Detachment and passion.
I first met Claire through my sister Molly: they were "dharma buddies" and best friends. Neither Claire's Buddhism nor her friendship with my sister would have been recommendations to me, being as I was a skeptic in both spiritual and familial matters. My inclination was not to go out with any of Molly's social circle. In the best of circumstances, it is a loaded situation: there is something humiliating, not to mention border-incestuous, about an older brother preying on his younger sister's friends. If the romance takes, then the sister may feel she has lost a friendship; if it sours, she may have to choose sides.
Added to these qualms were my complicated feelings about Molly. Briefly: my sister is almost exactly to the day a year younger than I am. At times we've been as close as twins. During the period I'm writing about, however, her Lady Day, femme fatale and Kerouac adventuress stages behind her, she was going through a rather shrill, strident period, rationalizing disappointments in love or work with what sounded to me like spiritual eyewash. She had developed the neophyte convert's verbal armor that gave her answers for every occasion. Granted, I was not as open as I might be to receiving lectures about compassion from a younger sister; but inwardly I distanced myself from her, against those moments of possession by her Buddhist dybbuk.
Underneath the rigid sunniness of my sister's new-found wisdom, I sensed, she was lonely and depressed. in fact, I liked her much better when she was openly depressed: only then did she seem her old, cynical, Mme. de Merteuil self, freed from those Pollyanna smile-faces of her manic positive mode. Of course it was easy for me to say, "Just be, sad, for God's sake, stop acting." Perhaps with Molly, the pain ran so deep, the self-criticism so severe, that any display of serenity, even the most synthetic, should be preferred.
If I thought my sister was essentially deluding herself, what did it say about Claire that she hung around Molly? Eager though I was to discount this Claire, the few times I met her at social gatherings I liked her quick, amusing, unimpinging manner. There was a pleasing ladylike coolness about her, embodied by her smooth, creamy skin. Whatever qualms I may have had did not stand a chance, finally--especially after my steady girlfriend and I had broken up, and I was once again "available"--before the fact that Claire was so pretty. She had long black hair that fell in symmetrical plaits to her shoulders, and a sympathetic, perky, forties face with a dimpled lipsticked smile, and, this especially caught my attention, a gorgeous figure. I am sorry to have been so superficial about it, but there it is. At the time I was led into many chagrins and contretemps, allegedly beneath my reasoning capacity, by the attempt to sleep with beautiful women whenever possible. I have since repented.
In any event, Molly brought her friend, looking particularly ravishing in a blue silk dress, to the book party for my novel, Confessions of Summer, and Claire bought a copy, got me to sign it and kissed me on the cheek. That was all the stimulus I needed.
Having made up my mind to go after her, however, I suddenly felt hesitant about the difference in our aesthetic stations: she was a beauty and I was--a passable-looking intellectual with glasses. Shortly after the book party, I called Molly and asked if her friend was seeing anyone at the moment. So far as she knew, Claire was seeing several guys, but none seriously. Not quite the answer I'd hoped for, yet it left the door open. Did she know if--were I to ask Claire out--she would be receptive or not? Molly guaranteed nothing. "She's in the phone book. Ask her yourself. What's the worst that can happen? If she turns you down, it has nothing to do with your attractiveness, just with the fact that she's sexually programmed to go for certain types of guys." This sisterly sagacity irked me; what I'd wanted was some inside information. "Couldn't you at least--sound her out? Oh forget it. I'll make the call."
So I asked Claire to dinner, she accepted, and we began to get to know each other. I found her remarkably easy to talk to. Claire was a freelance magazine writer and, like most journalists, up on just about everything. She played smoothly the traditional feminine role of drawing out the male's concerns and listening flatteringly and flirtatiously, however boorish she might think him. in short, she knew how to "date," as an activity enjoyable in itself, without being consumed, as I was, by the suspense of whether or not we would go to bed. together.
It was the winter of 1979. I had just turned thirty-six, Claire was thirty-one; we were both veterans of the liberated sixties. She told me she'd even been a waitress at Max's Kansas City, the downtown art bar, in its heyday; I could picture her wearing a long braid, turning, heads wherever she went. "I was never a groupie, but I did have a rock musician boyfriend." How could I compete?
Sometimes, at the beginning of an affair--or to make it be an affair--one has to leap into another persona. On our third date, we went to an expensive disco supper club, Regine's, on Park Avenue, a place for international jet setters that ordinarily I wouldn't be caught dead in; but I was trying to show that I could be "fun," not just the bookish highbrow I was. And Claire told me she liked to dance. So we danced; we drank; we watched with superior amusement the short gray-haired South American (ex-dictator?) rhumba with his statuesque, blonde starlet partner, the European investment brokers stationed in America trying to boogie, the account executives grinding away like day-laborers to Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive." New York had narrowly averted bankruptcy in 1975; the memory of that near-catastrophe still fresh, we were feeling the start of the Boom, artificially fueled by foreign investments; the bacchanal of the eighties was approaching; and Regine's, now defunct, harbingered an era that promised to be as indestructible as vulgarity itself.
Our amused mood persisted in the taxi, driving through the lamplit, Park Avenue snow to Claire's house (she had given the cabbie her address, half the answer to the question I wanted answered), and lust proved a natural outgrowth of margaritas and mirth. But even after we had slept together that first time, I still wondered if Claire was attracted to me or simply being a gracious hostess. Always pleasant, sexy, responsibly conversational, good-humored, she never abandoned her impersonal self-composure. It was not so much what she expressed as what she didn't: urgency, hunger. She seemed more intent on offering the continuing integrity of solitude and privacy.
For the most part, I took my cues from her, which meant returning tenderness for tenderness, moderation for moderation. We continued to go out, to enjoy ourselves, to perform the act of greatest potential intimacy between human beings; and it continued--not to matter very much.
One night, after we'd made love and I'd fallen asleep, I was awakened by her hand on my penis. It surprised me: not that I'd failed to satisfy her completely, but that she'd brought herself this once to admit a need. I would like to think I honored her request, but memory draws a veil.... What I do recall is my overall puzzlement at not being more excited about sleeping with this dish. I began to cast about for some way to blame her for my own lack of intenser desire; I watched her for subtle indications of "putting me off," as though she were responsible for extruding an aura around herself, like a seducing Circe, but in reverse, a cloud of unexcitement that neutralized her beauty's effect.
I noticed that if, for instance, I complimented Claire on the way she looked, she would reply, "You're such a dear," or "You're sweet," with an abstracted, dismissive air, as though she thought I'd been laying it on too thick. Was this simply the reaction of a pretty woman for whom compliments had become boring? Or perhaps she was saying: "What do looks mean, after all, in the larger, karmic scheme of things?" On the other hand, maybe she was self-conscious and critical of her appearance, so that "You're sweet" might be interpreted as: "You may think I look like a model, but I know I have tons of flaws, a bumpy nose, too hippy," etc.
I began to notice also--at first because it seemed another form of resistance to me (as in: "Don't kiss me, my mouth must taste like an ashtray") but later, as a curious phenomenon in and of itself--that she would often complain about something somatically off register, which kept her from optimum functioning: either she had sinus headaches, the pressure of deadlines and caffeine was making her jumpy, or the lack of work, sluggishly woozy; she had slept too much, too little, had insomnia, got up too late, was tired all the time, watched too many late-night movies on the tube, smoked too many cigarettes, hadn't eaten a decent meal all week, felt fat, queasy, bloated, the greasy English muffins were sitting on her stomach, refusing to digest. At first I responded sympathetically, suggesting Coca-Cola to settle the stomach; later, I treated these anxieties as an ongoing subvocal burble that periodically rose to the surface. Were they not also her shield, or a garbled text whose gist was: You don't understand me, all sorts of thoughts and sensations are going on constantly inside me, you haven't the faintest idea. Any woman might think that of any man, and be correct.
Once, out of the blue, she said to me: "You seem like a happy person."
"Happy is hardly the way I look at it," I replied, immediately on guard. Was she trying to assuage her guilt toward me? Getting ready to dump me? "I feel I'm in the middle of my life. I'm absorbed, I'm doing the work I want to do, and that's almost enough for me. What about you?"
"Hmm?" she asked, absent-mindedly, as if responding to a faulty, long-distance connection.
"Are you happy?"
"Oh, sure. I'm basically a happy person. I just wish I felt like you, that I was in the middle of my life."
"Well, it took awhile to get there," I said smugly.
"I know. I didn't mean you were lucky. I'm sure you're very good at what you do."
"Passable. I'm good enough."
We had fallen into the oldest of male-female scripts: I was the grown-up, she the fumbling late-bloomer. Had I not been so passive, I might have challenged this flattering schema, which allowed her to hide so effectively from me.
Claire lived in an old building in the East Twenties, near Lexington Avenue, with a slow, tight little elevator that held the curried smells of takeout delivery bags from nearby Indian and Turkish restaurants. We usually stayed at her place; she felt more comfortable there. Even so, she would often express her impatience to fix up the place.
"What's so bad about it? Looks okay to me," I would say, glancing around at the gray felt chairs, the Mission style day-bed, the plants, the altar, the stacks of magazines. The place had a shabby-genteel air, small, dark, crepuscular: essentially it was one large room divided into four, with the amenity of a Parisian-style skylight.
"The chairs are ratty. I need some blinds. People can look in and see everything.... I don't know what to get my mother for Christmas. Look at this plant, it's really pathetic. You should get more sun, baby."
"Maybe this steam heat dries it out."
"No, this one's sick even in the summer. I think it's some sort of scaley disease. Like my chapped lips. Everything's scaley here. I wish I had some new books. I've been reading too many magazines; they're like junk food."
What are people saying when they speak? What are they actually trying to say? It is my lifelong project to figure this out, but I never can decide if someone is speaking literally or metaphorically. With Claire, I tried to follow the emotional thread beneath her random remarks--was she feeling insecure about her reading because she thought me a brain, or did it have nothing to do with me, was she recalling some deferred ambition, or was she hinting she wanted a book for Christmas? By this time, Claire would wander into the bathroom and begin blow-drying her wet hair. She had a strong Roman profile, like Penelope in the tapestries. I would relish the flesh peeping through her terrycloth robe--aroused suddenly by her being preoccupied.
"Fascinating, isn't it?" she'd say, catching me spying on her through the door.
"I like to watch you making your toilette, like a Degas painting."
"I'm thinking of cutting my hair. It's ridiculously long, don't you think?"
"I like long hair."
"Would you believe I used to have it cut like Cleopatra? Shorter in back, with bangs straight across the front. What a riot. Actually it didn't look bad. All right, hair, that's enough for you guys," she'd talk to a strand, then switch to a high, squeaky: "No, no, we're not dry yet!"
Claire did these comic voices, often addressing inanimate objects. Nothing stayed serious for long. But gradually, in spite of her rapid shifts, I learned a partial itinerary of her concerns. She felt bad about taking money from her parents. Not that there were any strings attached; but as long as they paid her rent and she only had to earn her expense money, she could remain in this freelance, odd-job life, which felt at times like a trap. She wondered if she shouldn't get a job job, a nine-to-five. Also, she had been writing articles for a city magazine for over four years, and wasn't it time they put her name on the masthead? She brooded a great deal about how to approach the editor-in-chief to give her a contributing editor title. The next minute, she would talk about throwing over her magazine work and writing l book about Tibetan medicine (a project that struck me as far-fetched, given her lack of both medical training and Tibetan), or else leaving the city entirely and going into retreat, to a Buddhist monastery in France.
What interested me about these intermittent anxieties was that they offered an alternative, a counter-Claire (if one could but understand it) to the calm, detached perspective she, for the most part, upheld. I was also detached. It had long been my habit to stand apart from myself, observing, and to "borrow" excess emotion from the woman, who was usually more ardent or angry or involved in the prospect of relationship. But this time we were both detached: who was there to keep us emotionally honest?
I knew that my own detachment had come from the need to preserve myself, while growing up, within a family given to operatic hysteria, and later, from a need to protect my writing. But what were Claire's reasons? Had Buddhist practice given her a ground of detachment and poise, or was she drawn to Buddhism because she wanted to find a larger system that would support her characterological equanimity?
Claire kept, as I've said, an altar in her living room, with photographs of her guru, Duzhum Rinpoche, surrounded by jewelry and flowers. I assume she meditated regularly before it. She also attended classes at the Tibetan Buddhist center near her house. Yet she never proselytized (as Molly tended to do) or even spoke about her practice, her spiritual progress, her setbacks. Whatever I learned had to be dragged out of her reluctantly. "You don't want to know about all that," she would say, and apologized self-mockingly for her "shrine." She knew exactly how a cynic might regard such trappings; many of her friends were, indeed, cynical journalists, and she tended to keep separate the two spheres of her life. But the less Claire talked about her Buddhist involvement, the more I eyed it for clues to her nature--especially the part I felt her withholding from me.
Here we may invoke Lopate's law of relationships: the less one is getting what one wants from the other person, the more one is apt to fill in the vacuum with interpretation. Claire's mystifying neutrality or reserve inspired several theses in turn: that she was slow to trust men (an all-purpose explanation, always true, up to a point); that she was distracted by various career and personal worries; that there was simply not that much to her, she was bland; that her affect had been "flattened out" by a spiritual practice that valued non-attachment. Others would follow; but, for the moment, the Buddhist thesis intrigued me the most.
Even without Claire and Molly, I had been coming up against the Buddhist challenge. All during the seventies, the New York cultural scene was saturated with Buddhism: benefit poetry readings with Allen Ginsberg, Ann Waldman, and John Giorno; concerts by Philip Glass and other musicians of tantric orientation; conferences at the New School on what Buddhist psychology had to offer Western psychotherapies. Writer-friends of mine were conscientiously studying Tibetan grammar. There was a definite upscale chic attached to Buddhism, especially the Tibetan strand--a pedigreed intellectual respectability such as had never burnished, say, the Hare Krishna or Guru Maharaji sects.
The first Buddhist wave had been Japanese: the Zen of the fifties and sixties, introduced by Alan Watts and D. T. Suzuki. The next influx was Tibetan, dominated by the flamboyant, Oxbridge-educated Chogyam Trompa, whose poet-disciples established the Naropa School in Boulder, Colorado. Molly and Claire looked askance at whiskey-drinking, philandering, bad-boyish Trompa, preferring instead their older, gentle lama, Duzhum Rinpoche. The old man lived mostly in France; but his American followers had established a center in New York, and every few years he would visit it--to the immense excitement of his devotees.
Socially on the fringes of this scene, I would sometimes be pulled in by curiosity, the chance to witness one more Manhattan subculture. Once, Molly invited me to hear the Dalai Lama address a packed church. I could barely understand a word of His Holiness's talk, due to the thick accent of his translator and bad acoustics, and the little I heard sounded like platitudes about our need for love and world peace. Now, it may well be that platitudes ultimately contain the highest human wisdom attainable. But I was looking for evidence to debunk the scene. I never doubted that Buddhist practices had great efficacy for the Tibetans; I was only dubious that the beaming middle-class Americans in the pews around me would ever get beyond their consumerist pride in fingering esoteric traditions.
The American devotees I knew also displayed a parvenu fascination with Tibetan aristocracy (the Dalai Lama and his retinue, the ranks of lamas) that I can only compare to the way Texas moneyed society grovels before the British royals. One night I was taken to an event, at a Soho loft, honoring a group of Tibetan lamas who had just arrived in the States from India. The lamas sat on a raised platform and conversed among themselves, while an awed, hand-picked, mostly Ivy League audience, kneeling and lotus-squatting below, watched them eat. What struck me was the determination of the devotees to wring spiritual messages from the most mundane conduct. If a lama belched, it became a teaching: "Don't take anything too seriously." If several lamas laughed (at a private Tibetan joke), the audience would join in gratefully, as though being taught the mystery of joy. Meanwhile, a bevy of dahinis, attractive young women chosen to serve the lamas, advanced with dishes and finger bowls. These American women, probably all willing to be identified as feminists, who would have been shocked if asked to perform such duties for their countrymen, were blushing with happiness at the chance to serve the robed contingent. Other women in the audience gasped as one of the tall, young, head-shaved priests stood up, his saffron robes leaving his muscled arms bare. The monks inspired rock star crushes.
Shortly after the feast had ended and the entire lama delegation had left to go to another party, those remaining milled about, still processing the privilege they'd been given. The Princess of Bhutan and her seven-year-old son were pointed out to me. Much was made of the little boy's playing with a top, as though it were a precocious demonstration of spiritual powers; when the top skittered over the loft floor, everyone ooed and clapped. I wasn't sure whether the child was being drooled over because he had royal blood, because he was mischievous (high spiritual marks for that in this crowd), or because he was of an age when future Dalai Lamas are customarily detected.
I was glad not to be won over by this display; it saved me an enormous bother. on the other hand, I could not simply reject an immensely complex, sophisticated tradition just because of some sycophantic behavior on the part of its followers. The little I knew of Buddhist doctrine actually appealed to me, by virtue of its insistence on the void, on mindfulness and on the universality of suffering. In fact, I could go along with at least two of its four "noble truths": the first, that existence is suffering, I could accept whole-heartedly; the second, that the cause of suffering is craving and attachment, I was less sure about, but willing to concede. I balked only at the final two: that there is a cessation of suffering, called Nirvana, and that the way to Nirvana is by dissolving the self and following the "eightfold path." As with Marxism, I agreed with the analysis of the problem, just not the solution.
Buddhism was continually being put forward to me as a doctrine suitable to the agnostic modern age. To my doubts about the necessity for any religion, my sister would repeat: "I hate organized religions. But Buddhism isn't a religion. it doesn't even have a god!" I wasn't sure I liked this, and I had even more problems with Molly's insistence that Buddhism "superseded" Freud, was "vastly superior" to psychoanalysis. It seemed to me she was really saying, in an upwardly mobile, assimilationist vein, that she had no further use for the religion we were born into, Judaism (as represented in my mind by Freud). Not that I pored over the Talmud either; but were I to feel spiritual twinges, I would first give my own heritage a chance.
In that sense, I had fewer problems with Claire's Buddhism, because she was Catholic. It was not for me to judge the theological wanderings of Roman Catholics; moreover, Claire still accompanied her father to Mass like a good daughter. What did it mean, though (back to square one) that she was a Buddhist? It seemed such a strenuous, willful act for an American--whose background was Catholic, Jewish, Presbyterian, whatever--to "become" a Buddhist. Did she see herself as a dahini (one step away from a Buddhist chorus girl, in my mind)? Or was she actually seeking--what an odd, ambitious idea!--to become enlightened, an illuminated being, to suffer compassionately with all living things, like the Bodhisattva? If so, I could well respect her abstracted preoccupation.
Or was there another explanation?
Based on my sister's unforgotten remark, I thought I might not be the only "guy" Claire was still seeing. New Year's Eve, the test, began to loom. When I asked her at the beginning of December, her first response was to hedge: she was thinking she might go out of town, to her parents' house in the mountains. "Can I get back to you in a few days? I won't hang you up. I know, you want a hot date for New Year's Eve," she said, disparaging herself and me in one sentence. I waited a week, darkly imagining her efforts to secure a better offer. The next time she answered sweetly: "Sure. What did you have in mind?"
I had in mind a movie, Preston Sturges' Unfaithfully Yours at Theater 8o (which proved as delicious as I'd hoped), dinner at a good restaurant and a New Year's Eve party, where I knew there'd be plenty of interesting types. I remember that almost as soon as we entered the party, Claire and I went our separate ways, talking to different people till the time came to leave. This independence was either a sign of a couple supremely comfortable with each other, or one that would soon break up.
Mutual glibness aside, we actually had very little in common to talk about. one of our few conversational mainstays was Molly. Having overcome any scruples about frankly discussing my sister with her best friend, I communicated my worries over Molly's get-rich schemes, which changed weekly, or her harsh social manner, which turned off men. Claire, to my surprise, agreed. The difference was that when she spoke about Molly, it was not with the over-identifying conflictedness of a family-member, but with genuine tolerant affection. Her attitude seemed to be: "Molly's Molly, that's just the way she gets at times. She'll figure it out--and anyway, isn't she great, on the whole?" Yes, exactly, that was what I had meant to say--or feel.
Was it Claire's Buddhist training in compassion that allowed her to enjoy people just the way they were, without troubling about their mishegas? Or had she simply a good heart? She rarely spoke ill of anyone; her sympathy was so evenly spread out that I felt, in the end, slighted. She saw the good in me as she would in the next person. I never had the sense she had chosen me, or thought of us as an us. (Whether I wanted us to be an us, in the long run, was a question I put off, too busy being offended that she had not raised it.
My distrust of Claire grew also from her journalistic work, which caused her to marshall a spurious fascination for the assignment of the moment, and a dazed indifference to the matter once copy had been handed in. I was not the first to suspect a built-in shallowness in this vocation, by virtue of its opportunistic obsession with topicality and trivia. I have since befriended a number of journalists, and have a much healthier respect for their work habits, their intrepidity, their exquisite antennae: I could not do it. At the time, I was still appalled at the superficiality of the journalistic enterprise. I now saw Claire's cool aplomb, which kept me at arm's length, as a function of her metier. But even to say that she "kept me at arm's length" falsely implies that I was the ardent, unrequited suitor, when the truth was, I was keeping my distance in my own way, by not respecting what she did.
Our relationship seemed in a holding pattern; and yet it was pleasant enough. Even when Claire became slightly less available than before, begging off because of deadlines and out-of-town trips, we would still get together about once a week. This spared me the necessity of finding a new girlfriend. Busy with my own projects, I viewed our affair as a sort of minimal romantic insurance policy. Then it suddenly ended.
Claire had gotten the assignment to write a story about old, freestanding moviehouses in New York. She invited me to come along on her research; as a film buff, I might find it interesting. When the Saturday for our scheduled tour arrived, I had the flu. I told her I felt too awful to go out. "Oh, we'll just wrap you in lots of sweaters. It'll be fun! You'll get to see the inside of all those wonderful old moviehouses and it'll cheer you up." I was about to remark that it wasn't a question of moodiness, but flu, as in "germ theory of illness," when I realized she was determined, she had arranged this and I was coming, period. I suspected she was on deadline and needed my input. Her selfishness seemed a revelation to me: I thought I was finally seeing the true, insensitive Claire. For the first time I got angry at her (though in hindsight, I suspect I may have been repressing some anger toward her all along). This bile accompanied me throughout the day, while I shivered in the subway up to Washington Heights, felt my throat swell bronchially under the February rain, stood on my feet for hours, spitefully and self-pityingly getting sicker by the moment while perversely pretending to be all right, as the movie managers took us around with flashlights to explore the art deco moldings and cornices in what were now grimy flea-pits. I asked the right questions about the old days,, and Claire seemed pleased. "See? it was fun after all." We took a call down to my apartment, where I hoped she would make it up to me by tucking me into bed. But when we got to my door she held onto the cab, saying she had an appointment downtown, and really couldn't come inside, even for a few minutes. Once I was alone, my anger and fever merged in a blaze. Here I was dying, delirious, and this can't even come inside and make me a cup of tea.
That did it. We were through.
The oddest part was that there was no breakup scene. I simply never called Claire again, and she never got around to calling me back. It was symptomatic, I thought bitterly, of how little the affair had meant, that it didn't even need a denouement; we just drifted away like steam vapor.
Shortly after that incident, I was offered a university teaching post down at Houston. I took it, vowing I would find some nice, sweet Texas girl; I would get away from those hard, self-serving New York women like Claire, too careerist and too stingy to love. How could I have thought there was a mystery about her? Claire became the newest target of all my infant's anger, ready to flare up always at women, for not giving me the affection I felt due me.
In the years that followed, I would occasionally hear news from Molly about Claire. She had completed her book on Tibetan medicine, the first such in English on the subject, and a small press interested in Eastern religions had published it. She had quit her magazine work and had gone into retreat in France for several years, fulfilling the required term for Buddhist novitiates at her guru's center. All this dedication and follow-through impressed me. The closest I had ever come to making such a commitment was to writing; but writing fed my ego, rather than extinguishing it. Self-knowledge I pursued, at best, unsystematically, defensively interrogating my experiences after the fact, so that whatever wisdom might stick to me was accidental, like a burr in a forest walk. I lived for myself, within myself; I had never been able to locate some Whole or Cosmic Mind that was higher than the individual, inspiring contemplation and admiration. Not that I wanted to locate any such principle; I was content to follow my discontented path for the rest of my life. But I tipped my hat to Claire.
The spark of anger I had seized upon to exit from our floundering relationship in fine, self-righteous fettle, had died; and I mainly recalled Claire's graciousness. Playing back our affair in my mind, I began to think that I may have gotten the whole thing wrong: probably she had liked me more than I'd thought (though clearly not loved me), and the price she had had to pay for getting to know me better, given the only terms I offered her, was to sleep with me and pretend a romantic involvement. This she had done like a good sport. The fact that we had not gone through a breakup scene might be less an indictment of our relationship than a subconscious recognition by our adult selves that there was no need to besmirch with inflationary animosity what had never been more than a courteous, friendly liaison.
So, when Molly informed me that Claire was in New York for a few months, just as I was, and had mentioned she would "love" to see me sometime, I was pleased at this second chance for a more successful closure. I called her and we arranged to have dinner. On the phone, Claire sounded much the breezy way I'd remembered her; but as our reunion approached, I began to worry. What had all that meditation work and French countryside retreat done to our Claire?
She opened the door, attractive as ever, and quickly put me at ease by detailing the latest struggle to hold onto her apartment. The building had been sold to a pair of shysters: a typical New York realty story of the eighties, which reassured me that her street smarts remained intact. Then we went out to dinner together, and caught up. Her descriptions of the Buddhist group in France were all amazingly down-to-earth; but she seemed more eager to report gossip about her old American friends, the ones she'd seen in the past two weeks. Fortunately, her practice had not yet purified her of gossip. She also wanted to know everything I had done the past few years; she was hungry for thick narrative detail. Eventually, we got around to the subject of romantic involvements. By then we had repaired to a bar in order to prolong the evening's discussion, and were sitting at the railing. I told her about the woman I'd been dating in Houston. She said she was, alas, not in love at the moment, but added that she still saw "various men from time to time." I took this to mean some of the journalist friends she had mentioned earlier. I was working up the courage to ask about--us.
"What went wrong?" I wondered aloud. "Why didn't we work out as a couple?"
"Well, there was no passion between us," she answered, as though it were the simplest matter in the world. I was glad to hear her put it this way: to distribute the lack equally. She went on to say that passion was rare for her, but of the highest importance. During the period of our affair, she now admitted, she had been in love--wildly, reciprocally, with a handsome foreigner, a very important diplomat (she refused to tell me his name) who was unfortunately, married. Whenever he was in the country, they resumed their secret passion. This affair had gone on for years, or until the time that she entered the Buddhist retreat.
So! She had been keeping a part of herself back. This explained a lot--even her stall around New Year's Eve; she was probably waiting to hear from her dashing emissary if he would be in the States. I felt a warm contentment, approaching happiness, at receiving this piece of the missing puzzle. I always feel strengthened by learning the truth (however unpleasant), after long being kept in the dark. Besides, it was far too late to feel jealous resentment at this "rival"; happily, he was a diplomat, not a fellow writer, and it pleased me that, by her description, he was very handsome. I made him into Louis Jourdan in Letter from an Unknown Woman. It was aesthetic justice that a woman as pretty as Claire should be swept off her feet by an equally good-looking man. I could admire, from outside, the amours of these beautiful people, like a fairy tale one has always believed in. And it exonerated me from any mistakes I may have made in our affair: how could it have worked, she was already in love with someone else?
Finally, there was sweet vindication of sorts in learning that Buddhism hadn't given her any detached perspective toward love, but that--like several other women I had known--she had worshipped at the altar of Passion, kept a votive candle lit to the secret, demon, phantom lover who came and went, holding her in thrall; It pleased me that I recognized the pattern, had encountered it before and was not alarmed by it, whereas true Buddhist non-attachment remained much more opaque and threatening.
Claire drew me out in turn. As she listened shrewdly to my stories of romantic folly, and contributed her own, there was so much good humor back and forth between us that the night took on a sparkle; it became one of the dozen or so charmed evenings in my life. I felt in perfect rapport with Claire. Finally, we were meeting as equals, survivors, on a common ground of mutual delight in each other's company. I walked her home; I would gladly have "jumped her bones," as the saying now goes, but I sensed no such invitation. And besides, I feared that making a sexual pass would have spoiled the mood of the evening. Even if it had succeeded, we would be back in that dry polite corner of two uninfatuated lovers, instead of the much richer space (for us) of old friends, which we had achieved for the first time that night. I realized I'd liked Claire far more before and after our time of so-called intimacy, than during. A love affair, it was borne in me again, is sometimes the worst way to draw out the best in another.
Claire went off again to her retreat in France. We agreed that we would get together, with pleasure, whenever she came into town. It would be wonderful to leave the story like that, on a high note. But in 1988, my sister told me, trying to keep her voice calm, that Claire was back in New York "for health reasons." Brain cancer had been discovered. She was in Doctor's Hospital, receiving chemotherapy treatments.
That Saturday, I made up my mind to visit her. I suddenly recalled all the complaints Claire used to make about bodily symptoms; could they have been advance warnings? On my way to the hospital, I experienced faintness; there was a "sympathetic" buzz in my head, a fibrillation in my legs. Of course I often felt that way when I got near hospitals. Still, I seemed to be much more upset about Claire's illness, I was not sure why, than I had expected, given our tenuous connection.
I had debated over what sort of books to take someone with brain cancer, deciding in the end to buy a stack of glossy fashion magazines. So I entered the ward, the bearer of frivolous goodies about how to stay young or keep your figure, wondering if Claire had been shaven bald yet or if she looked emaciated. I ran first into Claire's mother, an Upper East Side matron, looking distressed in the most openly abject way: she had become de-individualized, the archetypal mother, fearing the loss of her only child. Her eyes were already grief-stricken. Claire, she told me, was downstairs in X-ray but would be up shortly.
I waited and looked around the solarium, with its amazing 360-degree views of Manhattan. This was certainly the cheeriest poshest hospital facility I had ever been in.
A half-hour later, Claire entered the ward wearing a quilted robe, moving slowly, gingerly. She still had her beautiful long hair and her striking Penelope profile. But she was thinner; her angles had been purified into ascetic lines, there was now nothing sexual about her. She invited us into her room and sat on the edge of her bed, like a teenage girl. I gave her the magazines. "You're such a dear," she said, in that vague way, only this time I was happy to receive the compliment.
I asked her to fill me in. She told me when the pains began; how the diagnosis was made; what her chances were--not good, but not hopeless, either. She had discovered a whole network of cancer patients across the country, and, like the trained journalist she was, had been keeping up with them via computer, learning all about the latest experimental cures. If she survived this, she quipped, she would go for a medical degree; she'd done three-quarters of the work already. I could not help noticing that she bore her suffering with a placid, evolved dignity and determination that was in stark contrast to her mother's panic. Claire was taking it all so calmly, that I felt more sorry for her mother at that moment than for her.
I did not want to tire her, so I said goodbye and left. Walking from the hospital, I had the sense of having been in contact with something large-larger than myself. I felt dissolved, borderless, dizzy. A part of me was happy to have seen Claire, irrespective of the circumstances. But I was almost certain the cancer would kill her. She would die at forty, still alarmingly fresh and beautiful.
The memorial service was at Frank Campbell's, a traditional Catholic funeral parlor on Park Avenue in the Upper East Side. Nearly all of New York Buddhism's elite showed up, and there was a touching, if awkward, attempt to mix Catholic and Tibetan ritual, all worked out painstakingly beforehand by the family and Claire's dharma buddies. Many speeches were made, attesting to the deceased's considerateness for others and zestful, life-loving personality. I cannot remember clearly a single thing that was said; I was in a daze. It was enough to take in that Claire had been one of those popular people, like Frank O'Hara, about whom each best friend learns at the funeral that there were a hundred others. Afterward, at the party at someone's house, I wandered around eavesdropping on various groups, all of whom were reminiscing and telling Claire stories. I wanted to join in, yet what could I say to them? I never had the illusion that I was one of her closest friends. I had no way to fathom her deepest commitments. But I mourned her nonetheless.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||Mutual Admirers: New and Familiar Voices in American Writing; A Special Double Issue; short story|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1994|
|Previous Article:||From 'A Letter to Forster.' (excerpt) (Mutual Admirers: New and Familiar Voices in American Writing; A Special Double Issue)|
|Next Article:||White car.|