Thursday, April 9, 2009

After the Planet Uranus

She was a good-looking woman, though I didn't appreciate it at the time. Greek. Ourania, her name. After the planet Uranus, third largest and seventh from the sun. Pronounced: ooh-ray-née-yah. Small, dark, petite. She came into the snack bar of the state college in Connecticut where I was an undergraduate. I had transferred out of two other schools. This was my third, and, I swore, would be my last. At twenty-three I was older than most of my fellow undergrads, a dubious distinction that I wore as a kind of ragged badge, thinking of myself as having been "out there in the real world." Thinking of myself as worldly, jaded.

Everything about her was oval. Her eyes, her cheeks, her lip, the overall shape of her head. She looked like a collection of eggs from all different kinds of birds. I was sitting there, alone at one of the big tables in the snack bar, plucking the Spanish guitar that someone had given me in exchange for an art school drawing. She introduced herself.

"I think we should get to know each other," she said.

I said, "What for?"

She drove an oval car, an Anerican Motors Pacer. It looked like an egg on wheels, like something hatched rather than built. Ourania's egg-like quality should have made her seem cute to me, since eggs are cute. But it only made her that much more ridiculous (eggs are also ridiculous). In her giant red egg she pulled up my driveway the afternoon after we first met. I remember thinking, God, here we go.

It was winter. There were still a few inches of snow left on the ground from a storm a few days before. My parents were away, gone off on a rare trip together somewhere in Mexico. My twin brother was away at Drew in New Jersey—or was it Duke in North Carolina? I never could get George's colleges straight. But then I never got anything straight back in those days.

It was strange having that big house all to myself. The day before the storm I had been sitting alone in the living room when I heard a strange scratching sound coming from the fireplace that we never used. Squirrels were known to get trapped in there. I figured it must be a squirrel, and jiggled the flue. With a feathery flop something brown fell to the fireplace floor, then took off and sailed across the room, straight into the far wall, where it fell to the floor again. It picked itself up and flew on into the dining room, where I found it perched on the china hutch: an owl. For the next two days that screech owl was my constant companion. I sat there with guitar serenading it, and it sat up there staring at me with those two yellow eyes, so big they all bit filled the creature’s face. We didn’t let each other out of sight. Finally, having failed to get it to eat raw hamburger, I caught it and threw it outdoors and watched it fly away.

Though the house was empty, and we would have been more comfortable there, Ourania, who had grown up on a barren island in the Cyclades, insisted that we go into the woods. We carried a blanket and a thermos of hot tea, our boots crunching through snow and cracking twigs. I remember, as we walked carrying a blanket and a bottle of wine, seeing through the thin layer of snow the broken remnants of childhood toys my brother and I had played with, shards of green plastic tanks and other war-game gear, a plastic helmet, a plastic hand-grenade. The woods hadn't changed. Only the games were different. Make love, not war. We climbed higher to a grassy clearing and stretched the blanket over the snow.

A few days later she found me in the snack bar again. "I want you to know that I'm leaving my husband," she said. I hadn't even known she was married, or maybe I'd forgotten. I said, "Why tell me?"

She said, "I thought you'd want to know, that's all."

Through the whole rest of that semester she kept after me. I made it clear I wasn't interested, that we'd had a fling and that was that. She wouldn't give up. I tried being reasonable, I tried being rude. I even laughed at her. Nothing I did or said could dissuade her. Finally, when the semester ended, I moved back to New York City, and figured that would end it.

It didn't. She kept after me. Letters and phone calls. I finally said to her, "What is wrong with you?" But the letters kept coming, so did the calls. I'd hang up on her; she'd call back. I had to change my phone number, it got so bad.

I started out knowing why I was telling this story and now I've forgotten.

I'd been in New York for about six months, struggling with my friend Mark Borax to make it as a musician, playing gigs in seedy, empty dives, living in a ratty tenement over the Holland Tunnel, where the grease fumes from the coffee shop downstairs saturated the air in our bedrooms, and the noise and flashing lights from the tunnel obliterated sleep. Gruesome times, these were. To pay the rent we worked in a Xerox shop, sucking toner fumes and dealing with angry customers who complained when their copies weren't straight. One day, home from work, as I climbed the tenement's twisty staircase, I twisted my ankle. The next day I couldn't get to work and so the boss fired me. I found myself unemployed and desperate.

Then a letter from Ourania came. She was living in New York, working as a typographer at a midtown advertising agency. "I hire freelancers," she wrote. She could pay up to $35 dollars an hour. Good money back then. "If you like," she wrote, "I can teach you."

What choice did I have? I wrote her back right away and said I was willing. She told me to meet her at the agency the following Saturday morning. We spent the day there, alone in the empty ad agency, with me learning typesetting code. Afterward we had dinner together, her treat. When I asked her why she was being so nice to me, she said, "Because I like you."

A few weeks later, when I'd learned to set type and was freelancing regularly at her agency while still living in that smelly, noisy hole over the Holland Tunnel, Ourania asked me if I would like to move in with her. I didn't hesitate. I said yes. By then, I was so grateful to her for having bailed me out of my crashing life, I would have agreed to almost anything she wanted of me. Who was I, after all, to turn down her hospitality—I who had made such a botch of my own existence, and who owed my sustenance to her?

So I broke my lease, packed up my things, and went to Astoria, where she lived near the second to last stop on the R elevated line, in a neighborhood of low, ugly, flat-roofed buildings sprinkled with Greek cafes. These days Astoria has some panache, but back then it was a dreary nowhere land. Even the fruits and vegetables on display at the corner grocery stands looked unhappy. The railway bridge, which soared over the neighborhood on massive, stone, Roman aqueduct pylons, cast its shadow over a park where children and adults played, and which, though green and full of trees, oppressed me no less than everything else in the vicinity. It was as if George Seurat's La Grande Jatte had been piled onto a barge and tugged to Hell.

As for Ourania's apartment that we lived in, about it I remember as little as possible, beyond its being a one-bedroom over a garage. In its modest dining alcove Ourania had installed a massive oak dining table meant to seat twelve, with the ludicrous result that on could not move around the goddamn thing; you had to get up and push all the chairs against the wall, and even then it was hard to circumnavigate. We had our first fight over and about that table when I suggested, insisted, that she remove a leaf or two. But no: she wished to impart the illusion that we entertained guests in great numbers and high style—to whom I cannot say, since we never had any guests, ever. Furthermore, and like everything else in the apartment, the dining table was covered with a thick polyurethane sheet; I assume it was polyurethane, or polystyrene, or some other substance with a hideous chemical pedigree. Sofa, chairs, pillows—everything but the coffee table was swathed in this substance that might have been used to manufacture body bags. The effect was to make the apartment's already funereal cheap reproduction Louis XIV furnishings look embalmed. In fact a smell of formaldehyde did indeed linger throughout the apartment's three rooms. This may have been from the fixative that I used to spray the pastel drawings I had started to make around then, or it may have been the solvent Ourania used to dissolve the hideous scarlet nail polish she wore, or her hairspray, or it may have been the polyurethane coverings. Whatever it was had a high ether content. It's odor permeated every sip of beverage or bite of food I took in that place.

We did a lot of fighting in that apartment. Oh, we fought like dogs. Worse, like cats we fought. Though she was quite little, with fists small enough for me to wrap mine around, still, she could pack quite a punch. I would wake up the next day with bruises and welts all over my arms and chest. She threw things, too. Along with the cheap Louis XIV furniture, the apartment bristled with cheesy ornate vases and other decorative objects of glass. These were what Ourania threw when she got angry, to where I wondered was that what she'd bought them for in the first place?

To get away from her vases and our fights, I'd take my pastels and sketchpad out into the streets of Astoria and sketch the bums living in our neighborhood. There was a group of them living in an abandoned playground nearby, that did nothing but pass around bottles of hootch in brown paper bags. I still remember their names: Jimmy, Red, Tex. They sat around there day after day, sucking from what appeared to be the same wrinkled bag. Their clothes, their gestures, the way they talked, suggested another era, as if they had been beamed into that apocalyptic landscape from 1932, brown bag and all. I found them amusing, but mostly because I dreaded going home. I dreaded the fights, sure, but I also dreaded the lovemaking that followed them just as surely as mushrooms follow a spring rain, and which was the only way out of those fights: a lovemaking that, for me, felt as obligatory as emptying the trash, or hauling ashes from a furnace. I got to hating our lovemaking as much as I hated the fighting that gave way to it. And if all that wasn't enough to not look forward to, I hated her cooking, too. Though her father was a professional cook, Ourania had apparently inherited none of his gift. She would bake spaghetti in the oven, as Greeks apparently do, but she would either burn the stuff or drown it in grease. Whatever she put in the oven she burned. I'd come home to thick acrid clouds and charred meat, and have to sit at that miserable dining room table chiseling my way through dinner like some famished Michelangelo. If I offered to cook myself, Ourania would burst into tears, equating my offer with her failure, one of her many failures, including her failure to get me to love her.

Oh, I tried, I really did. I wanted to love Ourania. I felt that she deserved my love, that she had earned it, and that I owed it to her. And yet—one doesn't have a choice in these matters, really. The heart does its own choosing, its own tabulations. Love may be blind, but no one ever said it was fair or just. But I did try. I swear I did. I tried especially because, never having lived before with a woman, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it and do it right. I had this image of domestic bliss, of slippered feet on the hassock and martinis before supper, and of spontaneous lovemaking between sections of the Sunday Times. Compared with the sort of life that I had been living, of gritty floors and tuna out of cans and the sounds and lights of the Holland Tunnel infesting my dreams, living with Ourania had to be an improvement. And I had wanted it to work. I had wanted to prove to myself that I could be domesticated, and that I could create in partnership with a woman an atmosphere of comfort and support, a place of safety and warmth and stability, what my mother and father, who'd fought viciously throughout my childhood, had failed to create for me. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do better, that I was not biologically determined to repeat their failure, their misery.

One muggy summer evening, Ourania having turned the lamb shishkebabs into charcoal briquettes, at my suggestion that we go out to eat, she grabbed the knife from the counter and, still holding the serving plate of ruined lamb, threatened to disembowel herself. I stood there, not knowing what to do or say, wondering if this was some sort of joke. But her tears were real, and the knife shook with alarming vigor and authenticity in her grip. “Calm down, calm down,” I said, and, having disarmed her, eased her out of the smoky kitchen and into the bedroom, where we sat side by side on the polyurethaned bed, and where we we made love, our sweaty bodies sticking to the stiff plastic.

Things only got worse after that. Our fights spread out of that small apartment and into the streets of Astoria and beyond. We fought in the streets; we fought on the subway. Something about screaming at each other that way in public exhilarated both of us. There's the sense of power that comes, in part at least, from gathering in the frightened responses of bystanders. People are afraid of screaming couples, with good reason. The level of murderous rage evoked by their screams is high enough to scare off the most seasoned gang members and hardened criminals. Types you would normally cross the street to avoid, gold-chain bearing thugs with barrel-sized arms bulging from T-shirt sleeves would back out of our way, the looks on their scarred faces saying, "No way am I messing with that." It gave us a power we otherwise lacked: at our jobs, among acquaintances, over our own lives. Where fighting alone with each other at home just made us feel sad and desperate, having it out in broad daylight made us formidable, turned us into a blend of street performers and terrorists. It got to where fighting at home just didn't do it for us anymore; our hearts weren't in it. We had to take it into the streets; we needed the R train; we needed witnesses. From Vernon-Jackson to Newtown and 29th; from Queens Plaza to Hunter's Point, from 23rd and Ely to Ditmars we'd scream, our enraged voices tangled up among the R train's elevated girders.

It ended when she caught me seeing another woman, a cartoonist that I'd met and who lived in an apartment building on the other side of Ditmar's Boulevard. It was not a significant affair, yet it provided me with some respite, with a little nook of comfort in a life that otherwise seemed to consist of nothing but sharp corners and razor blades. I thought O. would murder me. Instead she packed up and moved out, leaving me there alone among those plasticized furnishings and walls ingrained with the smells of charred meat. She even left me the kitten that we had rescued from the pound, and that we had hoped, naively, would bring some calm into our lives. I waited for her to return for her furniture, but she never did, and when, a month or two later, I left that apartment, I left all her things there with it.

That's it. There's nothing more. I never saw her again. Having reached the end of this story, I still find myself wondering why I have told it. Maybe someone out there will tell me.

1 comment:

perrybrass said...

Lover pursues you until you can't stop it; but sometimes it's just the wrong love. That is the only way to put it. This little story proves how dangerous love is, and how dreadful it can be. It makes me wonder why any of us leave any room in our lives for it, but of course I know. Because without it, everything becomes either very flat, or very deadly.

Perry Brass, author of Carnal Sacraments, A Historical Novel of the Future;