YES, PAULIE, I'm leaving you, he said bravely. It was the bravely that got
me. How dare he show off that way? My pain.
Like most voluptuous pleasures, crying can ruin your looks and age you prematurely
-- same with sunbathing, drinking, and most really good food -- which is why this
time I did not cry when he told me it was over, after all these years. Four. Again.
The other three times I cried so much that I developed semi-permanent pouches
under my eyes. The third time, when I ran home to cry on my mother's shoulder,
she pointed out the pouches and said, No man is worth that. My mother is serious
about such things -- she sells Lâncome cosmetics at Saks. She sent me home
with some stuff in a tube to shrink the pouches, a gel mask with an extract of
seaweed in it.
If it weren't for my mother, I wouldn't even know David Gold, so in a way this
could all be laid at her feet. He was her eye doctor, the one who did the laser
surgery for her glaucoma. She insisted I meet him before the surgery, just to
see if he was okay. I thought he was nice, and my mother's advance work
had convinced him that I was Georgia O'Keeffe. We had coffee later that afternoon,
his idea, and he asked me about my work, said rather shyly that art was his first
love, but medicine paid the bills. Said he was a sculptor. Mentioned that he was
married, looked down as if in apology, then up, then down again. Why should I
care? I thought. I do not look at married men. In fact, I stopped looking at him
that moment. At least so far as he could tell. Especially those eyes. Not to mention
his hands, which were strong and lean.
That was five years ago, when sculpture still came second to his practice. A few
months after that I ran into him at a Longo exhibit, and then the following month
he turned up at my first one-woman show, Profluence 10, a series of large
acrylics which, except for the hotcha title, I still like today.
He happened to walk in at a moment when I was hostage to a critic from BayArt,
a guy who was undertaking to explain my work to me in a rapid nasal monotone,
something about how in the '70s my work would have been "outside the whole
ballpark of art discourse," but that now its time had come. I could see David
out the corner of my eye, standing in front of Profluences 9 and 10 for
a long time. I wondered what he was thinking and I cringed, which is a natural
reflex for me. Suddenly all I wanted was to talk to him, but for a lot of the
evening he hung back while people swarmed around, and every time I tried not to
look at him I found him watching me.
Finally, when the crowd began to thin, he walked over, handed me a glass of wine,
and said hello. We moved to the empty end of the gallery where he stood opposite
me, shook his head and smiled, You.
What, I said, feeling a little awkward.
Just you, he answered. It's so good, Paulie. The way the pieces gather
intensity, one by one. What a shame buyers are breaking up the series.
That's easy for you to say, I told him, though secretly I felt a little sad about
it. Still, I needed the money, and the five paintings that sold that night would
mean $6,250 after the gallery took their fifty percent.
You're so talented, he said, I wish I could use color that way to make light.
I thought of all kinds of rejoinders like If I'm so talented, how come I still
work eight to five in an office? but finally I just said, I'm awfully glad
you like it. And I was.
After the opening, he drove me to see the warehouse work space he shared with
a guy who made Segal-like sculptures of ordinary people doing irritating things.
That side of the place felt cavernous and eerie in the semi-dark: filled with
florid middle-aged men in leisure suits playing pocket pool, and dumpy women waiting
for buses and scratching their bellies and thighs. As we walked across the pitted
floor, David let me in on his big secret: he'd begun to apply the tools of his
medical practice -- laser beams -- to his art. He showed me around his side of
the place, and explained that he was making sculptures using light, shadow, time,
and movement as materials. He walked me over an entire floor of jumping light
to a small dark space where an eccentric laser rotated across shapes suspended
from the ceiling, illuminating only the edges of things, keeping their essence
in the dark. He kissed me there, just then, and once the revolving laser light
illuminated his cheek through my eyelashes. We didn't kiss again, and we didn't
mention the kiss. Later when I thought of it, it all seemed of a piece, the lumpy
objects suspended above us, the blooming edges of things, the kiss, the darkness,
the transient light. I wasn't entirely sure it had even happened as a part of
what we two were together, or seemed to be, at that moment. Sometime after that
he was invited to make a presentation at Ars Electronika in Linz, Austria
to talk about his laser sculptures. He asked me out to dinner to celebrate. At
Chez Panisse. He was thinking of quitting medicine altogether. Phyllis, he said,
was not of a mind to celebrate this possible turn in his career, and had in fact
gone off to the Golden Door for the week, to calm down. And probably to be rolfed
and waxed, I thought. While I was dressing for our dinner date, I kept thinking
Married man, Married man. But from time to time I said aloud What's wrong
with having dinner with a friend? A friend you met through your mother, for God's
Still, that whole day I knew what was going to happen.
We came back to my place after dinner and stood first in the kitchen and then
in the bedroom, staring at each other. I guess people are always nervous when
they're about to sleep together for the first time, but I was more than nervous,
I was immobilized. Even looking back, I can't see why I should have been such
a ninny -- I'm 35 years old now, was 31 then. And after all, I was married for
six years, so I do know which way is up, though I haven't been with a great number
of men in my life. Four. Counting David. He looked nervous, too.
After we'd been standing there a few years on the dhurrie rug at the foot of my
bed he smiled a little, starting with the eyes, and said, Are you going to take
that dress off or am I?
It was a new silk dress, size six though I often wear an eight, and I wasn't sure
how to get it off gracefully because it had no actual zipper.
I said, It doesn't come off.
When he came into me -- this is after somehow we got the dress off -- I felt the
shock of utter familiarity. He moved in me large and sure, so naturally, like
Of course, he was a husband.
But that was the farthest thing from my mind. I came so hard he thought he'd hurt
me and he kept asking Are you Okay? What happened? and I couldn't stop spinning
inside, spinning like a starfish, couldn't stop spinning long enough to explain
that no he hadn't hurt me a bit, I was fine thank you, but just coming right now,
no problem, I'll be through in a sec.
This was his first adultery. All weekend he watched me strangely, almost gravely,
touching me again and again like some surprising toy and once, walking up Mission
Street, we stopped to hug and just as our bodies pressed together in our huge
coats in the San Francisco wind, I came again in a big shudder and felt my face
go hot with embarrassment and desire and My God! he said, because by this time
he recognized my coming as such, and I looked at him without a word, trying to
keep my dignity.
I've never seen anything like it, he said, and I knew right then he'd never leave
Which he did, yesterday. For the fourth time. I'm not a bad habit, I told him,
I'm a person. Make up your mind.
From the beginning, he was wracked with guilt, so I should have been more wary.
Of course, guilt is a relative thing -- this was easier for me than for him, because
I didn't have anyone in my life to lie to, so I didn't have cause to feel false
in exactly the same way he did. And anyway, I never could remember that he was
anyone else's. From the first time we made love, it seemed as if he were mine.
It's not like I had any prior experience with married men, but once David and
I had slept together he seemed irrevocably a part of me. (You certainly have
taken to adultery like a duck to water, my mother commented early on, her
voice a little like the late Selma Diamond's. The word startled me. Adultery.
What could I say? I'd always thought of sex as a baptism of sorts, the confirmation
of union. This wasn't something I was prepared to think about objectively.)
And though I can honestly say I didn't chase him, I can't pretend I ever resisted
much either, when he came after me. And I did allow him to catch and keep me,
once I started loving him. Once love happens, sex doesn't feel wrong in the least,
even when it could be called adulterous by your mother. And others, if they knew
What I've learned about sex is that as long as you're in love it feels like a
sacrament. (I only hope my daughter's not turning into a tootsie, my mother
said.) Soon after that and her adultery comment, I started asking David things.
About his marriage. It's hard to talk about it, he said. Here I am, 44 years old
. . . I've got two grown kids who think their parents have got the perfect marriage.
Have you? I asked.
Well, we don't argue much.
Do you talk?
Not a lot.
Do you love her? I asked, feeling that really it was none of my business, but
still I needed to know.
History is a very powerful thing, he answered.
That night at home alone in my bed, I lay awake for a long time picturing him
asleep with her, and I thought of all the men in novels who say, My wife doesn't
understand me or I haven't loved her in years. A week or two after
that, late one afternoon at a seafood place on the wharf, I asked him again. I'd
been thinking about it a lot, and it was something I had to know. so. I asked.
Do you love her?
We've been together since we were practically kids, Paulie. We raised two children
Suddenly I realized that his evasiveness on the subject hadn't been because he
was trying to convince me that he didn't love his wife, the way married
men in novels do when they talk to their lovers. It was the opposite. I didn't
ask him again. It was too sad. I just ate my fish. We sat there picking flakes
of white flesh from the fishbones on our plates, nibbling and looking out the
windows onto the dark teal water. After a while, he just started talking again,
out of the blue.
I feel responsible for her, he said -- I care about her. He looked at his plate,
then up. I -- look, Paulie, I never knew about this. I didn't know a man and a
woman could be friends like this and have passion too. Now I don't know if I,
if I ever did. Love her. Now that I love you. But that's not her fault, is it?
No, I said. No, it's not.
We sat there for a long time, till the sky and the water went dark. I would like
to cry about all this, but I keep hearing my mother telling me, You're 35 -- you've
only got about five good years left -- keep crying and I'll give you two and a
half. But crying is such a pleasure at times like this, a sensual swim, a relinquishment
of caution. What a gyp.
I can think of three pleasures of the flesh that won't devastate you physically
-- the three S's: sleeping, shitting, and sex. Not only will they not deplete
your youthful vitality but in fact, two of the three -- lovemaking and slumber
-- can actually make you younger and more beautiful. Of course, some people believe
that moving the bowels keeps one's skin clear, but by and large it is the one
of the three which does the least for your appearance, either during or after
the act. For example, many men will tell you later how beautiful you looked while
asleep or during sex, but no one claims that a woman's face takes on an ethereal
cast while she is planted on a toilet, concentrating. Which is not to say one
doesn't become more beautiful during that act, but I don't know anyone who invites
her lover to witness it and we do not tend to watch ourselves in the mirror then
either, so who knows what we look like at that moment? All we can say, really,
is that it is a great pleasure which does not adversely affect one's looks.
One man who may know more on this subject than most is Chuck Berry. I read yesterday
in the Chronicle that he is being sued for allegedly planting video cameras in
the ladies' room at his restaurant so he could film women peeing and emptying
their bowels, they all the while unaware that he would soon be finding his perverse
gratification, as the suit calls it, watching their solitary moments. I happened
to see the article just after the fateful phone call. I was trying not to hate
David, and I guess I transferred all my anger to Chuck. For taking advantage of
It's not something I like to mention, but when David broke the news this time
I was sitting on the toilet, having just experienced one of the three sensual
pleasures that will not age you. To say the least I was dismayed by the timing,
caught there astride porcelain while his words stumbled over the wire and ended
with his halting explanation of how he'd feared he wouldn't stick to his resolve
if he told me face to face.
In retrospect, I'm disgusted with myself for the fleeting relief I felt that he
couldn't see me right then, on the can; that he would not carry that last image
of me away into his future. Why should I care how he remembers me? And anyway,
why deny him the full range of my beauty?
Since I couldn't cry, eat, or drink -- and since sleep and sex seemed beyond reach
-- I did what any thinking person would do. I turned on the TV. To submerge my
grief. It was a cold night, the bedroom clock was stuttering, and I thought maybe
I heard my upstairs neighbor, Fidel, trying to break through my bedroom window.
Fidel has been arrested six times for breaking and entering -- and burglarizing
-- and then let go, pending trial. I've read it in the paper. They printed our
address. So far he's been smart enough to break and enter in the good parts of
the city where no one knows him.
I would like to move from this neighborhood -- maybe even out of the Mission entirely,
like to that nice apartment my friend Sue is vacating on Chenery Street next month
-- it's a calm, clean neighborhood, and I already know the couple in the other
side of the house, but the rent is way higher there and anyway it costs a certain
amount just to move. I'm a little short on money right now. I used the last of
my savings to go to Italy with David last spring. He offered to pay, but I didn't
want to be a tootsie.
Besides, I had a pretty fair amount saved up from works I'd sold. But of course
I was between jobs and living on those savings by then, too, having just quit
a job as secretary to three liver transplant specialists. I had to quit -- it
had begun to seem as if organs were seeping into my art. Everything I painted
was a deep puce, a wet-looking red or brain gray. An artist has to think of those
things, even if it hurts the pocketbook. And I know it was right to quit, because
since that time my work has taken a real turn and I've begun what I think may
be the best stuff I've ever done: figurative oils, all showing the same woman
in a series of red rooms, looking out a window.
I realize that it was a little reckless to spend my savings on travel when I was
out of work, but it seemed as if everything was telling me to go. For one thing,
he asked me. David had never invited me along on one of his trips before
-- he was always too worried that he would feel guilty once we got there, and
that would ruin it all. Also, since I was between jobs it was the first time in
ages I was actually free to go away. And besides all that, I wanted to be with
him, really wanted it.
Anyway, David invited me along, saying he needed me with him and would have to
adjust to being in love sometime. He had to present a paper in Florence about
how technology is changing art. Maybe someday I'll be invited to speak on the
impact of organ transplants on art.
We found a room in the Pensione Rosalena, which had been converted from a 16th
century convent. It was evening when we arrived, and the owner, Signora Calderoni,
thought for a while before allowing that she could give us a room. She had no
vacancies, she said at first, but then she seemed to sense our disappointment
and said maybe she had one room, not fancy. We followed her wide hips through
wide and narrow tiled halls and saw sculptures everywhere we walked, all clearly
the work of one artist. Later we heard that she was the widow of a sculptor, and
it was his work all over the place, nude studies of women in bronze and marble,
all of them with sizeable asses and a smile somewhere between shy and sly. Signora
Calderoni led us to a small cluttered bedroom, and wished us buona notte.
She had a knowing look on her face as she turned to leave, and when she stopped
at the door and looked back at us for a moment, I recognized that smile. Then
she walked out, closing the door softly behind her.
We're here, David said then, and he looked so funny -- proud, in a way, as if
he'd overcome a lot of fears and anxieties to get us there. And of course I knew
It seemed, for the first time, as if we were a real couple, with a place of our
Of course, it wasn't our own -- even beyond being a rented room in a pension in
Florence, Italy, it was no ordinary room for rent -- it was clear that our room
must belong to the widow's son, because it was full of someone's clothes and personal
things, and the walls were covered with Communist posters.
I carried my overnight bag into a tiny dark bathroom with an uneven tile floor
and harsh, raspberry sherbet-colored toilet paper. The shower was a primitively
rigged affair over wooden slats -- I wondered if hundreds of years ago the nuns
had used a basin and a pitcher in this same little space. I stood beneath the
puny stream of lukewarm water and let it drench my hair, run over my face, soak
into all of me. I could hear it drumming the wood beneath me, and when I opened
my eyes I watched the water disappear between the slats around my feet. It's
me here, I thought. I dried myself hurriedly, suddenly eager, aware of David
waiting in bed for me.
At first I felt shy making love there, thinking of the widow, of her revolutionary
son, thinking of the nuns long ago saying their evening office in the lavender
air, but then sudden purple lightning in the night sky through the window above
our bed, his mouth so gentle and wet on me, the smell of the old quilt beneath
us like the smell of my Grandma Irma's old trunk of mildewy dresses kept in the
garage for dress-up all through my childhood, that cool cool smell of history,
that breath of past and future, and all the while his tongue pushing in and the
iron bed creaking sweetly, rain thrumming the windowglass, somewhere a woman's
The next day while we waited for the travel agent to reconfirm our flight to Rome
our names came up on the screen, and that's when I saw it: Phyllis Gold.
Just beneath my name. His name, my name, her name. He'd apparently been unsure
until the last just which of us he'd be taking along. I looked up at him in some
confusion and then saw tears in his eyes and I'm sorry, he said, I just
feel so false.
He started feeling terribly guilty then -- I think just seeing her name there
on the screen had a powerful effect on him. The funny part is, I was actually
glad to see he felt that way -- I'd even be worried, I guess, if he didn't. But
still I felt sad, alone, left out all of a sudden. Even after we got to Rome the
mood persisted in both of us. On at least one occasion James Joyce persuaded Nora
Barnacle to defecate for his erotic diversion. And though I can't relate to that
at all, anyone would have to allow that maybe Nora's face was transformed before
her husband's eyes during the act, but it's too late now to ask him and I sincerely
doubt that his heirs would know or say. Anyway, come to think of it, I believe
that he was stationed at her rear the whole time watching, and she wore clean
white bloomers, which according to his letters was the point. Pulled down around
her thighs. So let's forget the face theory. Obviously we still have no witnesses,
at least none who will come forward.
I will always wish I'd been in a bubble bath or on a mountain when we broke up,
so at least I could have a beautiful mental picture of that moment to keep with
me. In lieu of him, whom I cannot keep with me. Because he is a married man who
loves me but who feels too guilty to tell his wife the truth after all those years.
21. As opposed to these years. Four.
I feel responsible for her, he told me. She was so young when I married
her. So were you, I reminded him. I didn't mention the fact that she never
did support his decision to quit medicine and pursue his art. I didn't mention
that she spends the money from that laser art faster than the speed of light.
The fact is, that's not the point. The point is, well, I don't know what the point
is. But that's not it. I'm pretty sure of that.
The doubleness really gets me, he said, and yet I don't seem to have the courage
to leave her. I'm afraid of hurting her, afraid of what my kids will think, afraid
of going through all that pain.
Why did you pursue me then? I asked him, and then couldn't seem to stop asking
him. Do you think I wanted to love you? Why did you make me love you? What's the
deal with you? Why'd you come after me anyway?
I couldn't help it, Paulie, once we talked to each other for an hour. I already
loved you by then. You can believe it or not. I couldn't help it. Now the worst
thing is, I know I'll never be happy without you -- now that I know what it is
to have you.
Then why be without me?
I can't take the falseness, he said, can't tell Phyllis the truth.
There seemed to be nothing left for me to say at that point. My mother has seen
Phyllis in Saks having her face done at the Orlane counter several times. She's
very beautiful, my mother says. My mother is a pain. What will I do without you
to talk to? he asked me just before he hung up. As if this weren't all his own
idea. That's what gets me sometimes, the way he creates his own drama and then
revels in it as if it had been visited upon him. I didn't know how to reply to
him so I just said someone was at my door. He offered to wait while I got it,
but I knew that he was just wondering jealously if it was another man so I thanked
him, signed off, and let him stew.
Last night, by coincidence, Chuck Berry was on the Tonight Show. Angry as I was
with him for the alleged camera in the toilet, I had to admit it took a lot of
courage for him to go before the American public so soon, singing and duckwalking
like that, when all anyone could see at first had to be an image of him watching
those poor seated women on film, a bottle of Taittinger chilling in a bucket beside
him, a sweet leer on his face. He got a standing ovation. At about midnight, my
mother called to say Hey Paulie, I just remembered the cutest thing -- when you
were little you came to me one day in the kitchen and said Mama I know what adultery
is -- it's when little kids try to act too grown up.
I'm sure she was just checking to see if I was okay.
She'd already called me earlier to see if I wanted to accompany her to bingo tonight.
My mother drives all the way across town once a week for Ladies' Bingo Nite at
the Mission Dolores. My Jewish mother. When I declined to go along, she said For
God's sake, Paulie, you're still young, you've got your whole life ahead of you.
And? I said.
And so you should be having fun. Come to bingo with me, it's a ball.
I could picture it, and somehow I didn't think I'd feel all that young, my whole
life ahead of me and all that, with a bunch of old Catholic women and one bossy
old Jewish one, pressing numbers on bingo boards while ice skating music blared
over the P.A.
Sorry, Ma, I have to wash my hair, I told her, knowing full well that my mother
didn't just fall off the turnip truck.
If all those boys didn't believe that excuse when you were growing up, she said
mildly, why should you expect your mother to believe it now?
I don't, I said. Funny thing about Chuck on Tonight: I was all prepared to hate
him for the toilet thing, and then when Jay Leno asked him who he would cast as
himself in a movie of his life, Chuck answered without pause or hesitation, Oh
they'd have to go and dig up Burton, 'cause no one else could play me as good
as Richard could. The Chuck Berry Story starring Richard Burton. The late
Richard Burton. How could I hate him after that?
My father was a Welshman, like Burton was. He died eight years ago, but my mother
never dates. She has a homosexual friend about her age at Saks -- James -- who
takes her anywhere a man is required. James is a saint. The rest of the time she
goes out with the other cosmetics ladies or just stays home. Except for bingo.
I asked her once if she'd missed having a man in her life since Daddy died, and
she rolled her eyes and said Your father was plenty for one life, thank you very
much. It was hard to tell if that was her highest compliment or her worst insult.
I didn't feel up to pursuing it at the time. Still don't. Chuck Berry is 63 years
old, and he can still do the splits onstage while playing his guitar. And he is
so good looking, has the most beautiful skin. It's hard to say exactly when youth
is over. Maybe we should go ahead and ask Chuck about the faces. He may be the
only man in America who knows. I woke up in a low mood this morning. Didn't even
try to paint today, first day in years I can remember not painting. It's been
an uphill struggle all these months anyway, trying to get out from under the weight
of those organs. Now my heart is broken and I can't cry. Who needs this aggravation.
I watched every single thing on CBS tonight. Starting with Dan Rather. He said
woof. I couldn't believe that Dan Rather, an anchor on a national network news
show, would say woof, but he did. It was his intro to a story about wolves in
the timberland of the United States: We've been conditioned to regard the woof
as our natural enemy, he said. At least four times he said woof. Timberwoof,
he said. Little boy who cried woof. Wooves. It just goes to show, you can
do anything at all with your life, can rise to any heights, if only you want something
David called to say he is trying not to call me.
Mother was at Ladies' Bingo Nite, so I didn't hear from her.
After Dan Rather, I watched everything else on CBS until the Star Spangled Banner,
in search of more inspiration. But nothing came up to Dan saying woof. That, I'd
have to say, was the high point of my day. It was a ray of hope.
Maybe in a couple of days it would be okay to call David and let him know that
I, too, am trying not to call. But no. I guess not. Because all that would be,
really, is just me trying to find out what's going to happen to us.
I was thinking, if anyone is going to ask Chuck Berry about the faces, they'd
better think to do it now, while he's alive. But maybe it would be wrong to know,
to see those women's secret faces angelic, enlivened by the thrill of impending
certainty that shivers up their sphincters, the clarity of that one moment of
delivery. Even then. Especially then. After all, there are some things we may
not be meant to know right now on the earth. Maybe it's better simply to wonder.
Originally published in the June/September
1994 issue of Boston Review