Authors: Steve Erickson
“Fuck you,” the Princess answered.
At that moment a plan hatched in my head by which I figured if she could just get herself kicked out of the screening, in our brief but significant separation that followed I could duck through the other exit at the front of the room, make a beeline for the car before she got there, and drive away with her running tearfully after me waving her arms. The problem with this plan was that when the publicist finally came along to eject the Princess, the Princess refused to leave without me, and so in short order I was being ejected too. I protested, of course. The big-shot critic in back, becoming more and more outraged with every bit of commotion, finally exploded, “Get out and take your little whore with you!” to which the Princess, rather than flying into the scornful fury I might have predicted and suggesting within earshot of everyone that she had “done” him a couple of weeks before in the back seat of a car down at the corner of Sunset and La Brea, instead began to sob pitifully. “Call her that again,” I managed to answer before I felt the hands of the security guard on my back, “and you’re going home with your eyeballs pinned to your lapels,” but the next thing I knew the Princess and I were outside, and I was sprawled on the sidewalk in the rain.
“Are you all right?” she said in her little voice, standing over me a few seconds before scurrying back under an awning, where she watched the rain fall on me for a while. I picked myself up off the sidewalk. We drove home in seething silence. Even though she had never particularly cared before about having a conversation, I could tell now she would be happier if I said something, so I didn’t, because I didn’t want her to be happier. When we stopped at a traffic light I turned to look at her and she recoiled, not as if the look in my eyes was something she had never seen before, but as if she had seen it plenty of times, all too often. I was about to reach over, open the passenger door and give her a good shove when the light turned and the car behind me honked. I was still thinking about it as we drove down Fountain Avenue picking up speed—ten, twenty miles an hour, thirty, forty. … In the garage we sat for a while, the dark quiet of the car welling up around us.
“I’m sorry I cause you so much trouble,” she finally murmured, picking at the ends of her hair. “I know you’ve been nice to me.”
Just as Ventura and I were at our wits’ end, the episode with the Princess resolved itself rather ironically. For days we had been waiting for the rain to stop so she would leave, but instead it just kept coming down, harder than ever; and then the morning after the incident at the screening, when Ventura was at one end of the hallway and I was at the other, and the Princess was walking from me to him or him to me—I had long since lost track of who was transferring her to whom—suddenly the ceiling gave way and a hundred gallons of rain collapsed into the Hamblin. Like the day I picked her up out of the rapids of the Sunset Strip, it nearly washed her down the stairs; she only barely sidestepped the deluge in time. She began screaming like a banshee. Still screaming, water flooding the hallway around her, she fled down the stairs and out the front of the building, and down Jacob Hamblin Road where we could hear her all the way to Santa Monica Boulevard. Ventura and I ran down to the hotel lobby behind her, where we locked and bolted the doors and silently thanked the rain, which had condemned us to her in the first place, for now delivering us from her.
The day she erected the Memoryscope, Viv had lunch in the Glow Loft District with a guy she had known since art school. He had been married for a long time, with a couple of children, and worked for one of the few studios that were still left in L.A. He wasn’t someone with whom Viv had an especially close friendship, but they got along well enough that, once beyond the cordialities, he felt free to tell her the story of a woman he had loved very much, since around the time his marriage had gone bad. He never had an affair with this woman but thought of her as his best friend and confidante, and dreamed that once his children were grown he would spend the rest of his life with her. One day, only a few months before, the woman had been killed in a car accident with her husband; their child, a little girl, had been in the back seat and emerged miraculously unscathed. Another couple driving by when the accident took place pulled their car over and held the little girl until the police and ambulance arrived, praying with the child and protecting her from the sight of her dead parents. Now the studio executive could only live with the realization he would never have the time with this woman he had longed for and dreamed of.
For days and weeks Viv was haunted by this story. She was terribly shaken by the chance he had had to be happy, and how that chance was now gone forever because he had never taken it. It was after hearing this story that she began to feel the pain in her stomach, below her heart. Doctors couldn’t tell her what was wrong; a few suggested nothing was wrong. But I knew something was wrong. If anything, Viv was the kind to try and minimize something, ignore it, so that even when she called in the middle of the night in agony, she couldn’t quite bring herself to ask me to come. One night I was shocked to find her doubled up on her bed, her face as yellow as her hair and both streaked with sweat; the pain had spread from her stomach to her back, where the muscles had convulsed so long she couldn’t stand it anymore. She hurt so much that when she cried she hardly made a sound. I put some of her things into a bag and took her down to the car, and drove her back to the Hamblin slumped and dazed in the seat next to me; and as I kept trying to tell myself I had had no idea she was so sick, she kept murmuring over and over, under her breath so that I could barely make it out, “I guess you’re not such a bad guy after all.” It didn’t make me feel any better.
After a day or two in my apartment, I realized she was starving. She couldn’t eat anything; anything the least bit solid seemed to cut right through her. I concocted one gruel after another that she wouldn’t eat because it hurt too much, and no amount of badgering on my part could force her. When she wasn’t sleeping she was bent in pain, a terrified look in her eyes, and when she did finally fall asleep, the pain woke her up. “What’s wrong with me?” she cried. For days this went on, and I got it into my head that one last No from those first days at the Seacastle, one last No that had been hiding up inside her that she had never released, was devouring her from the inside out. …
Finally, though, after time, the general sense of crisis began to pass. Finally the rains stopped as unequivocally as they had begun; down the hall Ventura appeared to survive, at least for the time being, the creamy blood frothing in his veins. Perhaps there was nothing left of Viv for the No to consume, and so it was the No that starved, wasting away; perhaps a predatory doubt inside her had evolved into a winged resolution that was suddenly poised to take flight. After a week of my pabulum she slowly graduated to hot cereal, mashed potatoes, rice and bread and ice cream. Still exhausted she slept all day and night, and in the new sunlight through the window she looked about six or seven years old. Viv always hated it when people told her she sometimes looked like a little girl; but sitting in the corner of my bedroom watching her sleep, I was surprised by a momentary desire to have a daughter someday, if only she would look just like Viv. Then one afternoon she sat right up in my bed from out of her sleep, as if from out of a dream. “I have to go to Holland,” she announced. It was the first fully coherent sentence she had said in a week.
“Holland?” I stood by the bed looking down at her, and put my hands in my pockets, not sure what else to do with them. If I were to have put them on her, it might have been mistaken as an attempt to restrain or suppress something. My heart sagged like a ceiling full of rain.
“To build the other Memoryscope,” she explained.
“Because that’s where the one here is pointed.”
“How do you know?”
“I dreamed it,” she said. I nodded. We could pull out a map and check; but what was the point? I had no doubt that any map would say Holland as certainly as her dream did. “So I have to go to Holland,” she said, “to build another one, pointing back.”
I sat down on the bed beside her.
“Come with me,” she said.
“I don’t know.”
“It seems,” she said, “like you should know.”
“Yes, it does.”
“But you don’t. So you can’t.”
“Not yet, anyway. Something’s not finished here for me.”
“Well,” I tried to smile, “that’s what I don’t know.”
“So how long do you have to stay here before it’s finished?” and then, irritated, she answered herself, “I know, you don’t know that either. You don’t know anything.”
“I don’t want to lose you,” was all I could think to say.
She asked, “Do you believe, after all your disastrous romances, that you’re capable of loving deeply?”
“Yes. Maybe more,” I answered, though I didn’t want to have to explain that, because I wasn’t sure I could.
She seemed unconvinced. “I need your undying passion, like you had for Sally and Lauren.”
“You make me happy.”
“That’s not the same as undying passion,” she said, and I couldn’t think fast enough to explain that while my passion for Sally or Lauren might have been undying, the man who felt those particular passions had died, and that while I bore him a resemblance, I was different, and that the passion I felt for Viv was a new kind of undying passion, of a new man, and that it was better because she was better, because I trusted her in a way I could never trust anyone else. I remembered a night she had come to me, long ago, in our early days when I was at my most mute and we weren’t really getting along; it was late one night, and early in the morning Viv had to catch a train out of town—a business trip or family visit, I don’t remember, or maybe one of those little Viv impulses that was going to take her wherever she happened to wind up, Butte or Madagascar or Holland. On this night I had one of my headaches, and she sat in the dark stroking my brow till I fell asleep. There are a few things I know I’ll remember at the end of my life. Some of them may be things I would as soon forget, things so small they should have been forgotten a long time ago, but so sharp they can’t be; others are things like Viv exhausted, sitting in the dark for hours on end stroking my brow until I fell asleep. She probably doesn’t think twice about it now. She’s probably forgotten it completely. But I think about it all the time, every time my head feels like it’s splitting down the middle: it is the soothing touch of trust and forgiveness; and if any other woman has ever touched me like that, and in retrospect I can imagine one or two might have, I was neither smart nor old nor unselfish enough to recognize it. Thinking back on it, it makes me ashamed to have ever suggested that a woman wouldn’t die for love.
Right before Viv left for Holland came K’s most recent correspondence. Now, you understand I don’t necessarily cop to everything K has to say; she has only seen the secret room, after all, and the literary one I suppose, so her perspective must be considered accordingly. But after copping to everything else, I don’t have much reason to conceal anything anymore: “S, I fell into a river of thought about you this morning, and this is the current I fell into. … Your sense of love is overwhelming and imprisoning. You contrive both release and relief from it, which then makes you feel guilty. Then you suffer for your guilt, but it’s preferable to the suffering of a great love. You are powerless in the throes of a great love so you’re compelled to assert yourself in various ways, eventually gaining your freedom. The price of freedom is guilt. The price of love is guilt. The pain of separation is preferable to the stress of obsession. You’re possessed and obsessed until you break away—so, from feeling powerless and resentful, you gain a sense of mastery and control through domination and bondage. But conversely it’s her love that dominates and binds you. Love courses through you with such intensity (you may laugh) that you rebel against it, and against the feeling of being controlled by something or someone else. In one way or another you are going to free yourself, in order to feel that you’re not powerless. So you’ll force yourself on her and derive satisfaction from it, and when you try to subdue her, you’re trying to subdue that which subdues you; but you are really the one you’re subduing. … Pretty good for a Saturday morning, don’t you think?”
God, I can’t stand it.
I can’t stand that she had to go. After she told me she was going, she was angry, I think; I was not; and she was angry, I think,
I was not, not to mention that I wasn’t going with her and couldn’t offer a good reason why, even as I could have offered a hundred good reasons why I should. We didn’t talk about it after that. We didn’t talk about anything. In the void of our talk I thought furiously, to formulate a reason that we could talk about, but I couldn’t think of any that counted. Over the next couple of weeks, as she prepared to go, the sun hurtled toward L.A., to fill the hole in the sky where the rain used to be. The city became a swamp. Buildings buckled and roads turned to glue. Fauna grew from the Hamblin floors and walls; toadstools erupted from the cracks of my baseboards and lichen layered the ceiling. A radiant red moss covered my windowsills and strange mounds rose beneath my carpet. I weeded the kitchen and pruned the bathroom, and hacked my way to the refrigerator with a knife. Sometime during the night before she left, I finally got angry but I didn’t know at what; I had been getting angry a lot lately without knowing why. Nothing had broken the silence between Viv and me through all the recent weeks, or through the night before her departure; and even after I got angry it could not break through the silence of the drive to Union Station to catch her train to St. Louis, where she would then catch a plane to Europe. Even walking to the train there was nothing I could think to say that was worth breaking the silence for: the small talk in my head only felt like it would trivialize everything we felt and everything we held back. I kept wishing she would tell me again I wasn’t such a bad guy after all. On the train we found her compartment and I helped her with the luggage; she was still a bit weak. And then, all I could finally say was, “God, I can’t stand it,” and she looked at me with the hope there was more. And there was more, and I wanted to tell her, but I couldn’t just now, just yet.