Updated: Jul 14, 2020
A writer suffering from writer’s block commissions a custom-designed soundproof writing room free of all distractions. He hires a room-guard and instructs the burly man to keep him locked in the room for sixteen- hour stretches, to open the door only for meals. After several weeks, the writer’s inability to write persists and in a fit of anger he tells his guard not to disturb him for anything, even meals, ever again. The offended guard slams the door and leaves the house and the writer trapped within it. When the room becomes a prison the writer writes. Locked up he creates a masterpiece and starves to death in the process.
This was L.s plot. Metaphorically, it was his own life story.
This is the plot of the play that my cousin L. wrote in 1996. In June of 1998, at thirty-six, he died like his protagonist having created one lasting work of art. I call him L. here instead of his full name because this is my own biased investigation; L. would invariably write it differently. I want to share his story, to pay tribute to him yet also protect his privacy. L. lived to see the play performed at a small theatre in the East Village. For several summers after his death by a heroin overdose the play was performed at a theatre in the Berkshires.
What precipitated a heroin overdose, if anything? Was it purely accidental or deliberate, an act of despair or grandiosity? For fifteen years those of us who loved him have asked questions about his death but they are questions that can never be answered.
L. had an unusual set of afflictions. In addition to his addiction—-which he appeared to have defeated for seven years—L. was the victim of a major fire. After the fire, his knuckles were shiny, iridescent white nubs. His facial skin was pink and pore-less, his eyes, sharp and peeled away like an infant bird’s. His nose was a Picasso abstraction. Which direction did it face? Which of the dark craters were actually the two nostrils? How had the skin become something at once plasticine, fake, and very organic? The fire had scarred and disfigured the majority of his body. There were smooth sections, places unscathed, like his forearms that had perhaps been protected under a thick sweater. Yet these smooth miraculous planes of skin were gradually raped for skin grafts and came to look like the arial view of farmland, the geometric swatches and gradations of flesh. The fire, we said. The fire. It defined him and his life more than his writing or his addiction, but in time the scars grew to seem as inherent to him as his own voice or the color of his clay brown hair. Eventually, I too, forgot what he had suffered.
When he died I was reminded of the fire and how it had shaped his life. It had been his first brush with death. Did he fall asleep or pass out? I imagine the fire soared because of drugs. Before losing consciousness, L. must have lit the evening’s final cigarette in the locked apartment of his brother’s house in Rye, New York. (Now, we too, must invent a narrative.) That locked room was perhaps the first unconscious inspiration for “The Writer’s Room.” The fire also prompted his continued use of drugs after the “accident.” He needed obliteration from pain more than ever before. The fire and the addiction fanned each other with vigor and reciprocity. As terrible as they were, they may have given birth to his life as a writer.
Often we called the fire, “The accident.” L.’s second “accident,” the overdose, was fatal. It was natural perhaps to think of it as an act of self-destruction. But it may have been an act of celebration. For an addict I don’t think using drugs ever lose their luster, at least in memory. There was always that one ideal high when everything was perfect. Maybe he could have one more perfect ride. Some thought the overdose was a temporary blind spot fueled by bravado, others, a willful reckless act of self-destruction. Had he been clean for almost seven years as those close to him all thought or had he resumed using before this night, in an overconfident, illusory bout of feeling “cured”? Surely it was, some said, the fault of the new heroin, which is so lethal and pure. Others said that relapses commonly caused death because one took his usual dose but no longer had a tolerance for it.
We asked these questions in disbelief on the sticky June morning after his death. Those shocking days resounded with even more particular queries: He’d been visiting his sponsor in Italy. Surely he wouldn’t have made that trip if he was using. Next he went to France to visit a one-time girlfriend who was still a close friend. Was he still in love with her? Had his love been unrequited? What time did he arrive home from the airport? Seven PM. Was he seen by the doorman? Yes, and he seemed fine. Had he called anyone? Yes. He made two calls for deliveries: One call was for an expensive prostitute (and we don’t want to know this, would never have known it had he not died) and one call was for the drugs. Had he eaten anything? No. Had he had a drink? Yes. He’d apparently started drinking on the plane home. An empty bottle of rolled on his desk. Taken a shower? No. Slept with the prostitute? No, she didn’t get there in time. And then there were the questions that were more ephemeral, yet more persistent and largely unspoken: What was L. thinking? Was he generally fine yet in a funk that week? Was it a singular, secretive, one- time spree or was he suicidal and ready to die?
His hidden consciousness, his indecipherability, created my anguish. I write this not to answer these questions, but to ask them. I must ask them. My need to explore his life by writing about him may not have been his wish but I have to do it. As a writer L. would have understood this compulsion. But what can I gain by dwelling in this most frustrating place? As a writer, the creation of a new work, making a thing, seems to me the only balm. I can’t answer the questions but I can make something out of them.
I’ve found an aesthetic pattern, some coincidental chance beauty in three works of art and their “real life” correspondents, which, in retrospect, surround and give meaning to L.’s death, his life and his life as an artist. The first is L.’s play, which I described and will call “The Writer’s Room,” The second work is “Cabaret,” a play that L. and I saw together the last time we saw each other on May 17, 1998. “Cabaret” about the fear of mortality and hedonism in pre-war Germany is particularly pertinent to L.’s life. The third work, which I’ll call an art attempt, is a story I wrote called “Primitives” which made its way into print via “Cabaret.” The story is about a docent, an art lover, who through looking at a painting, remembers her life with her dead husband and her estranged daughter. Art is her conduit and the constant thread in her life. It is both transcendent and grounding as her final death is. L. had invited me to “Cabaret” and we shared our small red table with the editor of a literary journal. During intermission we met and later he published “Primitives.” “The Writer’s Room,” “Cabaret” and “Primitives” and their connections to each other and to real life seem to me uncanny. Writing this gives me something, not curative, but digestive, a pattern that I can hold onto to help me understand.
Even so, this text is inadequate, just a scratch, a threadbare shadow of reality at best. This is not a response that changes the fact of his death, but to write about it seems the only response. The mystery of his death will always remain. Maybe as Proust believed, the imperative of the artist is to ask the most difficult questions that cannot be answered, and it is the asking which is crucial, the careful setting up of the problem, rather than its solution. Proust reminds me that L. would have liked the single initial that my mother wisely suggested I call him when I explained to her my dilemma about naming him in this essay. It evokes French literature from another century and L. was nothing if not a literary snob.
I began to write this on Christmas morning 1998 when I realized that I would not see L. that afternoon as I had every Christmas since I was born. I missed him and I was trying to conjure him. Who was he? Had he enacted his own fantasy in the play by dying after its completion? Was he suicidal when we saw “Cabaret” together? And I worried narcissistically, superstitiously if my story, its focus on death, had in some way, not caused, but foreshadowed L.s end. I lay on the sofa and watched as the hairs on my arms stood at attention: I had successfully given myself the creeps.
When I thought about L., I thought about art, rough simulacrums of life. L. was an art lover perhaps because art is transcendent and his life was difficult. His survival required a certain kind of leap. Maybe he wrote for a sense of removal. As a fellow writer I thought he would’ve understood my focus on these immaterial things, this imagined pattern of coincidence, and my need to write about him in order to understand anything about him.
Like the protagonist of his play, L. complained of suffering from writer’s block. Metaphorically, he was alone in his room. He was trapped inside his body–as we all are–although having been an addict and a victim of the fire, his entrapment was far greater than for most people. The impositions of his body, the cravings and the pain, the dissonance between his exterior disfigurement with his interior beauty, must have caused, a far greater sense of entrapment and isolation than I had ever let myself imagine he endured. Perhaps his writing was a way of bridging that distance, of making readable matter out of the rich ether of his mind. Like the star of his play, the matter he created, his masterpiece, preceded his death.
L.’s play illuminated something true and paradoxical. Every writer desires yet fears being alone in their room. A blurry line separates solitude and loneliness. I have experienced both. I am sure L. had too: a self-imposed necessary loneliness and that rare, elating, productive solitude. I always liked to think of us as similar in this respect. I liked to think that we were both writers and therefore shared a unique experience. As I said, I did not want to see that his loneliness may have been greater and more frequent than mine and that his may have extended out of the room he wrote in and into many other settings. Blindness, shame, or perhaps the hopeful wish that he was really fine may have prevented me from seeing this. But he was fine: (There is always this infuriating catch when I try to sort through this.) He was great. Our family witnessed his ricocheting success in life, the way he bounced back. He had a few booming years as a freelance writer, working on his fiction and nurturing his few close friends but they were still years of double recovery.
His writing may have been a way out of his body. An escape leading to the floating, disembodied trail of words that emerge miraculously from our fingers (on good days) and is at once so physical yet so bodiless, so mindful and so mindless. His body was of course more invasive to this process, more imprisoning. His addiction forced him to live without alcohol and heroin, to live with methadone: the daily trips to the clinic, swallowing from the small plastic cup. The fire forced him to live within scarred and painful skin, without several complete fingers, to live with constant minor surgeries, with a deep hatred of the sun. Sometimes it was easy for me to forget these trials because L. had recovered so successfully, first from the fire–so defiantly and against the odds-—and then from addiction. His humor and intellect seemed to overwhelm his body so that, talking to him one could forget, entirely, his hardship.
As a writer L. could be indoors a lot, out of the sun and hidden from view. He could create and nurture his inner life. He mastered his computer, in a time when few people had, and he seemed to have mastered organizing the blank slate of the days before him. He developed quiet passions: for reading, The Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire and Nabokov in particular, going to the theatre, his friends and family, his nieces and nephews. He liked keeping up with and talking about politics, loved his computer and his software, liked walking countless city blocks, his pockets stuffed with cigarettes and candy. He was comfortable financially (from his shares in his family’s real-estate business) and he seemed to have figured out how to enjoy his leisure; a feat which many equally endowed people never accomplish.
I called the play his one lasting work of art (although there may be others) because it was his best. For many years, before the play he tried but could not get into the room of art, the silent but kinetic place, the inspired buzz and hush of it. To go there, it seems, you must follow your memory, your imagination and—what is it?–some larger truth which always contains despair. To survive as a person, he could not indulge the latter. (Is it despair, or is it some kind of necessary darkness?) To make art, as he wanted to, to make something true and moving he would have to return to the worst times of his life. Finally, with the play he was there: facing, however humorously, what it meant to be isolated, frustrated, to be alone. Once he was there in the sacred room of art he had gone to, he could not get back out into to the larger room of the living. Despite his achievement, he died.
Of course this is not the reason for his death. It’s a subjective impression, a threadbare link between L. and the writer he described and their endings. It’s a fossil that became etched in my mind, a mild salve on my sense of confusion. After a fitful purging on Christmas day 1998, I put this essay away. It did not feel like a salve then. I was very angry at how unfair his death was. I didn’t continue writing this, could not continue, until May of 1999.
L. was interested in death. He spoke of it with respect for its reality and admiration for its power. He was mad and sad by his cousin C.’s death–also in his thirties, also from drugs–but spoke about it as if he understood its salvation. “C. was never going to get better,” he told me, “though he should have stuck around because of his daughter.” She was only three. L. understood very well the anguish addiction caused for others but he also made jokes about it. Sometimes it seemed to me as if he wanted to talk about death in any way he could.
He didn’t flinch when it was imminent in our family, when it made other people nervous and fidgety. He was realistic and watchful when our grandparents were nearing death. (He visited our grandmother every week for years when she was in her late eighties.) He loved our family history and lore and so loved those who were about to become legend. He was generous with death, almost forgiving. He understood the way it made beloved ancestors, family stories, history, the way it imbued people with iconic power. There was the story of our great grandmother who was , the story went, the most beautiful woman in Northern Spain, a great uncle who was a famed Cuban intellectual, our German Jewish great grandfather, a New York merchant, who sent a mink stole to his daughter-in-law, (my Cuban grandmother) with a prenuptial agreement torn into pieces on top of it when she had finally produced an heir. L. saw that narratives were made out of people’s lives once they were gone. But more important than the glamour that comes with memory, L. was respectful of death. At his funeral someone called him noble.
To be a great writer or to have written something great was, since recovery, his unswerving goal. We began a friendship and to share this goal when I was twenty-two and he was twenty-nine. Those seven years between us seemed vast, but the gap was narrowing. I was too young and had been too fortunate to even fathom what he had been through by the time he was my age.
I remember visiting him at the hospital when I was eighteen and he was twenty-five and seeing his body. The distance between us stretched and shimmered. He was nearly impossible to look at. However the split second that I did look at him devastated me, froze me, in a way I couldn’t articulate then. There was a surreal quality to him. His eyes were huge and bald looking as if the lids were gone. He teeth looked very white and big like a skeleton’s. His eyes, white and rolling in his head, were very much alive, even more so, it seemed, then the eyes of an uninjured person. Though at the same time his body, charred beyond recognition, seemed dead. He looked burnt, strangely inanimate his bones like long funnels of crisped newspaper. He reminded me, though I didn’t understand it then, that we are composed of matter that is not unlike that of objects, that what separates us from the inanimate-—an essence, intelligence, a personality– is everything to us, yet is only a tenuous wisp, that our self is only temporary and ungraspable. This was what made us cry: the idea of his self trapped inside that painful body. And the fear that his body would expire and take his self with it.
As much as I remember him, his self, I will never again hear his voice, detect the scent of his special skin lotion or see his wry smile covered with a blush as he walks toward me on a sidewalk. The blush belying the mixture of fear and confidence, the smile, humor and stealth, polite greeting and what always seemed like an inside-joke with himself. (I am trying, vainly, to fix something on the page, to make something material.) Now our own inner lives need to compensate, to be as rich as his was, in order to remember him. We are left to conjure, to imagine what he would say at a given family dinner, what he would order to eat, how he might later make fun of the pretentious waiter who described a rather insipid cheese.
That day in the hospital, he spoke froggily through a tube. In a sense it was as if he were all spirit then already, a voice disembodied, a distilled soul.
L. joked about the hospital as a paradise even as he suffered: “Legally, I’m able to do drugs. Only they won’t give me enough morphine.” They wouldn’t give him as much pain medication as he needed as he described so well in his story, “The Burn Ward.” I heard later that he had said matter-of-factly that he wanted to die. The physical pain was unbearable. How long was I in the room? No more than a few minutes at the most averting my eyes and pretending to do things with my hands. (In every painful, awkward situation, in every time that arises that requires generosity and bravery, I always think that L. would rise to the occasion while I falter.) I looked down at one of my shoelaces and leaned over to re-tie it but my hands were trembling. I touched my aunt’s scarf and shoulder, because I could think of nothing to say to her. L. could think of things to say but we couldn’t. Some were witty but they were not all kind. He could be cruel. He viciously derided the nurses who wouldn’t give him the doses he required. He could be wrathful, even monstrous. But whatever he said revealed sharpness, a living intelligence. In the hospital parking lot, once we were sealed in the quiet of our car, I saw my father weep for the first time in my life.
Years later I had moved back to New York City after college. L. lived there too and was starting to make connections, coming out of what had been a two or three year cocoon of recovery. I was taking a poetry class with teacher we both knew from our respective colleges. Being writers was really our first thing in common besides being cousins and L. called me to establish this connection. When I heard his voice I was flattered, a little shy, intimidated. Before “the accident” we were two cousins out of thirteen, with a seven-year age difference between us that, as children, feels like fifty.
Suddenly we were peers (though I would never fully outgrow my little girl’s crush on him, my older cousin.) We met every two or three weeks and talked about writing. As much as we shared this aspiration and confided in each other our goals and our admiration for other writers, there was always, as there seems to be in most writer friendships, a running competition. Usually this is unspoken. But L.’s candor and way of making certain unspeakable things– wanting to be better than your cousin for example, to beat her in a particular story contest—- visible and humorous. “Why do you get to be twenty-two and beginning all this while I’m seven years older and just starting it?” He said once. His questions about the number of hours I spent at my desk, my rituals and habits of writing, made me more conscientious. If I were meeting him on Monday I would spend Sunday at my desk typing out poems, reading them out loud, changing line breaks, retyping, looking up words, laboring and watching the clock, knowing that then I could tell him how many hours I had worked and how hard. I pictured his face and voice sometimes while I worked as if he were watching me. His curiosity about my writerly habits became my conscience. I don’t know if this jocular rivalry worked the same way for him. He complained of his trouble procrastinating, of the way he would clean his refrigerator instead of write, or would read Harper’s from cover to cover instead. Not knowing what I was talking about but parroting something I’d heard, I tried to comfort him by saying, “Everything you do is for the work. You are always in the process of writing even as you scrape ice out of the freezer.” If he did it with a certain presence of mind it could be “used” later. I’m not sure if he believed me (or if I believed myself.) He said he didn’t like the idea of writing from life.
I entered a graduate writing program and L. said he’d considered it but was afraid he wouldn’t get in. I think I only applied because I was too naïve to understand that I could be rejected (and that I would be repeatedly for many years to come.) He liked to compliment me and say that I was a young person with luck, an early start, a gift, while he was an over the hill, destined to be amateur. He complained that he spent more time reading (albeit Gibbons’ Decline) than writing. He read widely. I’d tell him I wished I’d had the patience to read as much and as thoroughly as he did. Books were extremely important to him but did not overshadow his relationships with his relatives and a few close friends. So when I had lunch with him or when he had taken me as he often and generously did to the theater he often left me feeling doubly fortified: in a familial and an intellectual sense. He was my older cousin and for us to now suddenly find ourselves as friends was extremely gratifying.
In my first memory of him in the seventies—perhaps I was six, he, thirteen–he was a longhaired, diamond cat-eyed, raspy voiced, smoking teenager. His smile was wide and mischievous. His body was lean and muscular. Like most older boys he was always laughing about something that I couldn’t know about, or ever find out, which intrigued me. He had long hair the color of red clay that draped over one eye. One of the first poems I wrote (and never showed to him) was about finding him sitting at the edge of my grandparent’s swimming pool in Westchester smoking pot with, Johnny, the guy who cleaned the pool. As I approached I heard laughter. He looked up at me through a cloud of smoke and I asked him what that funny smell was. In our culture of celebrity, he seemed like one. In our culture of sex, I knew already that he was sexy. To my young mind, his brand of cool was stamped indelibly, so that he became the standard boy against whom all others were measured.
I had watched him at family holidays when I was twelve and he nineteen, with a shred of shame. I had watched him date women who were as thin as greyhounds and gorgeous and slightly mean and others who were plain and doughy but became electric and regal standing next to him. I had overheard the secret vines of whispered family gossip, that he had a drug problem, had had to leave boarding schools, and jobs. But to me he never seemed like someone with a problem. No matter how much trouble he was supposedly in, he was always wittier, more cutting, than anyone in the room; he was the best conversationalist, pausing at the right moments, adding a funny anecdote when one was needed. He did not seem at all crippled by this problem but, rather, immune.
Interested in everything, he could join any conversation and gracefully enliven it when it dipped, alter it when it puttered out. He never in all the time I knew him acted drunk, high, or impaired in any way, but seemed always in control, confident and larger than life. He appeared invincible and my knowledge of his sins made him seem even more so.
He was kind and flirtatious with women of all ages, even us younger cousins, admiring our velvet Christmas dresses and white tights ; housekeepers who he made feel attractive as they ladled black beans (a staple at my Cuban grandmother’s house) and he complimented their hair. My mother, a lawyer, loved L.’s quick-witted repartee about city government and all things political. The way he could talk to a person about whatever they were interested in was never mocking but genuine. L. was democratically charming; whoever you were, if you were talking to L., you were special.
In those first years after college when I was writing poetry we formed a little group, me, L. and the poet and writing teacher, we had both worked with before at our respective colleges. The three of us only met twice before we disbanded and I never really got over my guilt for leaving the group and was never able adequately to explain it to him. L. had written a few chapters of a novel that he was struggling with and the teacher gently criticized it. He didn’t take criticism easily. He listened and looked annoyed and then gave practiced rebuttals. Later he’d remember only the negative comments and forget the positive ones. And he didn’t criticize my work at all. He seemed to want it to be mutual admiration session, which I, perversely, didn’t want at all. If someone could tell me where something wasn’t working, then maybe I could develop what Hemingway called a “built-in shit detector” and create something good.
L. was stuck with his book and I didn’t like to see this part of him– perhaps the most vulnerable–a writer who was stuck with but attached to his words, a writer in love with what he’d made and unable to see it or change it. Perhaps I saw in him a premonition of the difficult life and work ahead of me. A life of withstanding much rejection or simply being ignored, a life of taking what is truest to one’s self (even the imaginary) however painful, and wrenchingly transforming it into something of value, something transferable and communicable to others. Perhaps I recognized in him a future of disappointment, the uncountable hours I myself would spend working and reworking something that wouldn’t budge and transform into art (or at least not as quickly and easily as I’d imagined it would). I was terrified.
I couldn’t really articulate, even to myself, why I was quitting the group. I knew I didn’t want to return to his immaculate, ferociously cleaned apartment and see the disappointment and frustration on his face. There was a maniacal orderliness to his Flaming typewriterhome. Snapples and Diet Cokes lined up in rows in the fridge. Books were ordered alphabetically by subject and author. I didn’t want to see the heavy sigh before he read out loud, the anguish of trying to make something. I don’t think I was aware that this vulnerability is inherent to the profession, only that I was seeing his weakness.
The day I called to tell him I felt like I was breaking up with a boyfriend. He was surprised and hurt. “But I thought it would be great. I thought you enjoyed it.” I had trouble explaining why I didn’t want to be there. It had meant something to both of us, as if we were initiating each other into a special circle. I felt guilty. I was aware of wanting more criticism so told him that, to which he was generous again, saying, “But your poems are so good, it’s hard to know what to say.” I never had a chance (or a desire) to explain this to him and it, very slightly, shifted something between us.
As the years went on we wrote. I found those who would criticize me. L. didn’t, or didn’t want to. He found praise in our family who loved him. We met for lunch and talked about what we wrote about though we didn’t exchange much of it. He said one day that he never wrote about the accident, that he avoided writing about very painful things. I urged him to do this, because I thought it would yield the richest work. Perhaps I had the freedom to access and then delve into certain feelings from which I could resurface and recover. Perhaps he didn’t. We did finally exchange work again, tentatively. His stories were funny and crisp, like talk stories for The New Yorker. They didn’t develop character, but sentences. He commented on mine by only giving comments like his old generous ones, but tinged now with a bit of effrontery. I was writing short stories now and not poems and without ever planning to, they more and more often included a death. We talked about and around death but I don’t think I ever really talked to him about his having been in the fire and having survived it and now having to live in his new body. The great omission startles me now. I wondered but was too cowardly. I felt more comfortable thinking of him as the same as me with the same advantages.
L.talked about obituaries of people whom he admired. We discussed our ailing grandparents and a nurse who took care of them– first my grandfather and then my grandmother– sustaining their lives with drugs. Teresa, the nurse, was bossy and officious and never gave any family members a moment alone with her charge. Teresa wore a gold clover medallion on her neck and carried a rabbit’s foot that she squashed nervously between her fingers as she spoke. “Jesus, Mary, Joseph!” She liked to exclaim whenever she became threatened by the calamity of a relative coming too near to her charge. She acted proprietary but not gentle around them. She was paid enormously well and I felt she was taking advantage of the situation, drugging each of my grandparents into a live stupor and didn’t really care for them. When my grandfather died I was so irrationally angry with Teresa as if she had caused his death. Later when I saw her taking care of my grandmother I was horrified and thought that she was glad to be staying in business. I called her “the angel of death” because she seemed, by association, the one who had summoned the death, and my sister and I laughed about it and derided her.
But L. was more generous when I told him my nickname. He said, “She’s a bit of a hard-ass but she’s the only person who will look after her. No one else in the family would’ve done it and we hired her.” My grandmother had had a stroke and needed full- time care. He was right. We were, after all the ones who were paying someone else to take care of her.
About our grandmother’s growing list of ingestible drugs, he said, “In the last days of one’s life, what difference does it make if you take drugs or not?” Our grandmother had had a life-long struggle with alcoholism. “Besides,” he said, “she’s probably enjoying being high.” He once said he thought addicts should binge in their final days, even if they had since recovered.
“The one thing that you really want to do while you’re alive, maybe you ought to just do, even if it kills you.” He’d laughed low before he’d changed the subject to a book we’d read or an article, joking about how he was going to have to cancel all his subscriptions to magazines and newspapers so he could actually spend time reading books and writing.
In all of our meetings I never once asked him about how strangers reacted to him or about how the accident had affected his relationship with women. It was an obvious omission. I’d imagined there weren’t any and that he was able to laugh this off like he did so many things. In keeping with my fantasy of the invincible older cousin, I couldn’t imagine his loneliness. I knew that he was wildly popular with women before the accident, so stupidly assumed that the memory of this could sustain him, that feeling loved and sexy was something accrued and revived in memory rather than something that unfortunately needs regular stoking.
Once, he initiated the topic of his face saying he could tell when people kissed his cheek goodbye or shook his hand whether they minded touching him and his scarred skin or not. He wasn’t complaining, rather making an observation, a judgement and distinction between the two kinds of people. He wrote a very funny piece about people saying goodbye and not knowing which direction to turn their heads and all the attendant fears and worries that went through the kisser’s minds as their faces came toward one another. He made the anxious kisser, whether a lover, friend or relative, funny and universal, though he was the most anxious kisser and kissee of all.
Before he finished the play I saw him less often. Understandably, he had to sit alone with it. I knew then, in that year or so of work on it, that he had quit methadone and was thinking of quitting therapy. It worried me but I didn’t say so. I fear I might have even said something congratulatory. A part of me subconsciously felt the stigma of these kinds of help even though I never would have admitted this and I too was in therapy. That year he also found out he had Hepatitis C. He told me he was depressed about this, that it came just at a time when other areas of his recovery were looking up. It seemed to affect him in a way that I hadn’t seen before. His conversation was less sparkly. He seemed defeated and resigned. His liver was wrecked. The cumulative effect of alcohol use had caught him, despite his sobriety. It was so unfair. To get sick now, after all his hard work. He was scared and burdened by the Hep C, this new third way that he had to take special care of himself.
Around this time, he started dating a woman he liked. We were all surprised but acted casual. So good and bad things, endings and beginnings were converging for him. It lasted a few months. He broke up with her when she said “foilage” instead of “foliage.”
“You mean the leaves,” he’d asked her. They’d been driving up to the Berkshires for a fall weekend.
“Yes, of course.”
“The foliage. It’s called foliage.”
“Huh,” she’d responded, never having known the correct pronunciation or spelling. Later, she failed to understand why his books must be alphabetized. The way he told people about their demise was very funny: She hung the towel the wrong way in the bathroom so that it never fully dried. She put a glass Snapple bottle in the garbage instead of the recycling bin. I didn’t ask him if he was all right after the break up. He had liked her. He made it seem like it was painless ending. Even though, as she revealed to me (inappropriately at his funeral) he broke up with her abruptly and cruelly and it caused her a lot of pain. It must have been painful to him too; truly, this was the first relationship he’d had since the accident and it had failed.
Around this time with the new diagnosis and the girlfriend he had also started publishing a few stories in small journals and would photo copy them and send them to everyone in the family. This struck me as funny because when I published a story I would take it alone with me to a sushi bar and re-read it. I would relish it and also burn with shame at the fact that I had made it and I’d show it to hardly anyone. Although I had dreamed of telling everybody, when it happened I couldn’t.
Just before this period when I was at a writer’s colony in January of 1997 L. sent me a rough copy of his play, “The Writer’s Room,” and I read it in bed and laughed out loud. I wrote him a long letter careful to tell him why it was so good before I told him where I thought it needed work. He was grateful for my comments and said in his usual, magnanimous way that “In addition to being a great writer, you’re also a great teacher.” In the month that I was there he was one of the three people I talked to on the phone. I was thrilled that he had wanted my input and thought I would call him to see how he had received my comments. While I was there away from social life and teaching and New York City distractions, I began to re-evaluate our connection. He was one of the few people with whom I could share a writing life, and the only person who I could do that with in my family. L. knew me, and also this other part of me, and I thought he would always understand the importance it took in my life and the way it colored all my perceptions. He knew. I knew he knew and still I didn’t know, or wouldn’t see, that his writer’s isolation was far greater then my own and far more necessary for him if he was to create something of lasting value. I had the luxury of a steady relationship in which I could go a way for one month and know someone would be waiting for me when I returned, and he didn’t. If he went away for a month he’d risk the close relationships he’d developed with his family and his friends, the careful generous way that he remembered and attended all birthday parties, brought people to theatre and readings never once asking for payment for their ticket. I wondered if he would have risked time away from his own giving to others, without which he might not have even survived the years that he did.
So when I returned and he was deeper in hibernation with this funny and serious play and too busy to have lunch I was only slightly aware of the toll, of loneliness and fear of rejection, and alienation that this caused for him. I suppose I saw it as similar to the price that I paid for my own solitude, but not any greater.
I was jealous of his success for the first time when the play was produced for three days at a small theatre in the East Village. It was well written, funny, ironic and poignant, while never letting the pain in it become sappy. It was honed down, each line perfected, timed, practiced. It was not just a family affair and nice support for a cousin. Every generation that attended liked it and, with a kind of baffled astonishment, praised him. Strangers liked it! It was great.
My envy mingled with elation and aspiration: with dedication a long work could be made which moved people. Maybe I could do something like this with the novel I had been working on then for about six months.
When I was stuck with the novel I wrote stories. “Primitives” was one I worked on from the summer of ninety-six until the summer of ninety-eight, finishing it just one month before L. died. The story is about an art lover, a docent at a folk museum whose scientist husband has died of cancer years earlier. She sees her daughter and the encounter makes her survey her entire life. She is completely alone until in the end she dies and joins her husband. I was nearly obsessed with this story for two years. I don’t know why. Nothing in it came directly from my life. There was nothing in it that I thought of first and then transformed into a story. Up until the final revisions it was almost entirely a subconscious, organic process. A mystery. After he died the story gained a resonance; it had more meaning in terms of art and transcendence, then I’d realized.
L. died of an overdose on June 16, 1998. On May 16, (after he’d produced the play, and I’d written “Primitives,” he took me to see “Cabaret.” He ate more candy then usual. He was a little late. Am I only trying to think of things that were different? Signs of some sort? There, during intermission, we met the editor of the literary journal who coincidentally was sitting at our small red cabaret table staring with us into the darkness. The play is about the horror of war, the horror of impending death. This knowledge produces a malaise and nihilism. We watched the angry sexual dances and the depravity of pre-war Germany; the cafe tablesdesperation and fear played out in decadence and self-obliteration. We were stunned and enraptured. When I returned from the restroom I found L. chatting with the editor and as the curtain rose he introduced me to him and said, “She’s a writer too. She’s very talented.” I blushed, disbelieving, but flattered. There was something in our little group that clicked. It was as if the editor believed that we were really writers. There was none of the common cynicism in his eyes, no dismissal there, only interest and a kind of compassion. Maybe it had something to do the fact that we had witnessed art together at our little red table under the darkness, and art about the darkness, about imminent death and the reactions it elicits. We were all moved and sort humbled, leveled. I tipped my wineglass before we left the table to return to the play, to get the last drop and remembered that L. could not have had that red and warming solace. I had bought the drink at intermission as if to brace myself for the rest of the show. As I took the last drop I felt greedy for it and a little sad. I remember feeling like I wanted to go and get drunk afterward and forget a little and I had that freedom but could not have asked L. to join me. After the play the editor shook our hands as I stood beside L, fleetingly feeling like one of his lucky girlfriends from the time Before The Accident. “Do send me your work,” the editor said, “both of you.”
L. got his cigarette and lighter ready as we walked to the exit and I touched the card the editor had given me and slipped it into my wallet. We walked fast, a little glumly, past Times Square and down Sixth Avenue. He was not as talkative as usual, or am I remembering a sadness, a change when there was none?
“I’m going to go home and send him a story tonight,” L. said, finally.
“Me too,” I said. We walked a beat in silence before I realized the neck in neck competition of it and babbled something about how maybe both of us would get accepted. He asked about my fiancée and our upcoming trip to Turkey and we were uneasy, both walking along thinking about the editor, knowing that the chances were neither of us would appear in print yet uncomfortably hoping against that great probability. We didn’t even say much about the play, which was unusual for us. He asked questions about my upcoming trip to Istanbul. He was intrigued and a touch condescending about the fact that it would be a honeymoon.
Earlier that week I had collected and arranged place cards for our wedding and looked at L.’s name in calligraphy on a stiff white card. We were deciding where to seat L. Everyone would like him, but we wanted to make sure that he liked his dinner companions, that they were as bright as he was and that they were one of the two kinds of people he had described: those who would be able to see the mind without the body, who would not bristle when he extended his scarred hand to shake.
That night after Cabaret there was an undertow of sadness a sense of pervading doom that settled around us as we walked down Sixth Avenue. We had never been so quiet together and it felt awkward. Life was cruel. Death was both threatening and comforting. We didn’t know what to say about these thoughts or how to respond to them. I was getting married in less than a month and L. remained alone. A tacit competition would ensue that night as we drafted our notes to the editor. We said goodbye on the corner of Twelfth Street and Sixth Avenue before L. had to turn east to go home. We faced each other and gave our perfunctory and always slightly awkward kiss on the cheek. Was I one of those people who didn’t like to touch him? Did he sense some nascent, unconscious disgust in me? I wasn’t aware of disgust but surprise; his skin always felt different: it was not smooth looking but felt even smoother than unharmed skin, shinier. His cheek was often moist with a special cream that he used on his face. He always blushed slightly after the kiss or made a joke about it, mentioned some trivia about salutations in other lands, nose rubbing in Alaska. But that night I couldn’t see his face. A car must have sped by and whited it out with its headlights. In the midst of the loud traffic I didn’t hear his final word or joke as we separated. For some reason I stood on the corner and watched him cross the street. I felt incomplete, odd. Maybe I was trying to discern if this cloudiness around us was from the play or was coming from him. I didn’t know why his back walking away looked like a child’s and I kept watching it and trying to figure that out. (He was not a small man and had broad shoulders. He was smoking a cigarette and walking purposefully unlike a child.) But his back, his posture perhaps, looked bereft.
I felt guilty for the happiness I felt about getting married. L.’s body got smaller as he walked away and soon disappeared in the middle of the next block, beside the shadow of a looming loft building. That was the last time I saw L.
Two days later I got a book from him in the mail, the novel, Belasarius that takes place in the early days of the Roman Empire in Constantinople which he had ordered for us from the Internet because we were going to Istanbul. I was happy when it came because it seemed like evidence that L. was back to his old self. This was such a typical L. thing to do: to give thoughtful, well-targeted gift for no particular reason. I called to thank him and he said he was off to Europe for a few weeks to visit friends.
He died the night he returned to New York before he had called anyone in the family. We who are alive and nosy know who he did call. (Yes, the prostitute seems sordid, but so was our searching, so was our calling the phone company. The prurient interests of the living were weirdly gratified while in every other way we were left depleted.) Gifts from his travels were found spread and labeled across his dining table. He had clearly intended to give them.
In September the editor we’d met at the play called me. I had been married without L. there. The place card with his name on it had still sat in the appropriate place in the seating chart. I hadn’t been able to bring myself to remove it and throw it out. But on my wedding day I also couldn’t bear to leave it sitting on the table as a reminder of his conspicuous absence. Before the ceremony I put the place card in the white satin handbag I’d inherited from my Spanish grandmother.
Nursed by “The Angel of Death” she had died in April of that same year. The night that she died, after the funeral L. and I went to see a reading by Joseph Heller at the New York Public Library. “I just have these tickets and thought it would be silly not to go,” he said, “although maybe it is silly to go on a day like this.” We went together and spent the intermissions talking about our grandmother.
Without L., we had been on the trip to Turkey but I had left Belasarius sitting at home on the coffee table. It looked heavy and I didn’t want to carry it around with me knowing that I could not, yet, read it. After the wedding I had miraculously pruned the novel I had been working on into a shape that finally worked. Was that not one of my several prerogatives before I died?
In September the day the editor called he said he’d like to publish “Primitives.” My happiness bloomed out fast like an ink stain on linen but then just as quickly pinched to a close. Now the story and the act of submitting it would always remind me of the last time I saw L. I missed him and even missed that hopeful, awkward competition. “How’s your cousin?” he asked next with real fondness, the same kind I had seen in his eyes on our first encounter.
“He died,” I blurted.
The editor inhaled sharply.
It was shocking. He expressed sympathy, genuinely, inarticulately—-for what can be said?–stammering.
Maybe art brings us closer to understanding death than anything else can and closer to life: A writer who in order to create must die, people who evade impending death by going to a cabaret, a woman whose joy in art is matched only in her death.
Later a surprising thing happened: In my files, I found a rejection from the same editor about the same story, “Primitives.” I realized I had sent it months earlier and he had not been remotely interested. I will never know what combination of factors made us both forget this and made him change his mind. I laughed. I wanted to say to L., See, this wasn’t anything great. This is all arbitrary, all subject to chance. And I also wanted to believe that maybe it was great. Maybe it was the expression in our faces at the end of the play, the small temporary community we formed: art lovers, art makers, art finders. But mostly, I wanted to be able to talk to L., to share my achievement. I don’t know what else I would say to him if I could have. You are indelible. The body, up, up and away, the spirit here, always hovering.
It was L. I felt with me in November of 2000 when I could no longer get out of bed in the morning. I hadn’t showered in days and since I was in between teaching appointments I felt no reason to get up. All I did was water my plants which I cared for with a strange zeal, perfectly moistening their soil and removing dead leaves while I neglected a large dreadlock that had formed in the back of my hair from neglect and refused to eat. I would sense L. as I shuffled from bed at midday to fill the watering can and I missed him acutely. After two and half years my new marriage had faltered one day over an argument about laundry. It was absurd and I knew L.would see the humor in it. Although it was my decision to separate, I was devastated by the failure of my marriage.
I lay in bed and in my mind went over all that had gone wrong and tried to explain it to myself and to L. who I knew would understand, in fact, I felt, did understand. I wanted to thank him for teaching me imperfection. I was a failure not a success. Greatness is better than perfection, I kept repeating to myself for months as I fell into and then dug my way out of depression. In every despair he is there reminding me it will not last, neither the despair nor my life. He is there, here, now, echoing, even though in the physical world, my ranks of family, friends, writers and art lovers are one smaller.