E X C E R P T
It’s been five days since your touch. Your touch, hell, your rib-crushing hug at the security checkpoint. I think I have a bruise, Dr. Heimlich, would you mind taking a look at my clavicle? Have I told you how easily I bruise? How easily I bruise: Once, when I was maybe seven and I was walking with my grandmother, my marvelous grandmother, Gay, across 59th Street to the Park, I darted out into the street at an intersection. She grabbed my wrist, for fear of what she called Come-Arounders — cars turning the corner at a high rate of speed and disregard — and by the next day I had developed a perfect set of her fingerprints. I thought it looked as though a freshly-printed felon had taken my wrist in the middle of a booking. (Did you know that when I was little I wanted very much to be an FBI agent?)
That same afternoon, when we were waiting for the light to change at Second Avenue, a little boy darted into the street in front of us, with traffic streaming close by, and Gay let go my hand to trot right after him so she could whisk him back up onto the sidewalk with a quick underarm hoist. And then the little boy turned around and hissed, “Fuck you, lady!”
It was no little boy at all, but a dwarf, a middle-aged dwarf with acne scars and a Don Ameche mustache. He and I were about the same height. My grandmother grabbed my arm and we backed away together as she murmured, “So sorry, so sorry,” in a tone that suggested a limited command of English. She hustled me into the nearest doorway as the dwarf advanced, shouting horrible obscenities at us still. This was fortunately a luncheonette, and we backed into the doorway as if that had been our intention all along, and we sat at the counter, Gay and I, and had coffee frosted milkshakes and the dwarf went away and we kept looking at each other and laughing.
I still can’t believe she is gone. I wish you had known her. She was gone before you came along from out of nowhere. I dream about her. God, I miss her. Even when she was dwindling away with encroaching senility, she was still there at the core in some tiny way. One of the last times I saw her, about a week before she curled up to die — I just realized she died exactly six months ago today, which is perhaps why I find myself thinking about her now — she seemed to have no idea who I was. But she tugged at my sleeve, and kept saying, “What’s this?” until I figured out what she was asking and said, “I’m Harriet.”
“Are you really?” she asked. “Are you really Harriet? In that case, I love you!”
Funny: that moment with the dwarf. Horrifying, but reassuring. Something about Gay always made me feel protected, almost magically so. Though God knows she was impossible, judgmental, full of rules for others to live by. She’s in my thoughts all the time. And I carry her with me in other ways, too. She was, of course, English, as you know. But she was reallyEnglish. I wish you could have heard her voice. Even though Gay emigrated as a young child, and lived in New York for the rest of her life, she had all sorts of her mother’s habitual gestures of speech that I absorbed osmotically, without even knowing that certain phrases or words weren’t ordinary American talk.
Was it Alexander Portnoy who thought “spatula” was Yiddish? When I was small, Gay read to me a lot (possibly because she wasn’t particularly adept at making conversation with a toddler), and what she read included some books from her own childhood, as well as books she had read to my mother when she was little. Consequently, when I was about six (the story goes), I asked my mother for a shilling for the gumball machine in the shoe store. (My mother thought this was a bit much, and instituted an embargo on Enid Blyton books.)
So. My own use of language, spoken and written, ends up somewhere halfway over the sea, unless I’m mindful. There I go. (I notice when you raise those golden eyebrows over some of my more uncommon utterances, don’t think I don’t.) Maybe it’s one of my connections with Anne, recherchï¿½ talk. Though I insist that I come by my affectations more honestly.
I wouldn’t say that Gay was affected exactly. Is it an affectation if the things you say and do run deep, through and through? But you know, even though I ended up living with Gay for most of a year, I was never completely at my ease with her, I never felt that I knew her, not really. Maybe that’s why I soaked up what I could, mimicked her as a way of trying to figure her out.
After our milkshakes that afternoon, we went, as always, to the Park, and watched the seals catch those silvery fish flung by keepers, one fish after another; life could be so sardine-y and simple. I always wanted this moment to last forever; it never did. The disappointed seals would slide into the watery murk and swim in urgent revolutions. Ritually, the disappointed child would feed greasy peanuts to squirrels, feeling guilty for eating some.
We would laugh at our reflections in the glass of the monkey house, and make monkey faces. (This was always a thrill, as Gay was at other times quite perfectly ladylike.) Then we would hunt for a balloon man so we could buy my requisite green balloon, and then we would walk back to Sutton Place. So it was on the way back, I guess, that I darted and she clutched. She had to rescue somebody. I had to let her rescue somebody. I had those fingerprints for a long time. I regretted their fading away; I liked them.
– – – – – – – – – –
So here I am. Anne worries me. Imperial, imperious, imperative. Still the Anne Gordon of Eighth Street days, but not. Wan, thin, pale as a graduate student who hasn’t emerged from library stacks to find out the season. She has developed something far beyond her old queerly tentative self that I suppose you might call a style. But you wouldn’t call it a style; I’m not sure what you would call it. Tootsishness. Isn’t that one of your words? A toots on wheels, you might say if you passed her on the street. Her new look seems to derive from scarves and boots and sunglasses in the hair and eyeliner and I don’t know what else. She’s frighteningly accessorized.
Anne’s arms, for instance, are racked with silver bangles. At first I thought she was wearing Slinkies on her wrists. She didn’t know what a Slinky was, though, when I suggested this. You probably think women should wear one bracelet per wrist. Which makes me think of that day when you stroked my arm for an hour, and described all the muscles and nerves under the skin. I hadn’t noticed my arm in years. Not since I was little and used to lick the sun-salt from my arms at the beach when I lay on a towel waiting for the hour to be up after lunch. But I had never seen my own arm through another’s eyes, loved my own arm, until there was you. The anatomy lesson of Dr. Thorne. Was it three or four hours? (I discovered that evening, in the bathroom mirror, that my face was pinked from the sun. For the next couple of days, people kept asking me if I had gone to Vermont for spring skiing.)
We sprawled on that rock in Central Park and talked all afternoon and we weren’t touching except for that one place where your fingertips brushed up and down on the inside of my left arm. That tiny electrical point of connection, those molecules of skin touching. I wanted that moment to last forever. It was only the second time we were together. We had never even kissed. I embarrass myself even now when I think of it. (The smile you are smiling you were smiling then.)
Anne has acquired an edge that was not there in New York. She is even more impossibly affected than she used to be, with her Lauren Bacall-as-Alistaire Cooke delivery, always amusing in light of her Westchester origins, although she did, inexplicably, go to that hoity-toity Swiss boarding school. Thus her immunity to whole chunks of popular culture.
She loves old movies, for instance, has an uncanny memory for entire scenes, especially the Bogart-Ball or Tracy-Hepburn ones, and yet she simply has never heard, or never noticed, the music of that vintage that she should, by rights, also love. Our music. Anne’s not literally tone-deaf, but she claims that she just can’t remember a tune, not even for five minutes, not even while the song is being sung.
At a Shippen Gallery opening someone once tried to get everyone to sing “Button Up Your Overcoat” — I don’t remember quite why, though I’m sure it made sense at the time — and Anne just wouldn’t do it. Reluctantly, she mouthed the words, but no sound came out. (Meanwhile, Gloria’s sister from Schenectady was belting it out, and that woman couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.)
I’ve tried to fill in some of the lacunae. On Eighth Street, I would endure Anne’s schmaltzy Chopin records, and Anne would listen as best she could to my Lee Wiley records. Remedial Show Tunes 101. She had got to the point where she was really taken with some lyrics, though she was still comparatively immune to the music itself; Anne still seemed unable to hear the connection between words and music. It’s a curious deficiency. Now, with Victor, she’s probably done some backsliding into Viennese waltzes and I’ll have to start over.
Oh, even as I write these words I worry that you won’t like her, that it doesn’t even sound as though I like her very much. I adore Anne. And — outside of family — I have never felt as loved by anyone, until there was you. We are so alike and un-alike at the same time. And, though I feel these changes in her that I can’t quite pin down, we always used to enjoy our samenesses and differences, if you know what I mean.
How can I describe a friendship in more precise terms? You’ve heard so much, but in bits and pieces. It’s much more than mutual eccentricities and passions for cultural artifacts. We can — or used to be able to — finish each other’s sentences. We just knew each other as women can, as men so rarely do, at least heterosexual ones.
Anne’s a terrifically loyal friend, one of the smartest people I know, and she’s not just interesting, she has that rarer capacity of being interested. And she has a very droll side that unbuttons at unexpected moments, though those moments don’t usually survive in the telling. One of the things I mean to say is that she’s not like anybody else. A teacher at L’Ecole Pretentieuse or whatever it was called, apparently used habitually to say to her, “Mademoiselle Gordon, Vous etes une type droll!”
That’s why Anne in Geneva is such a puzzle to me. I don’t feel that I know what’s going on with this person with whom I used to feel almost telepathically connected. For instance: Benedict, what do you call the meal you eat in the middle of the day? Same here: lunch. One of the most beautiful words in the English language, n’est-ce-pas? I could swear my old pal and roommate Anne used to call it lunch, too. We used to eat it together sometimes and it never went by any other name. (Certainly not the dreaded b—–, though if it was late enough we called it “lupper.”) Nowadays she calls it luncheon, as it must be known amongst the Geneva intelligentsia. But she doesn’t seem to eat it, oh no, not our Anne, because during the luncheon hour she is consorting with her married lover.
Even in New York days, when she worked at Shippen Gallery, she didn’t exactly always eat lunch in the manner of a normal person, I admit. Unless you call an entire bunch of raw carrots a normal lunch. She did it to save money for going to the movies, she told me. Gloria pays her people slave wages, I know, but still. The first time I ever laid eyes on Anne, she was in that little back workroom scrubbing away at a bunch of carrots over the sink in the corner where the coffee things are. Gloria was showing me the gallery, we were at the nerve-wracking point when she was thinking of putting me in a group show, and I was grateful for the distraction when Gloria introduced me to this odd creature, so angular and Vermeerish at the same time. I was particularly struck by her unusual voice. I didn’t know if I liked it or hated it, but I wanted to hear more. We shook hands, and her hand was wet because of the carrots, and she apologized too much about that. I asked her questions I don’t remember, just to hear her answer. I developed an instant sort of crush on her; she fascinated me.
Once, before Anne left, I met Victor, it turns out. She and I were roommates by then; it was about six months before she actually left New York to come here. This falls under the Had I But Known category of meeting people. Just as we figure you probably encountered Anne in the course of your own gallery wanderings in those prehistoric days before you and I met, but didn’t know to pay attention. (I still can’t believe I’ve known you only, what, three months. The lonely years we’ve wasted.)
I wish you knew Anne. I wish you could help me figure out what is going on here. When you wandered through shows at Shippen, you probably passed within a few feet of her, when she was filing invoices, or she was stashed away in the back washing carrots and making telephone calls in various languages. You would be more likely to have chatted up the more visible woman who worked at the front desk there, named Marjorie Something, also known as Our Favorite Anti-Semite. (“A nice fellow,” she would sniff about some client, “Although one of the Chosen, I believe.”)
I met him a long time ago, as it turns out. Victor Marks, I mean, speaking of the Chosen. Anne’s non-lunch date. But at the time I could swear he was represented to me as yet another mere Friend of the Family, an enormous category of humanity known to Anne that seems to embrace half the Eastern European refugee population of the greater New York area. He came to Eighth Street to take Anne out to dinner one night early last winter. I only vaguely remember the evening, and vaguely remember him as some old guy in a blazer standing in our hallway, winded after three flights of stairs. It didn’t occur to me to notice him. It didn’t occur to me in all these months that that was Victor.
He even looks a little bit like “Daddy” (a dour, retired Austrian baker with a flour allergy who Anne addresses as “Henry,” who lives alone with his bitter memories in deepest New Jersey), whose life Victor is credited with saving in a children’s barracks (where they shared a bunk) at Auschwitz. Something about a potato.
How long has this been going on? It was only last winter. Anne says Victor is 59. He looks older to me. He has a wife, who from Anne’s descriptions has got to be the Polish Julie Andrews, and three young children, whose names, if you can believe it, are Lucien, Otto, and Minerva.
– – – – – – – – – –
So, after four days here, the routine is more or less this: Anne gets up and does things to her hair and walks into the sharp corners of furniture and mutters “merde,” and leaves at about eight. (The “merde” habit is a leftover affectation from her New York days, and she needs to fix it, because here it is of course not a charming expression in another language.)
I have the flat to myself for the rest of the day, as she had promised in her letters of enticement this last spring, so I can read and write, or go out and take pictures, and otherwise squander time in splendid solitude. But: every day, Anne and Victor come here, to this flat, for what I believe is quaintly called a “nooner.” And here I am. So of course here I am not, rain or shine, at the appointed hour. This is a bit much, despite all the thick and thin I’ve been through with Anne. For one thing, and it’s a big one: I am sleeping with her in her bed, as there isn’t a couch, and Anne refused to let me sleep on bedding on the floor. It’s a big bed, and I sleep very much on my own side — you know how little I move in my sleep — but I feel like a voyeur; the bed feels crowded. Much is made of ostentatious sheet-changing on my behalf. But: did Anne tell me about Victor when I won the Swift and we made plans for my month in Geneva? She absolutely insisted that I must stay here with her. So I feel a bit boxed in. I suppose I could look for another place to stay, but that would be insulting, impossibly expensive, and I have no idea how to go about doing it. And I’m not here forever, anyway, just until the end of the month. And I return to the thought that Anne wants me right here with her, for reasons I can’t quite grasp that go beyond any discussed or so far discussable reasons.
And: it turns out that the reason she left her job as the only tri-lingual staff member at Shippen Gallery (essential slot she filled; they’re bereft without someone to translate foreign auction catalogues and place telephone orders at the Czech deli over on Second Avenue) was Victor. Her job at UGP is a piece of cake, a lot of financial paper shuffling and occasional simultaneous interpreting of meetings between the polite and cold Swiss men in dark suits who run the front office and the hostile and sneering Arabs — known, I regret to say, as “towel heads” — who secretly control everything. This is according to Anne, who has never before had a grasp of or interest in world politics or oil markets.
UGP seems to be an enormous consortium of petroleum investors. I can’t even determine what the initials stand for, and I have no idea what it is or does. The Arabs speak terrible English that’s mostly strange slangy metaphors, and the Swiss speak equally terrible un-idiomatic English that’s entirely correct and formal, and it’s their only common language, so Anne has to convey in French whatever she thinks the Arabs mean to say. Meanwhile the Arabs transmit to her in a not particularly gracious polyglot of German, English, Italian, and street slang they pick up here and there. Whatever happened to Esperanto?
The Arabs have provided no opposite number for Anne, as is often the custom in these situations, so when these meetings occur, she has to strain to make both sides feel understood as well as feel that they understand. If world oil prices collapse or something I think it will be safe to assume that Anne was more concerned with the former than the latter.
All the Arabs have three-day beards and funny smells, according to our representative in the field, who is herself obsessed with funny smells because she is convinced that people around the office — there are about fifty other people there, doing something or other with computers and fax machines and telephones — can tell when she and Victor have been At It. (My theory is that she and Victor are At It so regularly that if there is any sort of clue no one would notice. Come to think of it, Anne is a bit, well, clorox-y. I assumed it was her deodorant.)
Anne herself seems to spend a lot of time on the phone, pecking away at a computer, or hovering over a fax machine. When Anne showed me around the office yesterday, after hours, I could hardly believe that Anne knew what she was doing there, it’s such an alien setting. Anne has always seemed more a member of the quill pen and sealing wax set. Watching her fax a document was like watching someone rehearsing the stage business for a part in a play, and it seemed wrong, too, risky, somehow, as though Anne’s unsuitability to technological gestures would cause a system failure.
Yet she appears to do her job perfectly well, and she seems to be making a fortune at this so-called profession (annually, about ninety G’s, at which don’t sneeze), which is just as well because she is giving away the best years of her life, and meanwhile a tiny cup of admittedly excellent coffee costs four dollars in a cafe here. Victor is her boss at UGP, you see. Have I said that? I’m not sure I’m explaining this very well. I’m just trying to sort it out myself.
He’s the head of the division, or something. He created the job for her after they slept together in his hotel room in New York that fateful winter night. He sat on the edge of the bed and calculated and formulated and ruminated and made her a job offer on the spot. I remember her coming in at around four in the morning, after dinner out with “Daddy’s old friend from Auschwitz,” but naive me thought they had stayed up talking about the potato. I never connected her decision to go to Geneva, to take a mysterious job for an oil cartel, with the soon-forgotten (by me) events of that night — her hot date with an old, balding, Hungarian refugee.
And Anne can play her cards pretty close to the vest, when I think back on all the heartfelt conversations we had about her decision to leave New York, leave that which we call the art world, bail out of our apartment, move to Geneva. It never occurred to me to cross-examine her about how exactly she came to be offered this high-powered job while cutting the occasional mat, scrubbing carrots, and ordering Eastern European take-out at Shippen Gallery.
I knew that it wasn’t the first time they had met; Anne had told me before he came to get her that night that she remembered meeting him once when she was ten and he came for dinner, in Hastings-on-Hudson. He hadn’t seen Anne’s father since the war ended, and both men wept and hugged each other and spoke (in what Anne insists is some obscure variation of a Yiddish dialect from the Austro-Hungarian Empire that they both know) about many dead people.
Victor has since told Anne, and Anne told me just this morning, that what he most clearly recalls about that night fifteen years ago is going into the kitchen where Anne was helping her mother do the washing up. Victor chummily put his hand on Elizabeth’s shoulder, which caused fierce little Anne to brandish a paring knife in his direction. He thinks this is a funny story, according to Anne, and says it was the moment he fell in love with her. Isn’t it romantic?
– – – – – – – – – –
Anne’s flat is small, but somehow even in the dark you would know where you are; it’s totally Swiss. I cannot forget for one moment that I am in Switzerland; whenever I raise my head something Swiss-ly efficient strikes me, like the tiny little kitchen across from where I sit. It’s in an alcove, a sort of open closet, and has no oven, and looks like the sort of stewardess-packed kitchen on a Boeing 757 that you glimpse on your way to the toilet.
This is the perfect very grown-up and very modern mistress’s apartment. It faces out onto an anonymous courtyard. Everybody’s shutters are closed but ours. Who are those people in the other flats? KGB agents, smugglers, characters from Francoise Sagan novels? It’s a third floor walk-up; there are clean but grimly institutional stairs of gritty marble. Every time I’ve been up or down them an elderly woman all in black has been on her knees washing them. There is an elevator, which I have used once, the day I arrived. I may be the only person to have used it since the War. (Oh, yes, Switzerland. What war? Well, you know what I mean.) It creaked up the three stories in about twice the time it would have taken me to walk, with my two suitcases. I was already confused about which floor I wanted because in America when we say first floor we mean it. Then I cut my hand rather badly on the folding gate contraption, and I arrived at Anne’s door with blood dripping in a trail behind me down the dim marble hallway. I dreamt I bled in marble halls. When I went out with Anne to get milk for the tea an hour after I had come in, there was no trace of it.
There is very little furniture in this L-shaped room; Our Lady of the Perpetual Milk Crate has reformed. Anne has a table with two chairs; that’s where I am now. There is a high chest of drawers, with a large mirror over it, and the bed, or I should say The Bed. It’s very low and modern, the only expensive item in the place.
Victor has a bad back — Victor has many infirmities — so when Anne arrived she spent all her money on it. She doesn’t seem to notice how impersonal the place is. Or maybe she likes the ambiance of a hospital room. It does have that feeling of a place where some sort of procedures are performed on the human body. Which I guess you could say is the case.
The ceiling is so high that I think the room may be taller than it is wide. It’s like being at the bottom of a box. The scale is so odd, in fact, that when I look at the very tall doors in their very tall door frames, I feel diminished, and am reminded of being a child in my room, looking up at the tops of doors and wondering what the top of my head might look like from up there on the lintel.
The only good light is here at the table, where I can see the blank shuttered faces of those other flats. If I duck down I can see a little slice of Swiss sky; I guess that’s the allotment that comes with the flat.
Yesterday I had lunch in a cafe around the corner, and when the waiter offered me a dish of extra little pickles — two had come with my ham sandwich — I accepted. Then the bill came and I saw that I had been charged four francs for “cornichons supplementaire.” So the Swiss are a pickle-counting people, and I must remember to count my pickles before they go down the hatch. (Did I really eat six, I wonder.)
When I faxed Anne my flight information last week, I added WILL YOU BAKE A CAKE? (Now that she knew I was coming.) But I always forget how charmingly unknowing of popular culture this girl is, how much she missed by going to school abroad, by having a European father and, after seventh grade, a deceased mother, and she had never heard of the song — she thinks that maybe she has heard of Jimmy Durante, but she’s probably got Will Durant, or Asher B. Durand, in mind — and so she went out and bought a cake — a dense poppyseed one from a Viennese bakery of which Victor approves — because, as I have said, she has no oven. Just a very literal mind.
I do love her though, and I am cross with myself for my impatience with this strange new mistress-person. Anne of Cleavage. It makes me doubt what I thought I knew. What did I know? Who was that in New York with whom I shared those two rooms on Eighth Street for a year and a half? We were practically living in each other’s pockets, and maybe I mistook a mutual love of so many books and movies and a million other things for something else. Have I told you that we once sat through “The Philadelphia Story” twice when it was shown at The Modern? We both know most of the good lines. We both used to want to be Katharine Hepburn. If Tracy Lord had a best friend, the George Kittredge alliance would never have got so out of hand.
Anne used to have a certain kind of rational, if not practical, approach to life. But this new Anne seems to have no good sense, and no good sense of herself. I want to shake her, slap her, wake her up from this fugue state. And then I’m impatient with my impatience.
She also has no good records. I just got up for a stretch and a prowl, and I see nothing worthwhile except for the Django Reinhardt album I gave her for her birthday last year, which she doesn’t seem to have opened. Too much Rachmaninoff, way too much. Also odd books: very affectato fiction (The Name of the Rose, an unread-looking Pynchon, dog-eared Du Maurier, and strange quantities of Ann Beattie and Paul Theroux), three different How To Improve books (sex life, complexion, thighs) and, of course, your basic, up-to-date Survivor Guilt Library: The Abandonment of the Jews, Holocaust Testimonies, the annotated Diary of Anne Frank, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Children Without Childhoods, Nazi Doctors, Wartime Lies, Sophie’s Choice, The Painted Bird, and every book by Primo Levi. (I wonder if I could make money with a Holocaust Book Club. You bet. People would be too guilty to return any of the monthly selections.)
– – – – – – – – – –
Oh, maybe I’m just jealous of Victor and feel left out, relegated to a more distant role in Anne’s life. And Anne knows me well enough to discern my lack of enthusiasm for him. (The Gay Gibson term for my response to Victor is “modified rapture.”) For all I know I hurt Anne’s feelings similarly in my letters to her about you. But this is more than the dislocation and adjustment between the best of friends, each of whom thinks she has met the love of her life. Something about this makes me uneasy.
But I’m rambling. Maybe life doesn’t have to be as complicated as I always seem to think it is. So. Please forgive these platitudes. Benedict: you are my You. You’re my everything. This month ahead of me is more than a little bit alarming, and not just because of Anne, and this peculiar situation with Victor. I am, because of you, squaring off to account for myself, in some ways for the first time. You showed me the way. You make me see that I have really to think about my photographs. Your relationship to your painting is so solid. You make me want to assess and revise everything in my work. You make me realize how much of my work isn’t good enough, how tempted I am to coast. You have incredibly high standards for your own work, which is why you are the brilliant painter that you are. I worry that you are too confident, not in yourself but in me. This is hard to say: You don’t know the half of it, dearie. Maybe you don’t even know the quarter of it.
So I’m in Geneva, city of watches and illicit romance, the measly grant from the Swift Foundation covering my plane tickets and if I’m lucky maybe one good meal out with Anne while I’m here, but it’s nice work if I can get it. Gloria tells me that the prestige of winning a Swift is worth far more than I realize. I certainly hope so. Meanwhile, I’m stewing over several ideas for some groups of pictures. And I do have the commitment from Gloria for a small back-room show at Shippen in late winter.
I mean to take a lot of pictures based on reflections in shop windows. This is perhaps too neat a sequel to my self-portrait series, but what can I say? Does it strike you as too pandering, too commercial, too expected, too Harriet Rose? It will be more subtle than it sounds, I promise you that.
So here’s hoping for an astonishing month, Benedict. It seems wrong that I have gone away from you right now. I don’t want to be away from you this way. There’s so much we have to say to each other, so much neither of us know, so much time we have to spend together. But this trip was arranged for several weeks before we met, as I keep reminding you in order to remind myself that I haven’t just flown the coop, that you’re real and you’ll be there.
I miss you in all ways. I passed a walled garden yesterday on my way back from my pickle lunch, and I could hear a tennis game, and it made me think of you in that New Hampshire air teaching tennis to over-privileged monsters.
Do you know, the first person scares me, Benedict. The very photographs for which I am known, the pictures that put me squarely in the middle of the Brat Pack for better or worse, the photos that in a sense made me, those self-portraits: they were torture.
It’s all done with mirrors. And how. Have you ever really looked yourself in the eye? Your self-portraits are so stripped: of course you have. It’s part of what makes you so different. Different from me. I hardly dare to catch my own eye. Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.
Maybe I’ve arrived too soon in my work. The journey not the arrival matters and all that. Gloria Shippen chose me for that “3 Under 30” show because of what she called the “authority” of those self-portraits. What Shippen Gallery, what the critics who boosted me along by singling me out for praise, what even those check-writing collectors who suddenly needed to own a Harriet Rose thereafter, what they all don’t know, is that any so-called authority lies in the eye of the beholder.
And I count myself as a beholder. I don’t mean to say my work isn’t good. It’s damned good. But time and again, when I was printing those pictures, I would see something in the darkroom that I hadn’t seen when I was setting up those shots. I take credit for those things, but it makes me uneasy. How can I own those inadvertent plays of light or the random objects that made Sanford Schwartz analyze the Balthus references in my oeuvre, for God’s sake? Before last year I didn’t know I had an oeuvre. (Why does a Frenchman have one egg for breakfast? Because one egg is un oeuf.) Has my life changed because The New Criterionloves me? I really don’t know. I really don’t even know with certainty about my own criteria for my work, old or new.
In short, Benedict, my photographs mean more than I knew I meant. Does that make sense? Is this what art is? This is a confession, so pay attention: I’m scared.
I need distance. I am a camera; I am so much more adept at training that lens on others. On unsuspecting others, especially. I like to narrate. Beauty cannot be shown, I think, as ugliness can. But I want to use ugliness, make it symbolize beauty. I think of my pictures as decisions about what to show, a diagnosis of what’s beneath the skin: a slice, a biopsy. A pathology report.
At the moment, I’m not sure I could ever do another series like those relentless mirror self-portraits. I know too much. By that I mean: I know how little I know. I could never put myself out there again like that. But in this month here I intend to call my own bluff. I mean to sneak up on myself, in those shop windows. I’ll be there, if you know where to look. Do you remember those Dutch paintings we looked at together at the Met? The Heda, and the little Claesz? There’s a lot to see — there are worlds to see — if you look carefully into the glint on the overturned glass or the silver cup. Oh, the art of describing.
But now it’s nearly noon. I’ve got to vacate the love nest. I wish I could hear your voice. I wonder if we have made a mistake, agreeing on this mutual meditative transatlantic silence. I wonder if I have broken the rules, in writing to you this way. I wonder if I will ever have the nerve to show you these letters or journals or whatever they are?
I just took out the little red-striped shirt portrait of you that I took two weeks ago. Oh, Benedict. Getting sentimental over you.
Noon: Love you and leave you —