Saturday, July 25, 2009

Books: Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates

Either screenwriter Haythe and director Mendes were more faithful to the novel than I credited them with being, or I completely lack imagination for, reading Revolutionary Road seven months after watching the movie, I could only project the film’s images in my mind’s eye. Months ago, I insisted DiCaprio was miscast, but reading every mention of Frank Wheeler, I could only see his pliable features. I distrusted Daisy’s foresight in bringing a pack of cigarettes up the hill with her in the midst of her worst argument with her husband, but there it is on the book’s page, so I saw Kate Winslet’s face briefly blow in the flame’s amber light.

I had also trusted the proclamations of male readers that the book’s sympathies skewed male, to Frank Wheeler’s professional dissatisfaction and self-loathing, but when reading it for myself, found it to be as much a tale of women’s woe as the film was. The FDA first approved the oral contraceptive pill in 1960; Yates published Revolutionary Road in 1962 about a couple whose lives are literally destroyed by the responsibility incurred by unplanned pregnancies in the 1950s.

Frank Wheeler is not a particularly likable character. April Wheeler is not particularly likable either, but nor is she quite as dislikable as Frank. Though she was as complicit as he in the formation of their mistake (allowing a brief affair evolve, via a series of mounting emotional white lies, into a marriage), she had the foresight to suggest aborting their first pregnancy. And so, at least she kept her wits about her, and wanted to make logical choices in the face of reality. Facing the same opportunity at the outset of their third pregnancy, Frank Wheeler fights tooth and nail to keep the child, until, winning at last, he locks himself in the bedroom with a bottle of whisky, realizing that he doesn’t even want that third child, probably didn’t want the first two, and fought for them only with the instinct of protecting his manhood. This is someone I cannot respect, and I rarely side with the girls.

Radical ethics aside, I was surprised to be a bit let-down by the book, just as I was surprised to be let-down by the movie. Yates’ writes with facile distaste, such haughty, smug prose, rather like a contemporary, American, Evelyn Waugh (arch Waugh of satires like The Loved One, not of the devastating Brideshead Revisited).* I didn’t much care for the plight of the bright young Wheelers, or anyone in the book, for that matter, except perhaps the hapless Shep Campbell, who thinks he loves April, is used by her one night, and then has to comfort her husband when he himself is reeling from her death. Only his emotions, perhaps because of their naïvete, feel genuine. The insightful madman, John Givings, whose proclamations came so cutting in the film’s otherwise blithely elegant chatter, seems equally blithe in the book, nearly as resigned to the “hopeless emptiness” as the Wheelers.

*April’s flashback to a scene in which her Gatsby of a father gives her the plastic horse charm off a bottle of cologne or liquor because he forgot to bring a gift is, it seems, a flashback to an Evelyn Waugh novel, unless Yates is relying completely on the Fitzgeralds for inspiration.

Movies: In A Lonely Place

My second-ever Nick Ray movie, In A Lonely Place is just as, if not more dark, than Bigger Than Life. It seems that Film Forum is going to give me the chance these next few weeks to find out if all of his movies are that way, but for now, let’s talk about this one.

Bogart is the brooding, boozing screenwriter Dixon Steele, who hasn’t had a hit in years and whose friendly caricature-of-a-Jew agent is constantly pushing him to get to work on something. Too lazy, or perhaps too depressed, to bother reading the latest trash novel his agent wants him to adapt, Steele opts for the more efficient and promising option of taking home a hatcheck girl who has just read it. She tells him the story in broad and bright, if misread strokes, and equally fed up with the inanity of the plot and the girl, he gives her cab fare and walks her to the door, giving up on hopes of an evening with any more sensual adventure than staring at the elegant blond in the apartment across the way.

But he’s woken by an investigator at the door at five o’clock in the morning—the hatcheck girl has been murdered and he’s a prime suspect. To his rescue comes the mysterious blonde neighbor; she saw him bid the girl farewell and go straight to bed. Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame, whose breathy, doe-eyed neuroses presage Marilyn Monroe’s handling of those more-disturbing roles) becomes his savior in more ways than one; they become lovers, and Steele overcomes his writers’ block, staying up all night scrawling a script that she types for him. But Steele remains under suspicion, and that, combined with a few other violent episodes, frays Laurel’s nerves. While Steele is making plans for them to be married, she is making plans to sneak away on a flight to New York (we know that she snuck away from her last romance, as well; she was running away from an engagement to a wealthy real estate mogul when she moved in across the way from Steele). Steele finds out and there’s a dark, dangerous confrontation in her apartment, where he pins her and she squirms with fear that he might just kill her too. When the phone rings at that moment with an exonerating call—the actual murderer, the hatcheck girl’s jealous boyfriend—has been captured, it’s too late. The necessary trust has been shattered for both parties.

The moral of the story is my favorite 1950s Hollywood truth: those damn dames are just no good. Laurel Gray was nothing—a failed wannabe actress with a svelte frame and big eyes and the ability to fill out a sweater nicely—and Dix Steele bought her diamonds, and dresses, and wanted to marry her, even though she gave it up plenty without his even offering. But then she had to go and get skittish, all because of something so minor as his explosive temper, a record of a few barroom brawls, and a fist-fight on the side of the road where he could have bashed in the face of his passed-out opponent with a nice rock, if she hadn’t stopped him. Why do girls get such cold feet?

Books: East of Eden, by John Steinbeck

Having read The Pearl in grade school and The Grapes of Wrath in high school, both for class, I long ago dismissed Steinbeck as a plodding clod, a writer of flaccid fables, elementary and dull both formally and in content. When, last summer, I met a mid-American man who also threatened to be a plodding clod, a naïve imbiber of our country’s particular brand of moral and mystical pap, who praised Steinbeck, I would have dismissed him as summarily, except that his weedy, upright, je nais se quoi kept me ensconced in his bedroom for a time (where I might still be, if he hadn’t kicked me out). There, waiting for him one night, I pulled down the thick East of Eden to pass the time.

Fifteen years ago, a fleeting, pre-teen fascination with James Dean had inspired me to rent the VHS for my parents’ thirteen-inch television. Whether I fell asleep from the lateness of the hour, a lack of acclimation to the monochrome of the black-and-white scenes, or plain intellectual immaturity, I’m not sure, but I don’t remember even the opening scenes of the movie any more than I remember those of Giant, which I rented and slept through around the same time.

And so I came to East of Eden fairly fresh; I read the prologue-like geography of the opening chapters, reacquainting myself with the vintage Steinbeck I’d expected to find, whose dusty plains and alternately dry and swelling riverbeds set up the character and fate of his protagonists long before they are even born.

Then that man came home and the book was laid aside. Soon thereafter, I was excised from his life and his bookcase, and East of Eden was added to the very short list of books I’ve started and never finished. A year later, late summer again, another copy fell into my hands again, right before a trip abroad. If one is at all dogged by the sense of literary responsibility, gong abroad, one should always take a big, serious, uninspiring book along, because the confined spaces and measured durations of planes and trains focus the will in an unrivaled way. This is how I ended up on the beach in Costa Rica once with the leather-bound, gilt-edged War and Peace, and how I found myself this summer in front of the clear swimming pool of a Tuscan villa, my eyes focused not on the distant purple hillsides, but the black ink and browned pages of this old, fat paperback.

I would have to revisit The Pearl and/or The Grapes to determine whether the new found literary maturity in East of Eden belongs to writer or reader. Had I missed something before, too young, the way I had watching the rolling, grainy, ten-inch tall James Dean? Or is East of Eden simply an unexpected masterpiece, limpid and true, unpretentiously incisive, clear-eyed and lean-muscled and unabashedly honest (a bit like that plodding American man, but let’s not dwell on loss).

Steinbeck sets us up for a retelling of Cain & Abel’s parable, recast with perhaps inept farmers first in the East and then in the fickly-fertile California central valley, outside the newborn town of Salinas. To tell the story properly, though, he needs two generations of brothers, the first apocryphally named Charles and Adam, the second, Adam’s (or are they Charles’?) twin sons, Caleb and Aron. The uncertain provenance of the second set of boys is due to the fact that their mother, like most Biblical women, is unadulterated and unexplained evil. A runaway who has murdered both her parents and established a small nest egg by ruining a local married man by erotic devices, she finds herself beaten and on the brink of death when Good Samaritan Adam finds her, takes her in, and marries her. Revolted by but reliant upon his kindness, she keeps him from her bed during her recuperation, instead insinuating herself into that of Charles.

Because Adam and Charles had never gotten on, one night Charles going so far as to beat Adam near to death when their father preferred his birthday gift of a mongrel puppy to Charles’ of an expensive hunting knife, Adam decides to move clear across the country with his new wife. Their tyrannical father has passed, leaving behind a surprise fortune, the means by which he accumulated it mysterious and likely illegal. Adam takes his half, leaving the dark and grunting Charles to man the old farm out East alone. Settled on a hopeful ranch outside Salinas, Adam primes the expensive estate for his new family, but as soon as his sullen wife has spat out her twins, she refuses them, her husband, and her new home. Shooting her husband in the shoulder to prevent him from keeping her there against her will, she leaves him and the baby boys behind, not to be heard from for quite awhile.

Meanwhile, the boys are raised with industrious silence by Adam’s Chinese housekeeper, Lee. Adam is an empty shell of a man, a silent figurehead deaf even to the forceful shouts of his only friend, neighboring farmer, blacksmith, salt-of-the-earth intellectual, and patriarch of a brood of ten, Sam Hamilton. It is Hamilton who befriends Lee and convinces him to stop speaking the pidgin tongue of the Chinese lackey, and it is Hamilton who insists that Adam give names to his twin boys, an entire year after they’re born. It’s at that fateful moment that they discern a dark, Charles-like brood to one of them—now Caleb, and a bright, clear-eyed smile of the other—now Aron.

Their names their fate, the boys grow up together, close but sometimes squabbling, Aron more trusting, Caleb more manipulative. Aron, simple, is what he is, does what he does; shoots a rabbit to take home to his father, falls in love with a little girl called Abra. Caleb, calculating, brings up the question of to which brother the killing shot should be attributed, sabotages Aron’s gift for Abra. As they grow older, Aron spends time at the church and considers becoming a minister; Cal wanders the city streets at night, restless, watching gamblers and drunks and whores. And that’s how he discovers his mother.

This all-chaff woman, who has used sexuality only ever as a weapon, has, by another bout of murderous deceit, become proprietress of a whorehouse—the cruelest, darkest, and most depraved of whorehouses in town, using intimidation and the threat of blackmail, amateur pharmacology, and a surprising understanding of fetish to terrorize her employees and customers. At the novel’s long-promised climax, Caleb, who has been following her for some time, trying to diagnose his own troubling mean streak, shows her to the sensitive and naïve Aron, who in a fit of shock and horror enlists in the Army and summarily dies fighting in WWI. Cal’s fury at the moment was born from his father’s rejection of his hard-earned gift of $15,000, which he earned by investing in bean futures (a good investment in war-time), and Adam’s concurrent praise of Aron, who’d finished high school a year early and enrolled in college at Stanford, for which achievement, masterminded by Caleb in the first place, Aron was given an engraved gold watch, while Cal was ignored.

Steinbeck’s Cain feels all the guilt of having slain Abel, though he hasn’t done it with the direct blows of the Biblical Cain. But at the heart of the book and pulsing through to the end, is a scene in which the Chinese Lee, the Irish Sam Hamilton, and the dazed Adam discuss the brothers’ parable, the as-yet unnamed Cal and Aron sitting on the kitchen floor, too young to walk or talk. Lee, a lover of books and a scholar by nature, had brought a question of semantics to the Chinese elders in town, who in turn had brought it to a set of Hebrew scholars, for he had discovered a single but pregnant difference in two translations of God’s curse upon Cain. The Hebrew word “timshel,” translated in one Bible as “thou shalt rule over [sin],” and in another as “do thou rule over [sin],” issued here in English as first a promise, than an order, actually translates best, he found, to “thou mayest rule over [sin]”—a challenge, a confirmation of free will. This is the final word that Adam issues to Cal on his deathbed, when Lee begs the man to give his sole surviving son his blessing, i.e. his absolution for Aron’s death. Cal, having met his inhuman mother face-to-face, realized with some relief that he was not like her, not unexplained greed and cruelty and hate. Aron, though, unable to face the darkness of his mother, or even the plain sexual reality of the world (revealed in his physical withdrawal from Abra into the repressive chastity of the church), like those false translations, had no free will, could only “rule over” so-called “sin,” or perish, the other side of his mother’s inhuman coin.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Postcards from Tuscany

Intoxicated by the events of the past week, and inspired by Sebald’s similar dream-state in The Rings of Saturn, this travelogue, unlike my previous, will not be a laundry list of meals had, admissions paid, exits missed, and squabbles with my adventurers. To convey the melting pleasure of champagne-soaked sunrises and the uncanny internal tremble of sudden realization, I will follow the tidal trajectory of emotions that crest and wane, and therefore might diverge from the linear. But I think you’ll understand.

Was it Wednesday or Friday morning that I laid myself out on a lawn chair, face to the early sun, my wet eyes glossing over the cold clear pool and the endless rows of rich greenery on the distant hills? So many mornings were spent here, still reeling from the party the night before, but on this day, the second or third into our trip, I was drenched in sadness. Perry, my fraternal confidante, stretched on the other chair, insisting that I needed to speak to a therapist. I told him no, I was merely lonely, terribly lonely, even surrounded by nine friends and lovely strangers in this beautiful house, and ten and twenty and fifty and two hundred more lovely strangers as Clara’s wedding date approached and the attendants accreted for activity after activity, cocktail after cocktail.

Loneliness is a strange thing; being an only child, it and I have a long and intimate history. I need to be alone, in fact, to percolate, to dream, to restore. When I was smaller, I spent hours and hours alone on the deck of my parents’ house, building a pasha’s tent filled with pillows where I would cuddle with a piece of chocolate, an orange, a glass of water, and a stack of novels, reading and relishing with all my senses the cold wind outside, the growing warmth from my body inside; the rich sweetness of the chocolate cut with the sharp sweetness of the orange, flushed with the sweet, cold water. On warmer days, I would climb the hillside and gather poppy seeds, or long-stalked weeds, imagining that I was a Sioux princess gathering food or making fishing rods for my father (while my actual father hid downstairs in the house, reading the newspaper or constructing open-faced sandwiches for his lunch.

Never, as a child, did I have more than one friend at a time, so these partnerships were always intensely intimate. And so, it is more reasonable than one would think that, surrounded by myriad lovely people, I might be isolated inside. Only Perry’s probing, along with the safety granted by our similarity (he, too, a single only child with an over-active intellect and a dreaming heart of which that intellect is occasionally ashamed), let me cry openly, and dare I say incant, “I need to meet somebody.”

I knew he’d known that from the moment we’d met in the Frankfurt airport on Tuesday morning, nearly missing our connecting flight to Florence because we were sitting too far from the gate, wondering about the strange prick on our necks from being in that country, where darkness still feels eminent in spite of floor-to-ceiling windows planes that land on time. He’d known it when our flight was re-routed to Bologna due to dangerous winds gusting across Florence’s too-short runway, and a chartered bus brought us from one airport to another. He had told me that I needed a new job that would challenge me; I told him no, I was merely lonely, terribly lonely. I told him that I didn’t want to be challenged; I told him that I rejected our country’s culture of achievement, I told him that I had resigned my fast-track status after I couldn’t answer the question: “To what end?”

So, after three nights in the country, the first spent at a cocktail at Clara’s apartment, the next at home in our villa cooking and drinking wine, the third at Clara’s parents’ home, ignoring for the most part the adults and playing with the delightfully rambunctious, five-year-old Milo and his shy, sweet, small sister Esme, I had verbalized the obvious. Adventures we had already had, muscling our rented BMW through the dark and narrow streets of downtown Florence, pulling up onto sidewalks to allow oncoming traffic to pass, pulling up behind drunken revelers in short skirts and spike heels, and at one elated moment, gunning the engine through an open piazza and past Il Duomo, its pink and green marble walls, which I hadn’t seen for ten years, rushing by my windows. The tiny car was so responsive, the streets so close, the squeals from my friends inside so sharp, I was certain it was a videogame. After wine and cheese and salami and meeting the groom and hearing the bride’s brother’s raucous stories, we’d piled back into the car and I’d gotten us properly lost yet again. Thursday we had woken up early for a walking tour of the city, and after visiting the Palazzo Davanzati, an 11th Century church, and the mosaic-covered Baptistery of Il Duomo, we split apart. I wanted, in my loneliness, to be alone—the noise of other voices makes it hard to hear your own, on the inside.

I found a small and silent church, filled not with tourists, but with old women, praying. The walls were frescoed with sober saints; the altarpiece a glittering, Byzantine Madonna and Child. Her heavy lids and pursed lips made me think of Bobby’s Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, the ideal soundtrack for my wandering, wistful mood. From there, I progressed to the Uffizi, where I could finally cry—first Filippo Lippi, then Botticelli, with their sad, smooth-cheeked ladies, whose eyes like peeled grapes are wise to all the world’s sorrow, who cry without tears through their beneficent smiles. Whether Chris is a baby grabbing at a misplaced tit, or a languorous man draped too-big in her arms, her eyes are limpid with love lost.

And after that, as the sun began to dip, the Academia, which houses the David. No matter how many times you’ve seen a reproduction, a replica, a joking spin-off, the original’s aura remains untainted. Looking up, I was certain that if I were to brush the outside of his hand, he would turn and look down at me; that if I were to put my small hand in his immense, curled palm, that he would squeeze me with the power of flesh; that if I were to stroke his neck with my fingertips, . . .

From the Academia, a new friend and I took a bus to Clara’s parents’ house, where I was given my first negroné (the Italian aperitif of choice, a potent combination of gin, martini & rossi, and campari). Here I met Milo, and then Esme, a featherweight fairy of a girl who first cried but then squealed with delight when I bounced and lifted and spun her, until I was sweating through my sunburn. When this party wound down, it was decided that the drinking would continue in a piazza somewhere in the center of town. Again I got behind the wheel and got us lost, parking in a lot far from where we needed to be. I then got us lost inside the parking lot itself, unable to find the exit and practicing my skills at backing out of dead-ends. Silencing my navigators, my friends calling other friends on mobile phones, I looked at the map, looked at the street and followed my intuition. I drove straight to the right spot and parked in the lot. Resurfacing on foot, my group thought itself lost again. Again, the phones came out. Again, I consulted the map and led us one block away, to an open piazza where everyone had gathered, drinking plastic cups of beer.

It must have been the next morning that I made my incantation, because it was the next night that something first shifted. It was Friday, the first of three official days of wedding celebrations, and that night’s event was a rooftop cocktail party in Centro, right on the river Arno, with views in all directions. As astounding as it was, this wasn’t the site of magic. In fact, it felt so unreal that it only augmented my isolation, my sense of “I don’t belong here,” in this movie, or this place for people who star in movies—the rich, the landed, the jet set. Five or six or seven glasses of rosé champagne couldn’t shake the outsider feeling, though they prepped me well for saying “yes!” to the after party once the clock struck midnight and our rental of the venue expired.

Two Italians, one of whom I’d met at Clara’s parents’ home the night before, were leading the way. Our group of twenty was a chain of straggling knots of two and three and four that stretched two blocks long, with varying degrees of interest in walking an unknown distance to an unknown destination. I began bringing up the rear, and found myself running up and down the ranks, polling my friends sharing cars and the villa to be certain that everyone wanted to go out, that no one wanted to stop and eat, or go home. And so, I soon found myself at the front of the line using what little Italian I have to speak to the two Italians, until I realized that one was very much also an American and an English speaker, who lived in Brooklyn—not so far from me. But he and his friend continued in Italian and I didn’t much mind, as deciphering what I could became a game, skipping alongside them and suddenly feeling very much a part of something.

We came at last to train tracks; squeezed through a chain link fence and picked our way across them, traversed a parking lot, and found ourselves at a fenced-in, open air nightclub, where a DJ was joined onstage by a saxophone player and three dancing girls, who gyrated lasciviously with bored expressions on their faces, wearing long-sleeved, collared, booty-short black leotards, unzipped in the front to reveal brassieres, and stamped with large, white letters reading “FBI” on the back. Some budding academic’s master’s dissertation awaits. My friends were drinking, but I’d had enough, and I danced. I danced and danced and danced and was soon joined by the American Italian, who had let out his ponytail and was moving with a liquidity never seen in American men, and who was drilling me with his eyes in a way I’ve never been drilled before. I could have stayed all night, but my friends pulled me away; I had the car keys and they wanted to go home. I told my partner that I had to leave. He grabbed my hand and told me no, he needed me to stay and dance with him. I told him that he could dance with other girls there (which I had seen him doing before), but he told me no, he only wanted to dance with me. I told him that we would dance the next night, at the wedding.

We made it home, slept by the pool, got ourselves to the wedding. In a countryside church built in the 11th Century, the crowd fit standing-room-only for a short, tender ceremony in an ad-hoc mixture of Italian, French, and English, the priest pausing to assign translations to different people in the wedding party. Most memorably, in a bit not translated to English, but which I ascertained through my rudimentary understanding of Art Historical Italian, Don Giorgio described the way Michelangelo would look at a block of marble, intuiting the form inside that needed to be released, and positing that, when we find our partners, the experience is the same. Clara made an ideal old-world Italian bride, radiant and tan and so obviously thrilled with Charlie, who was so obviously thrilled with her. I’ve never felt so much comfortable joy emanate from a young couple.

We drove a few minutes and parked again, wandering up a green hillside and into a fairytale: a ruin with four walls and no ceiling perched on an extensive lawn littered with candles and rose petals and glasses of champagne. We drank on the lawn for hours, not sitting down to dinner until midnight. When the bride and groom entered the glittering fortress, everyone jumped up and began to swing their cloth napkins in circles above their heads, while the couple danced around the room to loud music in French. The joy was unstoppable. The wine was poured from bottle after bottle, the food served up, tender speeches made by Clara’s father and brother, Charlie’s mother and siblings. The cake was an orgasmic meringue of ethereal lightness, melting against yet another glass of champagne on my tongue.

We were banished outside to watch videos made by the bride and groom’s friends while the hall was cleared and the music set up. We began to dance. I went outside for a break and found my partner from the night before, reminding him that he owed me one. He joined me quickly. Clara’s brother had brought a box of white gloves, and as the DJ played a series of Michael Jackson songs, everyone donned one in tribute.

He and I danced closer. We had been in the midst of a knot of bodies, but soon we were alone, far to the sidelines, making big, extravagant twirls and turns, until he grabbed my hand and dragged me outside. Running, he pulled me across the long lawn, took both my hands, spun me around and around until I fell on the grass. I was laughing. He bent down and grabbed me and swung me up onto his back, running off with me down the lane and into the woods. We kissed. On the ground, in the dark, I lost all sense of time and place and limits, until I heard, in the dark, voices calling my name.

It was five in the morning. I’d thrown on my clothes and emerged from the brush into the worried and now bemused eyes of Perry, who let me comment on the nest of twigs and dirt my hair had become, who led me, drunk, trembling, elated, and now a bit let down, like a petulant child dragged home from the playground at the end of a long day, back to the car, and drove me home.

The next morning promised poolside champagne brunch at Villa Tizzano, and I did not know what to expect. I was sure, as I told Perry, that all the delights of the past night were temporary and indiscriminate; I’d seen that social person, I explained, talking with other girls, dancing with other girls. If it had not been me in the woods, it could have easily been the French girl he sat with at dinner, the other American he’d danced with at the discotheque. When we walked out to the pool and I saw him, I waved, smiled, kept walking. I’m a dreamer, but not a dream chaser. I’m afraid to be that girl. I’m petrified by the potential of shame. So I wandered off on my own.

But he found me. Unsure, I’m now sure, himself, he convinced me to join him in the pool, settled me into a floating chair, and holding the rim, walked me round and round the pool while I sucked on a peach I’d found. The rest of the day progressed like that, casting away the prophylactic floatation tubes so that I was in his arms, his skin against my skin. Other couples in the pool joined us in a series of chicken fights, but with my thighs wrapped around his shoulders, we were unvanquished. As the sun waned, and my friends all left with my car for dinner in Siena, I stayed, still being handed endless glasses of champagne, sitting with him on a lawn chair, then reclining, until he laid on his back with me nestled against his side, both of us shaking in our damp suits as the sun set. The ten or twenty people left, the closest of family friends, covered us with towels and let us fall in love with none of the judgment or snide comments one might expect from an audience.

As night approached, eight of us planned to go into the city for drinks, and four of us waited for a taxi. Back in town, the two Spaniards who had ridden with us needed to stop at their hotel and change clothes. My lover said to them, “When you’re ready, we’ll be over there, kissing,” and pointed to the river wall.

Drinking in another open air bar, this one right on the river’s wall, he kept his arm or his hand or his eyes on me, diving in for kisses, oblivious to potential judgment, perhaps because there wasn’t any. After a few hours, the tension peaked, and his friend, the same one who had led the way to the discotheque a few nights before, took us to his apartment and left us there, for the longest Odyssey of hands and mouths I’ve sailed.

So much so that, at a neighborhood bar the next morning, with two cappuccinos, we sat staring at each other, trembling inside. He told me that he felt drugged. He told me that I had immense power. He told me that he hadn’t felt anything like this before. Everything he told me was something that I could have told him. We had pressed a red button that dissolved completely our outer selves, locked our hidden, protected truths together. We walked, shaking, intellectually uncertain about what was otherwise certainty, sharing stories, for the first time hearing actual things about each other. He had so much more depth that I had ever expected, and he had disarmed my defense system.

That night we dined in Florence with all our friends from our villa, finishing long after midnight. He and I took the car on an adventure to the ruins of baths set on natural hot springs south of Siena; no one wanted to join us, so we went alone. We drove mostly in silence in the dark, thinking ourselves lost, but finally arriving in this Maxfield Parrish dream world, where stars like tossed handfuls of glitter danced above a steaming waterfall that poured into a shallow river, its bed lined with smooth rocks. We stripped and slithered into the dark waters, sliding on our bellies to the tubs, ancient pools big enough for one or two or three or four bodies, each a different temperature, sampling one too hot, one too cold, until we found one just right. There we stayed, dreaming half-awake, curled together, bodies pulsing, until the sun rose, lighting the beautiful place for fresh eyes. On the drive back to the villa, we stopped for another unreal cappuccino and the most revitalizing juice I’ve ever drunk, which zapped my cells like an elixir of life.

Somehow wide awake, I drove to the villa and picked up Perry, who needed to be taken to the airport. He drove while I navigated, another airport-going friend sharing the back with my dozing lover. After the airport, I drove us back to my villa, where we had our last swim and moments together before I had to pack my things. He came with me to the airport. We kissed in front of the security gate. I cried, dropped my passport, couldn’t find my boarding pass, didn’t want to leave. He promised that he would find me, for I didn’t have his phone number, his email address. He promised that in a few weeks he would see me, even though he’s destined to spend a year on the other side of the globe.

I made my way to the gate in tears; found myself sitting next to one of the closest family friends, who had witnessed many of the week’s evolving motions. I was ashamed of my tears, but she welcomed them. She insisted that a year is not long at all.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Books: The Tetherballs of Bougainville, by Mark Leyner

What a weird, hyper-satirical adventure. I'm still uncertain whether or not I liked it.

Leyner's uber-teen narrator, who wears designer leather pants and no shirts, plays video games with the aim of rescuing rock stars from being turned into packaged snack foods by aliens, and worships the tetherball players from the tiny island of Bougainville, witnesses the failed execution by lethal injection of his PCP-addicted father, helps the man choose a song to go along with his commemorative video of said failed execution (a remix of West Side Story's "I Feel Pretty" transposed into "I Feel Shitty"), refuses to share a cab with him, and then embarks on a sex-infused drug binge with the exceptionally attractive female prison warden.

I don't think I've come across satire any more dismissively jaded; once lethal injection fails, the state of New Jersey (governed by a lazy teenage girl elected into office when voting rights were extended to her peers) let's the narrator's father go, instating their right to kill him at any time by any means with total disregard to any possible collateral damage by a complicated, bureaucratic lottery process.

If this weren't absurdist enough, there is an additional layer of retelling; early in the book, the narrator announces that he's a contender for a grant for his screenplay, which will pay $250,000 per year for the rest of his life—but he hasn't written the screenplay yet (he's only been offered the award because he has such a good agent), and needs to turn it in the next day. The second half of the book is a screenplay version of events inspired by the first half.

Leyner's wild imagination is disturbingly close to the absurdity of real life, and he writes with a strangely precise elation. But its giddy hopelessness is even darker than honest despair, and I don't know that I can accept it.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Movies: The Brothers Bloom

I almost didn't go to this movie because the synopsis sounded so unappealing: Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody partnering with Rinko Kikuchi and Rachel Weisz for one last hurrah as con-men? It was only my love of Brody that dragged me down and across town to the only theatre still playing it (I sense it did not do well).

It's far from a perfect movie; perhaps a bit too long, and rather dreamy in a way that I often cannot tolerate, though the color-soaked shots and curious costumes and Brody's always so-sad face kept my eyes rather satisfied. The story is a strange, perhaps fractured, fairy tale, in which the older of two orphaned brothers creates schemes not only to keep the pair flush with cash, but also to give the shy, romantic, younger brother access to the promise of love, a means to interact with a beautiful girl who catches his eye. But there is a constant struggle for Brody's brooding romantic between the fantasy world of the con and the let-down once it's over, once it's time to collect the booty and split. Weisz's isolated idiot savant, a girl-woman raised in isolation with too many hobbies and not enough social skills, is both the ideal mark (rich, clueless, and willing to buy into the promise of an adventure) and the ideal love object for Brody's Bloom.

The four slip in and out of madcap adventures, but at the end, Big brother Ruffalo has to die, both a mock and real death, before brooding Bloom can be free to pursue his "unwritten life." This is not an unsatisfying ending, either, for Ruffalo's wooden clowning, his ringmaster card tricks, inspired a sadness even deeper than Brody's Bloom's: a disbelief in anything's truth, a refusal to dream or hope or long.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Books: The Rings of Saturn, by W.G. Sebald

In a dream state, Sebald recounts a trip through a sea-side town, along which his mind wanders, as dreaming minds are apt to do. He writes about a Chinese empress who refuses to give up the throne to her young, male successors, about a shore-abutting town that migrated constantly away from the sea as the coast eroded, until the town was washed away in entirety, about the Western discovery of silkworms and governments' insistence that people cultivate these strange creatures, blind and hungry for only one kind of plant. It's an expansive book with the occasional black and white photo of a moth or a painting or a skull, a treasure-hunt that retroactively informed my reading of Laird Hunt's The Exquisite and Thomas Wharton's The Logogryph. Sebald is a dreamer and a collector, an unwitting influence on me via his influence on one of my most important teachers at Berkeley. His historical digressions generate a tone of passing and shifting and losing, a half-waking, weathered nostalgia into which I've keyed for so many stories.