That fall, at a party I threw at the barge where I was living on the Hudson, someone dosed me with really, really bad acid, and I had a very disturbing run-in with another side of myself. It was the bad-trip of all bad-trips . . . I remember passing through a waterfall of blood, but I can’t remember what was on the other side other than it wasn’t good. Afterwards, however, things slowly began to come into focus for me. It took weeks to recover from the acid trip, which at that point in my life seemed like a long time, but at least I wasn’t a basket-case. Just before Christmas, Helen called me from Charlottesville with a fantastic story my Aunt Aggie had told her. I asked her how she was, and she was quiet for a minute, and then she said there was a change in my voice. She was always noticing these little changes . . . in fact, she had taught me to notice them . . . and now she said she trusted what she heard in my voice, and right then, out of the blue, she invited me down for Christmas. Truth was, I was going to ask her if I could come down anyway. Spending another freezing Christmas by myself feeding coal into the potbelly stove on that barge was something I didn’t even want to think about.
I took the train down to Charlottesville and met her at my great-aunt Aggie’s apartment. There I was, with these two elegant Southern ladies, sitting around this gracious living room having cocktails, and I felt shabby and strange and out of place, even though it was me who shared aunt Aggie’s Randolph and Jefferson blood, not Helen, but it felt like it was the other way around.
Aunt Aggie smoked Fatima cigarettes with a shiny black cigarette holder, and she regaled us with stories – little stories – brief tiny glimpses of her life, all of which seemed to leave her with the short straw, ignorant in the presence of brilliance, a fool among the majestic. But Helen and I sat there listening, knowing it was Aunt Aggie who was majestic. She was dying of pancreatic cancer, yet she turned her grim circumstance into the funniest one act plays, one after another. She had the marvelous ability to poke fun at herself while Rome burned and make you want to fiddle along with her.
Late that night, we left Aunt Aggie’s and drove to the cottage Helen rented on a Thoroughbred horse farm not far outside Charlottesville. It was a little stone building with only three rooms — a living room, bedroom/bath and kitchen. At one time it had been the out-building kitchen for a manor house owned by an early Virginia legislator. Now it straightforwardly evinced the clutter that was both of our lives. We spent our first few hours cleaning up — stacking books and letters and old New Yorkers and newspapers, lending a semblance of order to the accumulated effluvia of a woman far gone on the graduate writing courses she was taking at UVA, hard at work looking for anything to do other than study. We climbed into bed, and I made a joke about what a mess our lives were, but by then she was already asleep with that beautiful little smile on her face.
We awoke around noon, and as usual, she bustled. A woman not bustling once her feet hit the floor was a woman to be scorned, seemed to be Helen’s creed. I was still in bed, practicing the opposite creed. What do you want for breakfast, she called. I have orange juice, oranges, grapefruit, English muffins, some biscuits from home, but they’re frozen, eggs, bacon, coffee, tea, toast, jam. What do you want for breakfast, Lucian? Come on, answer me!
You know what I want. A coke. Toast. Butter. No jam.
You’re sure you don’t want anything else? You’ve got to eat something. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Maybe some grapefruit? A glass of juice?
Okay. Grapefruit and juice, I said, giving in. Want me to cut the grapefruit?
Just come in and sit down.
I never wanted to get up and sit down for breakfast, confront all that preparation for starting the day. For me, days didn’t start, they just were. I had been known to have a diner hamburger and three cokes for breakfast. She knew my tastes at breakfast but never kept cokes in her fridge. I figured she had stopped in quite a few country road gas stations back in North Carolina when she was young, the kinds of places where men stood around drinking cokes just as the sun came up, and she didn’t fancy some guy pulling on a green, six-and-a-half ounce coke bottle at her breakfast table. I couldn’t blame her.
We spent the day doodling around Charlottesville, and that night we took my great-aunt Aggie out for dinner and drinks. Nothing can describe what someone like Aunt Aggie can do to you over dinner. It’s something like an education, but when the evening is over, you don’t feel smarter, you feel better.
Too soon, I started to feel restless. I would walk down to the store at the crossroads and get The Washington Post and New York Times, and then I’d walk back and just sit there reading the papers while she worked on her UVA studies, and it made me restless. I would walk out to the wood line across the field and gather firewood for the huge kitchen fireplace that was fitted with cast iron pot hangers. I’d sweep out the fireplace, straighten up the living room, borrow Aunt Aggie’s Buick and drive around the country roads, and it wasn’t two days after Christmas before I started thinking of getting out of there. I looked about for diversions. I tried to read a book but couldn’t get through three pages. Tried to write a postcard home to my folks but gave up after the greeting. She noticed. She always did.
That night while she busied herself in the bathroom, I lay in bed with a tightness in my chest that wouldn’t let go. Nothing was turning out right. I picked up the phone and called Greyhound, asking for the next day’s schedule north to Washington connecting to New York. She came out of the bathroom and found me on the phone and accused me of setting up my next liaison before I’d even left the last one. Christ, all I’m doing is calling Greyhound, I explained. She grabbed the phone from me, expecting to hear a woman’s voice, I guess, but I was on hold, waiting for a Greyhound customer service rep. She took the silence for a girl holding her breath, not saying a word. I tried to take the phone back, but she hung up. We went to sleep on opposite sides of the bed, a big space of cold sheets between us.
I split the next morning, and she left Charlottesville not long afterwards, her semester at UVA ended. We kept seeing each other, awkwardly, standoffishly. I would call her from the Lion’s Head, usually after having a few martinis, or she would call my office and leave a message inviting me over for dinner.
But it was all bitchy, on both sides. I’d call, and she’d ask, what is it this time? Horny? It’s not as easy as it seems, sweetheart. Try me again some other time when you’ve got something else in mind. Click. But the lines could be easily reversed, depending on who needed whom and for what reason. I started going for sure things, like I’d get invited to some Paris Review fete up at Plimpton’s, and I’d call and ask if she wanted to go, and she couldn’t say no. It was a mean little trick I was playing on her, dangling Plimpton’s like it was Tiffany’s, and she knew it, and I knew it. Our private club was turning into a place neither of us wanted to belong to.
The next morning at her place on East 83rd Street, her words drenched me like sunlight, too bright at that hour of the day, which was, as usual, noon: My God, you look like death warmed over, she said. I probably did. I walked into the kitchen and slumped onto a chair, fiddled with my grapefruit, took half-hearted sips of coffee, no cokes being available as usual. I knew what was coming: let’s go for a walk in the park. No, I’ve got to get down to the Voice, got a story I’m working on. No you don’t. That’s the excuse you always give. Why don’t you try staying here for a few days with me? You won’t have to go back over to that . . . that barge where you live on the river. Isn’t your friend still living on the other end of the barge? Can’t he take care of the cats and feed them?
I fiddled with my grapefruit. What she said make perfect sense, but all I could see in my mind’s eye was the downtown side of the 77th Street subway station, the headlight of the train coming through the dark in the distance, doors opening, closing, train accelerating away from uptown, letting me off at 14th Street where there’s a diner I can get myself a coke and a grilled cheese sandwich and walk over to the office on University Place. I don’t . . . I don’t know, I stammered.
What do you take me for, a damn fool? Do you think I’m just some uptown chickie of yours, you can call up every time you feel lonely or horny or both? Do you treat all of your women like this? Do you? I shrugged. Do you remember that night you came whimpering in here, you were cold and lonely and drunk. Someone had just ripped off your apartment on Avenue B, remember?
Do you remember what you said to me that night? Well, do you? You told me you want to live with me. Remember that? You were sick, you had the flu, you were running an insane temperature, your nose was running all down that buckskin jacket of yours. I held you that night, and you sobbed against my breast and soaked my nightgown! The next morning, I fixed you orange juice and I wanted you to stay in bed all day and get better, but you were up and out of here within an hour. Don’t you realize that other people have feelings, too? Damn you! Why don’t you say something? Here, have some of my bacon. Eat some breakfast, it will be good for you. It’s Sunday morning! We can take a walk in the park! Maybe we’ll see Philip Roth again.