her, I overwhelmed her before she reached out to take my hands in hers, but only my hands. I remembered how shy I was up there, out of breath, and only let my eyes look into hers.
Outside there was a windless damp and chill that only happens in January nights—the peak of the season for suicides. I got my ride back to W-6 and in three minutes Mac the director dropped me off and checked me back in.
When those elevator doors parted to let me in, the light swam out into the darkness. There they were, crouching shadows around a lone ashtray. I recognized each one dimly by his or her silhouette. Their aura was of a drugged stupor mixed with fear and jealousy. Most of them took what used to be called psychoactive drugs, “mood-altering” drugs taken with every meal that “fixed” behavior mainly by blocking any strong feelings. I understood that they only wanted to be let out too, to feel again. Laura, the Country Singer spoke first.
“Welcome back. Ain’t ya glad to see us?”
“Did you have a good time?” another voice mumbled, and a man sadly laughed as though this were a joke.
I had stepped in among them and the light of the elevator closed behind me. I felt isolated among them and tense.
“It was okay,” I said.
By then I knew better than to aggravate their sorrows by showing too much happiness around them. With no intended malice, they resented joy simply because they had none themselves.
“Siddown, boy. Relax.”
This kindest voice belonged to Errol who was clairvoyant. Since he read minds, he almost never spoke except to answer. At first I was skeptical but he did it to me with unflinching accuracy and steadiness.
I sat down among them and they were soon comfortable with me again. In their way they liked me, but I dared not make waves among them.
Laura was very practical compared to most of them, having been a wife, mother, performer, drug addict and-when she was young-rape victim. She never got over it completely. “Nobody ever does,” she had said. In these quieter moments she shared her whole life with me, and I listened to her carefully no matter how painful it became. Errol had tipped her off that I was a writer. He told them all my secret thoughts—that I wanted to be great, that I had published, that I loved a certain woman ‘out there,’ and that I would fulfill my destiny. I might have shrugged off a few of these, but not all of them (no one knew I had published in W-6). He had come here because after reading his wife’s mind across the country—he drove a truck-she could not bear it and divorced him. He had seen the thoughts of her and his best friend and gone mad. There was adultery, and his melancholy had a defeated, maimed bent to it.
One day before I was released Laura asked me to write about her and all of them. Then, I was touched, thinking it was childish and naive of her to put such faith in my powers. She was sitting slouched on the tile floor between the elevators and smoking when she said: “Tell the world about us…. Will you? They’ll listen to you.”
Only then did the depth of her desire hit me.
“I will,” I said.
But then, afraid I was only humoring her, she made me say, “I promise. I will.”
In a kind of parallel way, she once was touched at my own naivete too. After she asked me to have sex with her in the bathroom I refused because I was in love.
“What a waste,” she said. (Okay, “touched” might be too strong a word.) Then she tried to taunt me, “Maybe you ain’t man enough.”
I was surprised, but said nothing. Then she let up, wanting to stay friends.
For years she had been doing so many uppers and downers while touring as a singer that she’d had a nervous breakdown. Since she’d been in W-6 for a long time she knew all about everyone. At first I couldn’t understand why she chose to be here at all. It turned out she actually liked having no responsibility. No husband, no drugs, no bills, no problems.
“That’s just how it is touring. You do a little club in a hick town, do music, do drugs and roll on. You never know where you are even if you do care, and on top of all the drugs it costs so much to travel there never was anything left.”
Tired of her own story, she changed the focus to me. Sometimes she was so intense that her questions made me feel like a pinned bug.
“Dijou see your Jenny?”
“She was…. she was there….”
“Didn’t you talk to her?”
I didn’t understand yet why Jenny took no notice of me after the play, even when I waved to her at intermission. Errol’s voice finished simply the thought I was ashamed of, a thought I barely knew was in me:
“She has a boyfriend.”
“Oh Christ! sorry, we didn’t mean to embarrass you, I forgot you’re in love….”
Though she was half-sincere (and half-mocking), the thought of Jenny’s boyfriend hung over me like the gateway to Hell (abandon all hope, you who enter obsession….) Laura didn’t mean to wound me with what she said; it was just habit. I know all of their minds became ‘insane’ at times, but they were a strangely gifted group, and in their souls they could be as sane as anyone when they wanted to. Though there was something crucial missing, more than sanity it was all happiness that they had lost.
In the darkest corner, Jon who was the youngest among us smoked a cigarette which the night-duty nurse had given him. It was getting very late and he yawned. He was the nephew of a famous actor in Hollywood. The scene through the big window was so under-developed that the paltry lights seemed like a tantalizing gesture toward a city that never would shine into being. Allentown mattered to no one. Long ago in New York mobster slang “Going to Allentown” was a euphemism for going to be murdered and dumped. Mobs did that here because it was like a blackhole, a hicksville no-place where no one would ever be found. Now, I suppose they use New Jersey…. Be that as it may, this place from which all talented people like Jeffrey had fled, almost without exception, could still sting me with its chaste beauty.
I lit a cigarette and Alicia, Laura’s friend, spoke in whispers only to Laura. More small talk broke the silences, and I was startled to hear Alicia laugh—it sounded so normal. She usually stared into space all day, and I could never imagine how this frail and nearly anorectic woman with pretty blue-green eyes could have raised kids and been married and divorced. Yet she had done all that and more. She also told me how she had come here. Her voice was half-child and half-woman; it seemed to break like a silk thread does, a smoke-like wisp where a tenuous line had been tugged. I felt badly for her. She was raped while in elementary school and when she told her parents they were outraged and confused. When the case was widely publicized, other parents told their children to not play with her because she was ‘dirty’ now. Even her parents unconsciously blamed her for it. Since then I have learned most people blame the victims of sex crimes—unconsciously, if not overtly-even helpless kids, even men, and even me, later.
“What would you’ve done if it’d been your daughter?” Laura asked me.
“I’d try to help her get over it.”
This answer popped out straight enough, for I knew I wouldn’t reject her. But some tiny doubt snared me and I too felt a qualm of which I was ashamed. I figured out that poets are bred to worship chaste ideals too often and too unconsciously. Thus so many poets die young and insane or old and lecherous.
Not much to look forward to.
Under these conditions I began to see why “greatness” is without any meaning as most people conceive of it. In art the true justification is not social value, public acclaim, inner growth, or ‘mastery of form,’ but love. You do what you love or you give it up. Everything in between is ego, id, escapism, or drugs. In the end only the love will remain…. for all the people who created will be gone—me too one day.