So in this dream, it’s always the same. The one-armed man is holding up a sign with my name on it, and it’s not until we’re within striking distance that I remember that the limb is prosthetic. He responds to my eyes and smiles. Taking my bags, he asks about the flight, about my plans in the city, about what it is I do, all without any real curiosity. I observe that his lips do not move as he switches from one topic to the next, unoffended by my knowing silence. I slip into the backseat of the stretch limo and am struck all over again by how much larger it looks once you’re inside. A faint trace of jasmine perfumes the uncirculated air, referring me back to a sadness on the other side of the world.
“Narcissus romancing the waves,” he says, as if in response to a question I never asked.
As usual, there is an uncorked bottle of champagne on ice and a violin rubbing off the notes of its sad sonata through concealed speakers. But when the chauffeur slams down the trunk, there is suddenly something false, something not quite right about the reverberating air, as if the sound effects studio of my unconscious had misplaced the correct audio file and made do with dubbing in the sound of a heavy body hitting the floor in a long, narrow corridor instead. When I hear that dull thud is when I realize for the first time that I have no idea where it is I’m supposed to be going. I’m further into the dream than I’ve ever been. The chauffeur climbs into the driver’s seat and asks, a little too innocently, where to. I’m terrified by the thought that I’ve somehow missed my chance to awake. He smiles, knowingly, as if I were the figment inside his recurrent dream, and repeats his question secretly amused. I’m at a loss. I can’t think of a single legitimate address. I turn the pockets of my mind inside out, and finally give him Anna’s address because it’s the only one I can recall, but of course my lips reflected in the rearview mirror haven’t moved at all. The chauffeur laughs to himself and tries to start the engine which is having trouble turning over. Again, there’s something about the sound that is just not right.
It’s a windy Sunday morning when I finally get out of bed. I’d been weaving this rustle and roar into the narrative of the dream, shrugging off the details that threatened to hold significance. I notice a discrepancy between the time displayed on my cell phone and the clock, and realize that the hour or so I’d just wasted lying awake in bed has been given back to me. Spring ahead, fall back. I step quietly through the penthouse adjusting all the clocks, put on a large pot of coffee, and watch it brew. I pour a cup carelessly, and end up scalding my hand. I manage to suppress the cry of pain. I look around the penthouse at the people sleeping on sofas and under tables, and have to admit that the parties have been getting lamer. Fewer people bother to show, and those that do tend not to get invited to better parties. I finish dressing, grab the letter, and make my exit. No one stirs.
A couple of teenaged girls saw past the cowboy hat and sunglasses, whispered to each other, and giggled on by. I dropped the letter in the mailbox and whistled for a cab. As one screeched to a halt, I turned to see the two girls standing on the corner smoking cigarettes, observing me. The more attractive of the two waved shyly. Another time, another place, I thought, and got in.
The penthouse had cleared out by the time I got back. I stepped onto the balcony and re-lit a half-smoked joint that had been wedged into a gap in the brim of the ashtray, agonized again by whether everything in the letter had been made perfectly unambiguous. I was able by then to recite all six pages. Even after I confirmed for the fifth time that the letter was flawless, guarding against every possible misconstrual, it still troubled me, this not knowing how it would be received.
At a quarter past ten the next morning, the phone rang. It was another windy day, and I’d been lying in bed remembering all sorts of things about the one-armed chauffeur.
“Hi. It’s me.” I hadn’t heard her voice in over a year, but recognized it immediately. Just as she’d expected.
“How are you?”
I didn’t know where to begin. So much had happened. So many mistakes made when all I ever did was go with the flow. My mind returned to the letter I’d sent yesterday. It was probably still sitting in the perfect darkness of the mailbox along with all the other yet to be delivered correspondence. It was still sinking in that she’d been thinking of me independently of all the thinking I’d distilled into those six pages.
“Failing better,” I replied, referencing an old joke between us. I laughed alone. “And you?”
“Getting married,” she said stiffly.
“I see,” was all I could manage.
“I wanted you to hear it from me first.”
And just like that, all the ambiguities of the year that divided us congealed. It’d really happened in exactly the way I’d always worried it had, irrevocably.
“You know. I didn’t want you to hear it from someone else. That’s all. I think I owed you that much.”
“Thanks for the courtesy, kiddo, but you don’t owe me anything.” I never hated my voice more than I did just then. I was a fool, and she would know it the minute she opened my letter if she didn’t already. But for now, as humiliating as it would be later on, I continued to act casually, as if the letter had never existed.
After we’d hung up, I continued to think of ways to prevent the letter from reaching her hands, but setting the mailbox on fire or assaulting a postal worker were both considered felonies, and I wasn’t so interested in spending any more time behind bars.
A sharp signal of dread shot from cell to cell until I felt completely overpowered, paralyzed by voices intoning things in a language only I could understand.
…the reasons why you got to where you wanted were the reasons why you did not want it once you got there even though it was not until you got there that you recognized what it was you really wanted some time well after you could no longer have it revealing the precise moment where loss began and you ended up with an intimate understanding of the tragic nature of loss as the release of true value…
I cupped my ears and thought about what it would be like to not exist.
“You’re such a fucking cliché,” I heard her say. It still hurt all the same a whole year after she’d said it.
The next day, I took a cab to the Lower East Side, and got off around the corner from where she lived. A fat, sweaty man jogged by in a well-worn t-shirt with my face stretched and faded on it. He looked at me without making the connection. I glanced up and down the street, but no mail carrier, and no Anna. I checked into The Rivington across the street from her building, asking for a low floor facing the street. The person behind the front desk asked if I had any bags since I’d paid for the rest of the week in advance. I shook my head. When he handed me a key card for my room, I noticed that his other hand was in a cast and experienced a moment of déjà vu. I gave him another few seconds to recognize me, but he showed no indication that he would. I shook my head again, but only after he looked away.
The room was elegant, expensive, and small, but the view was all that really mattered to me. An hour passed by the window, but still no Anna, and no mail carrier. I hadn’t expected the letter to arrive the very next day, but I wanted to give myself a chance to familiarize myself with the routines of these two people, their comings and goings. I thought of calling Santa to bring over a bottle of Jameson’s, a box of cigars, and maybe my acoustic guitar or a deck of cards to pass the time, but thought better of it. It was his day off after all. Besides, I wasn’t too keen on getting him involved in another shenanigan. That night in jail we shared for a little public lewdness wasn’t exactly the bonding experience I’d tried to sell him on. As things stood, I doubted he would be sticking around past the holidays.
The room grew dim. Night would continue to fall just a little bit earlier for the rest of the year. I turned on the TV and ordered room service. The porter brought up a bottle of bourbon and a pack of Nat Sherman’s with my dinner. A porterhouse steak, medium rare. I sent him away with a generous tip.
But I lost my appetite a third of the way into it. Idle channel surfing had landed me on one of those whatever-happened-to celebrity documentaries on cable. I’d forgotten it was on tonight. My thumb grazed the power button on the remote, but I couldn’t bring myself to turn off the set. I felt a great cleaving of myself and my self on TV, of truth and fiction, of thought and action. The narrator summarized the arc of the band’s celebrity in the first five minutes accompanied by a mad montage of clips from concerts, interviews and magazine covers that mocked memory. This was my story in the hands of the media—clear, cogent, persuasively presented, and as destructively distortive as could be. They showed the clip of me getting friendly with a couple of young groupies. That sort of stuff happened all the time with everyone in show business, but usually wasn’t publicized unless you pissed off someone in the media. The program cut to commercial with the dramatically voiced question, “But where are they now?”
I watched an ad for erectile dysfunction, hoping everyone else had the integrity to decline the interview requests.
I punched the power button, unwilling to find out, and considered flinging the remote across the room, but the fact of the matter was I was just not that upset. I set the knife and fork down, calmly, and considered lighting a cigarette. I didn’t particularly want one just then, but it was something to do. As I brought the cupped flame to the cigarette dangling from my lips, Anna’s light came on.
She unburdened herself of her equipment. She had probably just come in from a photo shoot. She had cropped her hair short and wore a tan, aboriginal looking dress with a knit shawl. I checked the time. It was a little past nine. She drew her blinds, leaving me to pass an uneventful night by the window, measuring out my longing in cigarettes and bourbon shots long after her lights went out.
She left the next morning at 8:30 wearing jeans and a light, collarless leather jacket. The equipment seemed too much for her, but maybe it was more unwieldy than heavy. She disappeared around the corner, no doubt heading for the subway station on East Houston. Like me, she’d spent the night alone. The difference, I assumed, was that she got some sleep. Where was this alleged fiancé?
The mail carrier arrived shortly after 11:00, as he did the day before. I decided to venture out since the letter’s arrival was a distinct possibility today. I treated this like any other errand. Like picking up dry cleaning, one of many acts I’d begun performing myself lately.
This would be easy as long as no one recognized me. I even still had the keys to everything. I donned my cowboy hat and sunglasses, and checked myself in the mirror before leaving the room.
A whole week had passed and still no letter. I’d lost faith in God and the US postal system. I didn’t see the point of waiting out another week. I checked out of the hotel, flipped through Anna’s mail one last time, and got into a cab back to the penthouse. It was time for a shower. A whole week was pushing it.
In the cab ride home, I was annoyed at myself for knowing all the random, incidental information I collected from flipping through her mail. So what that she subscribed to new agey magazines or that her mother had absurdly neat penmanship and had apparently moved to someplace called King’s Ransom, Tennessee? So what that her fiance’s name was Daniel, and that he was currently staying at the Four Seasons in Indonesia?
Santa was standing by the phone going through what, judging from his expression, could easily have been about two dozen messages on the machine. He looked up when I entered and grimaced.
“You’ve got to work on that smile of yours.”
“Where’ve you been?”
“Stakeout at the Rivington,” I whispered conspiratorily.
Santa cocked his head dismissively, and started going over everything I’d missed, including an afternoon set at Webster Hall, during the week of my unexplained absence. He must’ve decided it was just another one of my convoluted jokes. He chided me for my irresponsibility. Weren’t we trying to play Webster Hall for months? He ran down the short list of venues in the coming weeks, but I’d stopped paying much attention to the details, distracted by the letter I’d written, which was sitting on top of a small stack of letters bound in a blue rubber band on the table in the foyer.
“Naturally,” I assured him, responding more to the sudden rise in tone of his voice. “Just don’t call me on it.”
“I’m trying to salvage what’s left of your career here, man. The least you could do is show up when I land you a gig.”
He shook his head and pushed a button on the machine which announced that a message had been deleted.
“Look Santa, I’ll make the next one. You have my word. I don’t care where or when it is. Just no weddings, okay? And definitely, definitely not Anna’s.”
The name released a silence in each of us.
“You already knew?”
His turn to nod. We synchronized out sighs.
“You’ll get through this.”
He looked undecided about something.
“I’m gonna go. I’ll call you in the morning.”
“And take a shower. You stink,” he smiled sadly and closed the door behind him.
I listened to his footfalls fade. The elevator dinged, slid open and slid shut. I was alone. I removed the blue rubber band from the stack of mail, and examined the letter stamped undeliverable. I’d forgotten to affix a stamp. I tore up the letter and disposed of it in the trash bin, deciding to take Santa’s advice for once to wash away the sordid week.
I took the BMW out to the recording studios in Jersey the next day. I might as well enjoy it before they took that away too. It was a nice enough day to put the top down, but when I got on the bridge, I had to roll up the windows and blast the heater to stay comfortable. It no longer amused me to test the machine’s limits of speed. I’d gotten the idea into my head one empty night of pushing the hand of the speedometer as far around as possible, just to see if the machine could really handle it. And when it did, I tested how fast I could circle Manhattan, criss-cross the bridges over the East River, hit the Hamptons and back. That small thrill inspired a B-side single that was never released. A lot of things stopped interesting me. Now I stay within 10 mph of the posted speed limit. I took the upper level for a view of the clouds retreating over the cliffs of the Palisades, and didn’t attempt to break my record of thirty-seven seconds to the other side. Lesser automotive machines zoomed past on my left.
I pulled into the parking lot and lit up a joint. The world slowly loosened its grip on my mind, sublimating everything into music. I wanted consciousness to evolve and stay like this forever. I put up the top and pulled my Fender out of the trunk. Inside, framed headshots of dead legends lined the corridor from Morrison to Cobain. There was still space on the walls for future suicides. I wasn’t the first person to have asked Paul to take down the mirror at the end of the hall.
I revisited my entire approach to the song I’d been tinkering with for the past couple of months. I felt I had discovered the missing ingredient at the Rivington. Maybe the week wasn’t an entire waste after all. What the music lacked, and the lyrics overcompensated for, was a mood of losing things with an equanimity that bordered on indifference, but the missing spice, the flavor that tied everything together and set the palette on fire, was the wanting to care.
We ordered some Korean at the end of a four hour stretch. Paul looked at the wooden chopsticks apprehensively.
“Go ahead. Use your fingers. We’re all friends here.” It was just us two and Romeo, his Maltese.
“What the hell is this? Tentacles?”
“Squid. Try it. It’s spicy. You like spicy.”
We continued eating in silence, and finished the first bottle of soju before he broached the subject.
“So what’s with all this moody shit? You decide to be an artist all of a sudden?”
I snorted and refilled our empty shot glasses.
“I’m not saying I don’t like it, but you’re killing your career here, and no one can understand why.”
I dipped another tentacle into the vinegary red pepper paste and chewed on it thoughtfully.
“Maybe you’re thinking, Man, I’m not cut out for this shit. Everyone thinks that. Ain’t that right, dawg?”
Romeo sat up on his hind legs, and started pumping his paws. “That’s right, dawg. Churning the butter,” he smiled, allowing the tone of his voice to rise and fall playfully as he spoke.
I smiled in spite of myself. “Don’t give him any though. It’s not good for him.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” he agreed. “Anyway, what the hell was I saying?”
I knocked back another shot which made him snap his fingers.
“Not cut out for this? That’s horseshit is what it is. I should know. I see you. You work harder than anyone I know. And I’ve been in this biz since you were his size,” he said indicating Romeo with his thumb.
“Did you see the thing on cable last week? About the band?”
His uncomfortable silence confirmed he had, and put an end to the conversation. I despised him a little for trying to save me from myself.
“I was just saying.”
He reached for another tentacle with his chopsticks. It got away from him and fell to the floor. Romeo stopped begging and made a lunge for it, but I’d covered it with my foot before he could get to it. He sniffed at my foot and started begging again. I ignored him as Paul and I finished our meal, absorbed in our own separate thoughts.
On my way out, I stopped in front of the mirror in the hall of suicides, vaguely remembering the sound of a body hitting the floor. I stared at my reflection for a long time wondering where you had to be in your mind to make taking your own life make sense. I lit my cigarette, and my reflection lit his. Nothing mattered. Nothing was the matter. The matter was that nothing mattered. The nothing that mattered was a matter of life and death. We exhaled a sigh of blue smoke that seemed to mix and mingle along the cold surface of the mirror. No. If I were to do it, it would’ve got done a long time ago.