Authors: Steve Erickson
In the months after I left Sally and returned to Los Angeles, I had many unusual dreams. I wrote some of them down. In one I had the distinct and certain sense that the only option left to me in my life was suicide. This sounds more melodramatic than it felt. In my dream I wasn’t conscious of any unbearable pain, just that my identity was irrevocably dead, that my life was over even as my body went on living, out of sync with the reality of my life. Killing myself was the only way to get myself in sync. It wasn’t an emotional decision but a practical one. I remember saying to myself, I wish this were a dream; but I knew it wasn’t. It was like the dream I had about my father after he died, in which we met and, knowing he was dead, I argued with him over whether it was a dream, and he kept telling me it wasn’t. Now, in this dream, I was looking through a window on a large yard, trying to read a notebook with words written close together in blue ink; a fleeting memory says Sally was in one of the rooms of the house. … A murdered woman, lying in the corner of my apartment, who I had the vague sense of having known. … There was an instant, however, when she seemed to turn her head; and when I looked again she was gone, and in her place on my apartment floor was my desk lamp, lying on its side, the tall metal one that Viv says looks like the kind used in gynecological examinations. For a moment I was elated by the possibility that this murder hadn’t happened after all, but part of me wouldn’t accept this; and in the months after Sally, I constantly had dreams like this, that questioned themselves and their own dream-nature, dreams built on memories rather than visions—not a vision of a woman being murdered but the memory of it. Memories, in other words, of things that not only never actually happened but that I had never even dreamed before; and yet in these dreams the memories were already there, delivered from some place that was neither consciousness nor unconsciousness.
In a little gallery in Baghdadville not so long ago, I found these silver balls. About four inches in diameter, and breathtaking in their uselessness. You can’t look inside them to see colors, like in a kaleidoscope; you can’t put them to your ear and hear the sound of the sky, like shells on the beach that hold the sound of the ocean. As artifacts they’re distinctly uninteresting except for how uninteresting they are: round in shape, and nothing
round; silver in color, and nothing
silver. They don’t stay in one place but roll maddeningly back and forth from one end of my shelves to the other. I bought half a dozen. It was only later that Viv read to me an ancient Chinese legend from the Tsui Dynasty, about winged dragons that flew over China snatching white mares up into the sky and mounting them. Drops of the dragons’ semen spilled to earth, freezing into silver balls that littered the hillsides. Now, after hearing this story, when I put the silver balls to my ear, I hear the sky after all. Now when I gaze into their reflection, I see the embryos of little dragons swirling in a sea of sulfur. At night, when I’m in bed between Viv’s legs, they drop from the shelves to the floor and roll into the moonlight, waiting for its cold gleam to evaporate them homeward. …
Sally is married. I found out a couple of nights ago in a bar from someone who, like everyone else, had been waiting for someone else to break the news to me, and assumed that by now someone had; thus, given the half-life of a rumor between the time it is rumor and the time it is truth, one can calculate it must have happened a while ago, perhaps as far as last spring. I gather that Los Angeles is full of people who have known about Sally’s marriage for some time, and wondered how long it would be before I found out. She called a couple of months back, right after bumping into Ventura on one of his trips to Austin. When he got back to L.A. he told me he’d seen her, but not much else; maybe he knew and maybe he didn’t. She left a couple of messages and I called back and left a message with whoever it was that answered the telephone; then I didn’t hear from her again. Then I ran into this woman in a bar, a good friend of ours when Sally and I were together, and we were talking and she let slip about having been Sally’s bridesmaid. “Bridesmaid?” I said, not sure I heard right over the clatter; but even in the dark I could see her face go from one shade of white to one of red and back again.
I’m not really so angry that no one told me sooner. I’m the world’s biggest coward myself in such situations, and figure it isn’t my responsibility to bring the news that someone else should have brought, just because I happened to have had the bad luck of being in the time and place to have heard it. I’m not even so angry that Sally didn’t tell me. The truth is that, even though Sally should have been the one to tell me, I wouldn’t have wanted to hear it from her. I would have felt the need, for either her sake or mine, to find an eloquent or graceful way of expressing my feelings, when I wouldn’t have felt particularly eloquent or gracious. My rage about the whole thing—and it
a rage, no one should have any doubt about that—my rage about it isn’t that I’ve been waiting for Sally to come back to me, because I haven’t, or waiting to go back to her, because I wouldn’t, but that this marriage is a lie; and while in a world of liars I’m a liar too, this lie is too profound for even me. I last saw her a year ago. She was in town and came by to leave off some things that were mine that she had never gotten around to returning, or that I had never gotten around to wanting back; when I answered the door her face was still that mix of anger and guilt and sadness it had been since I left—or was she the one who left? Down at the corner café, as the flames of the third ring began rising over the hill, she asked, “But why is it I mess everything up? And how is it that I messed
up?” and when she said it, it was with the same deathly sadness that was on her face almost five years before, when we were at the beginning rather than the end, sitting in a little bar on La Cienega and staring out the window. “Another man,” she said quietly then, meaning me, naturally, “that I’m going to make miserable.” I laughed it off, not having a better response. I didn’t have a response this time either. The part of me that could never be unkind to her wanted to give her an answer: “Well, you did the best you could”—that sort of thing. Take her off the hook. But I don’t take anyone off the hook anymore. So I had no answer for Sally. Guess the silence must have been devastating. Maybe it was in that silent moment that Sally’s marriage became inevitable. We finished the coffee and left, before the heat of the backfires in the distance became too unbearable.
I once loved a woman named Lauren. Now in retrospect there seems a very clear connection between Lauren and Sally, though they could not have been more different, and though there were ten years between my knowing them. Sally dark, Lauren light, one a singer and the other a child therapist, holding in common only their confusion. When Lauren finally went back to her husband, many things about me weren’t the same after that, and some things were dead a long time. For a long time after Lauren there was no believing in love, not the love that makes you a force of nature; for years after she went back to Jason, every now and then she would call to say hello, and I couldn’t hear her voice without turning inside out. I never blamed her. “Well, you did the best you could.” I knew, and still know, that nothing she did was out of malice, but rather turmoil: which of us always knows our heart so well, or follows it so bravely? And then, a full decade later, just after I had left my own wife and fallen in love with Sally, the phone rang one night and it was Lauren. I don’t think her husband had been out the door—or her life—all of five minutes before she called me. And I couldn’t see her then, not with my own marriage in shambles and a new love affair I hadn’t even begun to decode yet. So over the next two years we talked, and finally I went to see her after things fell apart with Sally; she was living near the beach, and at the first sight of her in the doorway I knew someone can turn your world upside down and then enough time can pass that she can’t turn it right side up again. We had dinner. We didn’t make love. I held her and she slept in my arms. “I’m not expecting anything,” she lied when I left.
That night after I got home I had one dream after another, each connecting into a long tunnel at the end of which I could see the past. It was an insane night, everything in turmoil, the turmoil of Lauren revisited in the midst of the turmoil of Sally. In the weeks that followed she left a number of messages, which I answered only after deliberate and growing delays. Leaving the country on a long-planned vacation, she phoned within hours of returning; it was a week before I called back, gracing her phone machine with an excuse so feeble it infuriated even me. Her reaction, on my machine the next day, was as startling as it was brief: “I’ve been thinking,” she said carefully, “we’ve had a long history together. A very long history.” And then she paused. “I don’t want you to ever call me again.” And then she hung up.
I told you, I don’t let anyone off the hook anymore. The woman took eleven years to decide she wanted me back. I took a week to return her phone call—and she never wanted to hear from me again. So I didn’t call, as she had said not to, though I suspected she didn’t really mean it; and six months later I received yet another message on my machine, one she was obviously reading from something she had written out, an extraordinarily bitter piece about what a liar I was. And the love of years before, when I loved her more than I had ever loved anyone, when she changed forever how I loved people, exploded, its shrapnel still hurtling down the years of my life. I knew she was terrified now, alone and alienated from a past that was embodied by a husband to whom she had sacrificed everything. Now she was living with the horror of having made the wrong choice; when I couldn’t unmake it for her, she hated me. “It’s been a year since you asked me never to call you again” I finally wrote her. “I’ve often thought it was a mistake that I didn’t anyway. I’m not writing now to get in the last word on anything; if you really believe my love was a lie, I don’t think there’s much I could say that would change your mind. But after a year it’s become too much for me to live with and not answer it: though for the time being it may have become necessary for you to believe differently, I had to write and tell you that if there are ways in which time has changed or misled either of us, or if we both wound up letting each other’s love down, my love was real, and I always knew yours was as well, and I think deep down you know it too.”
Well, perhaps. I don’t know what’s real about love anymore, except that the last thing I want is to sound cynical about it. Perhaps you have to get to the end of your life to know what’s real about it or maybe, as my mother did with my father, you have to spend a life with one person to know how real is the turmoil of love as opposed to how glib is the turmoil of romance. I sent Lauren the letter and a week later it came back, unopened; I still have it, sealed in the envelope with the postmark, as though sometime I expect to have to produce it for a judge or jury, to prove that it really exists, and that I really made the effort of writing it. Lauren called yet again, months later, getting in one last cut: “I guess,” she said, “I stayed with Jason because at least he was honest.” And maybe you really believe that, Lauren. Maybe for the moment you’ve convinced yourself that’s true, so I won’t try and convince you otherwise, except to say you’re going to have to spend a lifetime convincing yourself of that one, because you couldn’t convince anyone else for two seconds. He abused you, he cheated on you, he lied to you on a daily basis, and you still stayed with him
, and it isn’t my fault
. It breaks my heart, and I’m as sorry as I can be, truly sorry, not the sorry of contempt or even pity but the sorry of empathy with another human soul who can botch up her life as efficiently as the rest of us. But it isn’t my fault, and I’m done apologizing to people for their bad choices. I’ve never expected anyone to apologize for mine.
Trained by a world of men who stop caring about them once their youth and beauty run out, the women who have been double-crossed by time look around, all of their possibilities suddenly vanished, barely retaining what a vicious world trained them to consider their assets, and then they savagely reassess their situations, Thinking back, squinting hard at a memory, they reconstruct in their minds a hazy image. Then they say to themselves, Well, actually, he wasn’t so bad. He never hit me. He was faithful, far as I knew. He didn’t take my money. He listened to me as though I was more intelligent than an ashtray. In bed he could make me come, or at least tried to, and when I cried he took me in his arms and, not often, but every once in a while, even cried with me. He wasn’t, in other words, absolutely the most selfish, loutish individual I’ve ever known. There were even a few of my friends who thought I was a fool to let him go. No, now that I think about it, he wasn’t so bad at all; in fact, now that I think about it, I wonder if I still have his phone number, from all those years ago. … And so they call. Desperation on their lips and in their throats; and it just makes me feel lousy. I’m appalled by their terror, and the part of me that’s still left from before, back around the time I got married, from my idealistic days which even my best friends cannot bring themselves to believe I’ve so brutally discarded, that part of me wants to take the terror out of these women and cast it aside for them. I swear. I want to assure them their lives aren’t over, that they won’t be alone all the time, which is the thing that scares them shitless—and that if they
alone, it won’t be so bad. But I’m in that minority of people who believes it’s better to be alone than with someone you despise, unless, of course, the someone you despise happens to be yourself.
Not long after Lauren went back to her husband, I moved into a little upstairs-downstairs studio in a cul-de-sac near MacArthur Park. On this street lived the last of L.A.’s elite, professors from the nearby art school and the inheritors of Old Money who had been there fifty years, since a time when this was one of the city’s most exclusive neighborhoods. Now of course the neighborhood was overrun by the hordes: punks and students and aspiring artists, of whom I was one. Next door lived a young couple, a day laborer named Roy who had been laid off about a year before and sat around all afternoon listening to the radio and doing drugs until his wife got home from work, when they would head off for the clubs in Chinatown. I fell in with them, I don’t even remember exactly how. He complained one night about how loud my music was through the walls, but appreciated my taste and decided I should come along on their nightly rounds; or maybe it was her idea all along. Her name was Madeline. She worked for a secretarial temp agency that sent her out to one law office after another, where eventually the moment arrived when the head partner propositioned her and she had to move on.