excerpted from Torpor
The dog will die, and Sylvie will know she has to leave then. Still, it will be another several years before she leaves Jerome. Eventually, a friend will offer her a part-time job teaching at an LA art school. She’ll see it as a chance. She’ll take it.
Jerome will stay in New York. Just before his 60th birthday, he’ll enter therapy. In between these sessions, he starts having (or remembering) very vivid dreams. Sometimes he writes these dreams down in a notebook:
I’m in a restaurant with Sylvie and I give a 20 dollar bill at the counter, expecting to get some change. But we’re kept waiting and Sylvie leaves. I think of leaving too (Sylvie always leaves large tips) but I wait, because the dinner only cost 6 or 7 dollars.
I find myself in a kind of Roman theater with many people lying down wrapped in white togas. The light is overexposed, white on white, like the amazing pictures by Gunther Brus, the elegant
Aktionist work I saw in Vienna. Faces are white too. These people are all friends of Sylvie’s and they’re making fun of me, or being critical. I feel kind of lost, don’t know what I’m doing there and what they expect of me. It’s some kind of carnival. One of them says: “this man has no heart. He has a heart in radium.”
It’s getting late and I have to go back downtown to the East Village, but other people, young people, offer to share a cab with me, and I gladly accept.
And then he adds:
I had this dream at my mother’s place in Paris on November 24, a Sunday, after talking to her about her father, who took refuge in Radom when the Germans were about to occupy Warsaw. In Radom he was put into a transit camp with his own father, and both were eventually sent to their deaths on a transport, destination yet unknown.
I immediately thought that “radium” was Radom. But radium is also used in atomic bombs, and I remember reading things about Chernobyl. But “heart in radium” also makes me think of the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, the man who has no heart. He is white too, and clownish.
So the statement is contradictory. At once I have no heart, and I have a heart in radium/Radom. So the second accusation may well be my own answer to the first. Yes, I have a heart, but it is in Radom. I only feel for things that connect me to the camps. The statement was a statement of fact, but polemic. It may have to do with the conversation I had on the phone earlier that day with Sylvie, she was angry and she told me that I have no heart. My answer is that I have a heart, but it is caught in “radium.” And to prove that I have a heart, I answer with this dream. Yes, I have a heart, I have an unconscious, because I dream and play with words in a meaningful way. The heart also connects to my past: the tuberculosis and infection of my heart (“your cells have a memory,” the homeopath said) after too strong an emotional fight with Ginny and Laura.
Back to the problem of remembering things and dreaming. My inability to dream has to do with the camps. They infect me. I try to tear them away from my chest, but I can’t. It is where my heart is, and I have to keep bleeding. But this ‘bleeding heart’ is a heart, and is all that I have. Whatever I can do will come from that.
The same year Jerome enters therapy, his old friend Henri Lachmann hangs himself in Paris in a suburban park. Like Jerome, Henri had been hidden as a child throughout the War. Because Jerome has decided, now, to take an active interest in his past, he goes to visit Henri’s widow Marielle the next time he’s in
Paris. He brings a tape recorder to record their conversation. But when he turns it on, though he is normally a great interviewer, Jerome can’t think of what to say. Finally, he simply asks: “What do you remember?”
Marielle considers this. In the days before his death, Henri seemed neither more or less depressed than usual. He’d recently obtained a part-time job teaching sociology to Algerian immigrants at a night school. This post was a far cry from the brilliant future once imagined for him by his doctoral dissertation supervisor, Henri Lefebvre. But then again, Henri had never finished writing his PhD. His life had trailed off into something much more inconclusive, he’d never been that interested in pursuing a career. A few weeks before her husband’s suicide, Marielle recalls, their youngest child moved out—but happily. Surely it could not be this?
“You know,” Marielle recalls, “there was a strange way Henri used to talk. He was never good at making plans. I mean—he never talked about himself as if there was a future, the way most people do. There was this funny tense he used, as if the future had already happened. He always said, I would have been.”
Alone and weightless in Los Angeles, Sylvie buys a ’67 Rambler and rents a house in Highland Park. She goes to the gym and finds that working out transports her to a teary, universally empathic state. Without Jerome, she is simply sad for sadness now. Her trainer screams at her to eat.
Sylvie doesn’t like the landscape in LA. She doesn’t like the art. She doesn’t like the west coast Jews, who hardly seem like Jews at all. Her female colleagues dress like aging sluts. She doesn’t like the clothes. In New York, she’d seen the people she’d loved and admired most die of poverty and heroin overdoses, suicide and AIDS. The drag queens Nan Goldin photographed in the 1980s were mostly dead of AIDS and Hepatitis-C. There’d been a battle to hold back the flood of gentrification on the Lower East Side of New York City. This battle had been lost.
The LA art world Sylvie moves around in is free of arcane references and ambiguity. There are no alternate hierarchies of glamour here. Those who work outside the gallery system are simply losers. Any artist any good will be professional. All it takes is social skills and an MFA from the right school. Her new art world associate wear Bermuda shorts and barbecue on Sunday afternoons. Talking about one’s art is considered unprofessional. Sylvie digs her nails into her arms to stay awake while people talk about their living rooms—is yellow now passé?—and how to grow tomatoes. No one flaunts ambition in your face. Everyone is either married, single or divorced. Though most of them are married. Things coast along. It occurs to Sylvie there is a great deal of money in LA, and very little competition. In some ways, LA is as provincial as the small New Zealand city she grew up in, but with vastly higher stakes. No one cares enough to question anyone too much. She sees it might be possible to benefit from this.
Nothing important that happens to Sylvie happens in the city of Los Angeles. Everything happens in her head. In the months before she left Jerome, she’d started writing love letters to a man who didn’t love her. In LA she continues writing to this man, and then she just continues writing. For the first time, it seems that everything she wants to do can now be broken down into small, achievable goals. She embraces everything that’s practical and finite.
A therapist in Beverly Hills gives her excellent advice about success in business: Never put anything important into writing. See each transaction through the eyes of your opponent. Assess what people want, and try to give it to them. Then you will be left alone. Never say no to anyone. Instead just say, I’ll think about it, and then stop returning calls. Sylvie follows this advice. It works.
It occurs to Sylvie that she’d be less lonely if she started having sex. But no one in the LA art world ever fucks (or even flirts) unless the sex is used in order to pursue mature and serious monogamous relationships. Since everyone knows that she’s still married to Jerome, she’s not a candidate. She wonders if she can overcome her loneliness by turning sex into a goal, like other business? She answers personal ads in the newspaper, dials the Telepersonals Dating Hotline on the phone. This works. It is the shortest line between two points. She’s surprised to find that in this world she can be belle of the ball, so long as she’s not pursuing a committed and mature relationship.
Giving blowjobs in the parking lot behind the House of Pies, finger-fucking on a stranger’s couch, she is amazed by how completely sex annihilates the need for context. None of the men she meets this way see ‘chemistry’ as a requisite for having sex. There is no dating, no auditioning for the girlfriend role. They encourage her to be a slut. She finds she can be anyone. It’s all light-hearted, girlish fun. Through this lens, sex becomes a recreational pursuit, like playing chess. Appearance, common interests, politics become completely immaterial. She finds this very liberating. So long as they are skilled and serious about the game, nearly anyone will do.
But sometimes, when she’s having Great Sex in Los Angeles (a thing Jerome encourages her to do) her mind wanders backwards in its hazy pre-orgasmic state to the torpid years they spent in Thurman. Pictures flash into her mind: a frozen waterfall; a walk along Schroon River; the plaid blanket in a room they stayed in at the Tupper Lake Motel. Eventually she comes, or else her partner does, and she’s slammed back into the present, breathless, grateful and amazed. She’d never known that sex could be this easy. Another goal achieved. She forgets the orgasms quickly. It’s only in the pre-orgasmic drift that she revisits the expectant emptiness she felt throughout those years of living with Jerome. She recalls a lonely drive they took when Lily was still nine, before the tumor. It would have been an autumn Sunday afternoon, frayed and aimless, like so many of their days. Jerome’s anxiety would have been escaping like a poison gas through a crack beneath his office door, and Sylvie would have been concerned about another weekend ending without a happy, memorable event.
This time, when she asked Jerome if he’d come out for a drive, he would have sensed her deep unhappiness and turned off his computer. Together, they would have settled on a destination: Let’s try and find the Town of Day! Day was a mythic hillbilly outpost in the southern Adirondacks, mentioned by their Thurman neighbors in tones of deep disgust and horror.
Guessing Day was someplace north of Hadley, Sylvie would have packed a thermos and a map. They would have stopped at Emrick’s General Store to buy the Sunday paper, and seen a toothless bearded trapper striding off Hap’s front porch with a case of beer and groceries. Surely this was proof that they were getting closer!
They would have driven north along the Sacandagua River after leaving Lake Luzerne, and the landscape would have changed. Tidy village homes gave way to abandoned company houses from the shut-down Corinth mill. They would have passed the River Bar and Grill, a business Sylvie dreamed of purchasing. She’d wait tables while Jerome cooked and tended bar. But then again—perhaps he’d like to be a French TV producer? If he’d been anything but what he was, they would have been rich enough to have a child, or poor enough to breed instinctively.
As the stark, abandoned countryside slipped by, the numbness they’d both felt all weekend would have given way to pleasure. Feeling alive for the first time in a long while, Sylvie would have begged Jerome to apply for the part-time sorting job at the Thurman Post Office. It paid 11.53, top dollar in their town. He’d have to pass a civil service test, but if he studied hard—“Alright,” Jerome would have punned, “I’ll be a man of letters.”
Holding Lily on her lap to get a better view, Sylvie would have stroked the wide-wale corduroy on the pants Jerome was wearing. She would have rolled the window down to test the air. They would have both agreed, the bottom of the air was cool.
Approaching edinburgh, they would have followed road signs to Northville, a lovely old colonial town they’d never known existed. Beached amid the poverty of the southern Adirondacks, there was no apparent reason for the town’s existence. Jerome’s thoughts would have drifted back to Paris, as they did in every dying town. He’d think of how it was before the War: the smell of rain, the cobbled streets, the Les Halles open markets. Comfortingly, they would exclaim how glad they were to leave New York. If they’d never left New York, they’d never know that towns like Northville still existed.
They’d stop in Northville, share a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of soup at the Town and Country Diner. They’d see an antique store, and Sylvie would have found a teapot fashioned like an ear of corn for five dollars. Jerome would buy it, and she’d bring it home to add to her collection of retro corn-inspired kitchenware and china.
But by the time they left the antique store, it would have been
4 o’clock already: too late to find the Town of Day. The air would be distinctly cold, and Jerome would think about the Trailways bus he had to catch to teach on Tuesday. And then another Parent-Teacher day at Laura’s school on Wednesday… the text he’d promised to François was nearly six months late, and now he wouldn’t have a chance to look at it again ‘til Friday. Nauseous and defeated, he would have tried not to spoil their nice Sunday afternoon. And so he’d hand the map to Sylvie, ask her if she’d like to find them a new route back home to Thurman?
Sylvie would have felt Jerome’s panic ricochet around the car as they turned off 418 onto the back road over Seventh Mountain. This route, she thought, would come out near Zaltz Road and take them nearly home. But the Seventh Mountain Road would have turned to dirt and gotten narrower.
While Jerome navigated ruts, they would have weighed their options: should they turn around? But suddenly, the road would dead-end at a grassy clearing, and there, they would have seen a herd of deer, grazing in the early twilight.
Jerome would have turned the engine off, and Sylvie would have covered Lily’s mouth to stop her barking. The small herd would have stayed there, eating, oblivious that they were being watched, or else not caring. Two weeks from now, deer hunting season would begin, but these animals didn’t seem to know it. The deer were caught, and probably doomed, yet they remained serene, safe and protected in their unknowing. Jerome’s chest would have pulled tight, tears would have welled up in his eyes. If only he could be like the deer… if he could have stayed like that, suspended—
Back home, Sylvie would have made tea in the corn pot. They would have lain in bed with Lily’s tiny body in between them, kissed each other over her gray muzzle, until Jerome finally picked the dog up and put her down—
Sylvie has already been living in LA for several years when she finds the picture Jerome took the day that she got pregnant at the Pennsylvania reservoir. She finds it in a carton full of files and papers that they’d boxed a million years ago, before the first round of yearlong tenants moved into their Thurman house, the place they’d never managed to shape up into a home. All my dreams, a poet wrote, the bluest smoke.
The photo is a strange artifact: a souvenir of possibilities that never came to be. Sylvie is no longer remotely like the woman in the picture. But you can tell by looking at the photo how much, then, she wanted to get pregnant. Desire pulsing underneath a mask of deep repose. When she finds the box, Jerome and all that she imagined for them has been lost to her for a long time. Take me anywhere, but take me now—it is a picture of complete abandonment.
The woman in the picture is inescapably immersed in an expectant emptiness … the same emptiness that Sylvie likes to simulate by having recreational sex in Los Angeles. Safe in Highland Park, cheerfully pursuing a career in an art world that no longer matters much to her or anyone, she sees a link between her present life and the photo. Sylvie understands that her anonymous and finite, ‘discrete’ sexual encounters are to true romance what the blank and open LA landscape is to the old European grid of history, warfare and causality. There are no ancient tribal feuds, no wounds, no blood.
It is less absolute, perhaps. But better.