From the fourth seat in the second row I’ll be almost perfectly aligned with the podium. Since it’s almost an hour before the reading starts, and I’ve picked out where I’m going to sit, I nervously browse. Reading titles from the book spines, authors, and publishing houses silently. Calming, calming. I’m able to avert an episode of tachycardia (Jean’s branding) before reaching the C’s.
Seated. Waiting. I grip the new copy of More Things I’ve Wanted protectively, yet careful not to get sweat smudges on the jacket. I try to read the table of contents but only get as far as “Astrology Aside: Why Relationships Spontaneously Combust” before having to close the book and count backwards in French from one hundred: “cent, quatre-vingt-dix-neuf, quatre-vingt-dix-huit, quatre-vingt-dix sept, quatre-vingt-dix-seize …” (a tip from Eileen Gray’s first book) until acidity rolls back down my esophagus again.
She strides down the aisle between the banks of folding chairs, amid thunderous applause, like she’s gliding. From her post at the podium, she is luminous—radiant—glowing. Her hair hangs behind her, brushing her shoulders, billowing for miles, so blonde, and she pushes it back, sliding both hands into it—smiles gratefully—she’s saying thank you and motioning for the audience to subsist—I follow her lead—when the roar drops lowly enough:
“This is … well … this has to be one of the most … truly boisterous of receptions …” A couple in the front row chuckles and Eileen Gray responds: “No, seriously. I can tell right now, book or not, this, well …” She smiles. “Maybe I should just start?”
She begins to read. It’s perfect. This blue light beams down on her and washes over all of us—it’s hypnotic—it takes on different shades: there’s brilliant and cerulean and cobalt and phthalocyanine and ultramarine and caribbean and a turquoise that reminds me of being five years old—all in perfect accord with the pacing and rhythm of her voice. The chapter she reads flawlessly—an anecdote about a boyfriend and how he refused to drive anywhere—I know this story—she alluded to it in the first book—and this guy was completely wrong for her, she intones, he liked to eat pizza and may have been a Republican but more likely a Nazi but really what is the difference? and only used the big forks and couldn’t give her an orgasm without going down on her but was always so sloppy about it and was completely incorrigible as a tipper in restaurants.
Now the light is pink—reddish—and she questions the audience—the question was not why but where and when. She pauses at the end, reaches for a small bottle of water, and the audience claps wildly.
And I tarry, sort of, in approaching—I let all these housewives and professors queue up first, remaining seated. I watch Eileen Gray intently: how she graciously accepts the compliments, smiles and leans forwards to shake hands or confirm personalization spellings. Several freezes for eager, smooth-moving photographers. We make eye contact several times. We share a sigh as the blonde girl with tiny legs ushers away an elderly woman carrying a handful of Eileen Gray’s headshots she probably bought on eBay and hardcover editions, who tries to reach out and grab onto Eileen—the blonde girl practically has to pry her off—and when the situation is over we look at each other. Her eyes say, god can you believe this? It’s so overwhelming.
I push my copy toward her when it’s my turn. I’m shaking and sucking in breaths. She smiles reassuringly.
“Thanks for coming,” she says. She quickly scans the Post-it stuck to the jacket flap, “Robert.”
“You’ve written some really amazing things,” I say. I have to step to the side so the line can continue.
“Thank you,” she says. “I feel like a big idiot up here sometimes, but you know.” She opens another copy that a woman passes forward, signs the title page with a Sharpie. I peer down at her hands. “So you’re right handed. I always imagined you’d be left.”
“Really?” She leans toward me. A professor drops his glasses and fumbles to pick them up, nervous and embarrassed. We acknowledge that we find this sad and amusing through a short series of shared looks and nods.
“Yeah, I guess I read into stuff like that,” I say.
“I’m glad I’m not the only one.”
“So, what are you doing after this?”
“Why?” she asks. “What’s going on?”
It’s practically empty in Gary Barnett’s. Eileen Gray smokes Marlboro Lights and checks messages on her cell phone. We’re drinking wine. I start to feel like I’ve been looking at her for too long. She closes her phone.
“What?” she asks. “You’re staring at me in a funny way.”
“Nothing.” I fold my hands, gaze into her eyes longingly for a second. Then I crack up. “This is all just, well, you know …”
“Ineffable?” she suggests. “Surreal?”
“Well, yes, in a lot of ways,” I concede.
“That’s good,” she says, nodding. She reaches for her wine glass, and gives it a little shake in the air, which signals the bartender.
“You know it’s too late when you can say how you feel.”
“Do you want something to eat?”
“Yeah, that sounds nice.”
She pays our bar tab, without examining the itemization, with a credit card that has somebody else’s name on it.
“I’d like a chicken pot pie,” she says, after I ask her where she’d like to go.
“We could go to Baker’s Square,” I mumble.
She laughs. “I haven’t been to one since grad school.”
“If you don’t—”
“—No,” she returns. “That sounds perfect.”
We board a taxi, one of three idling in the Omni’s circular driveway, and I give the driver directions to the restaurant, the corner of Touhy and Western in Chicago.
“I’m having a hard time telling the difference between Evanston and New Haven and Bronxville and D.C. and Wellesley,” she sighs. “I know we’re not at the Vineyard because there’s no water and I know this isn’t Auckland because there are no kangaroos,” she says confidently.
“I barely recognize anything and I’ve lived here forever,” I say.
“At least something holds you,” she says.
In the Baker’s Square parking lot, Eileen pays the driver with the credit card with someone else’s name on it. Inside, after we’ve ordered coffee and meatloaf and a chicken potpie, I ask about it.
“It’s my editor’s,” she says. She claps her hands. “I’m surprised you’d notice that.”
“I was just … well, you know—” I can’t shake the feeling that I sound like a goofy, headstrong teenager right now.
Maybe she doesn’t notice my awkwardness. She launches forward. “It’s funny,” she says, and pushes her coffee away, as though having it in front of her will somehow mitigate her ideas. “I’m famous by name only—hardly anybody recognizes my face—with a scarf and Prada sunglasses I could be anybody—but my name. That’s when I get into trouble.”
“Well,” she starts. “It’s not like I get ambushed or anything. But people want autographs, interviews, advice on their dissertations, what have you. It gets tedious.”
“I can imagine.”
“But most of the time, they just want to—” she leans toward me and whispers, “talk.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“I guess nothing,” she says, “like in theory.”
“Where do you go from here?”
“On the tour? Well, in nine cities, I’ll get to sleep in my apartment for two nights.”
“How long does this go on for?”
“Another month. Then I’m doing a workshop at the Sorbonne and then some MTV thing. It’s going to be me and some of the Real World alumni. Heather B is slated to host.”
I look at the plate in front of me, a smudge of browns and grays. I drag a fork through mashed potatoes like they’re molasses and impale a couple of snap peas.
“What are you thinking?” she asks.
I put down the fork. “July” is all I say.
“Yeah,” she says, drawing the word out. “And?”
“So, Paris,” I say.
“Yeah,” she says. “That’s the only thing I’m looking forward to. I want to live in Paris—”
“Quel arrondisement?” I tease, in my best Kevin Kline-as-Frenchman voice, two fingers under my nose for a moustache.
She laughs hysterically. “I haven’t really thought about it,” she manages to eke out. She clutches herself and sighs deeply.
“You know, I’ve never been,” I say, looking at a clock across the restaurant that appears not to have any hands. “To France, to Europe. Nothing.”
“Why haven’t you? Not even when you were growing up?”
“My parents were emotionally challenged? Socially inept? Xenophobic? I don’t know why.”
“So go,” she says. “Do something about it.”
A busboy clears our plates. Then, a different waitress approaches our table. She’s young, maybe twenty, and wears a purple tank top. She lifts a hand to her head, touching brown and black hair that’s pulled back, matted thickly because of how hot it is in the restaurant. A silver necklace with an ankh hanging from it dangles before her when she leans in, balancing herself against the edge of the table. Muscular thighs. Tight, brown shoulders. A chill runs through me.
Later, we order pie. Eileen chooses apple; I ask for peach.
“Why do you keep smelling your hands?” I ask Eileen. She looks tense and rubs her eyes periodically.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” she sighs. “I’m just having a blue flash.”
“Really?” I ask, excited. “Tell me more.”
“It’s hard to describe,” she says, then quickly adds, “right now, it feels like it may be turning green, like parsley.”
“Are you okay? Do you want me to get the check?” I feel my concern in my throat. “Parsley?”
She reaches into her purse, digs around, and comes back with a small pill case and several pens. She takes a yellow pill out of the case and puts it in her mouth, swallowing it down with water.
“Ask for some more napkins,” she urges.
I ask the waitress with the tattoo if she could bring us some. She comes back with only one, and it’s tiny, barely large enough for a cocktail. Eileen looks at me worriedly and I tell the waitress, “I need more. Like two or three. Is that okay?”
She rolls her eyes and sighs as she walks away. She returns with exactly two more and continues to look entirely harried from the request, from having to deal with Eileen and me for so long, being so importunate and recklessly needy.
“Okay,” Eileen says, after the waitress shuffles away. She hands me one of the pens. “I want you to do something—”
“Write something you’re thinking.” She pauses, awaiting my reaction. When I don’t laugh or throw my hands in the air, she continues. “I’ll tell you when to stop.”
“Okay,” I say, checking other tables to see if anyone watches. We start. She immediately delves into hers, trying to hold the edges of the napkin flatly enough so that the pen doesn’t break through. I think about this briefly before starting. In a couple of moments, she says, “Okay, done?” capping her pen.
“Done,” I say.
“Read yours,” she implores.
I lift the napkin up and clear my throat dramatically. “’He didn’t have a place to go,’” I start, squinting. “‘He had been living in her apartment; he moved in during that spring, and things were still going on.’” I look up at her.
“Good,” she says. “Here’s mine: ‘This summer I want to eat a very large salad. Then I want a glass of Bordeaux, and then I want to go home.’”
“I just wanted to hear something you didn’t say.” She takes both napkins and folds them up, dropping all the materials back into her purse.
“What are you thinking but not saying?” I ask.
She doesn’t answer until we’re heading back to the hotel, down Western Avenue in a different taxi than the one we arrived in. She says, “Let’s leave. Let’s go to Wisconsin.”
“Wisconsin?” I ask, playfully. “Why there?”
She looks at me seriously, unyielding.
“I’m reading there tomorrow night. In Madison.”
“And you want me to come?”
I lean back, hard against the vinyl car seat. “I don’t know how we would, I mean—buses stop running, trains—”
“Your car. You’ll drive.”
“I don’t have a car.”
“We’ll rent one.”
“I don’t drive.”
“I’m afraid to.”
“I just am,” I stammer. “I have been for some time now.”
“Why is that? Did something happen?”
“No, nothing happened.”
“Well, why then?”
“I just don’t want to get hurt, I guess. I’m scared.”
She takes my hand, wraps hers around it. Her palm feels warm. We’re following behind a semi truck. The taxi driver follows the truck too closely and doesn’t brake when the truck does, he just keeps charging toward it, barreling down Western, like he’s daring it to stop. Eileen is kind of entranced by this scene—watching the driver’s crazed, maniacal eyes that want to scream out Yeah, Yeah with this bizarre intensity and she takes her cell phone out (“voice mail,” she explains) but doesn’t take her eyes off the driver or the truck in front and I wonder why the driver doesn’t just pull into the other lane in which no cars travel. Where everything is safe.
First and last movements.
A Mendelssohn trio drifts into the room through the clock radio on the nightstand. Eileen orders a bottle of an expensive wine from room service. I lie back on the bed.
“This was all I could find,” I say, after she hangs up the phone, pointing at the radio. The music is interspersed with unwieldy gusts of static.
“Oh,” she says, as though noticing for the first time. “That’s okay.” She takes off her sweater and folds it. The shirt she’s left wearing has no sleeves. She sits in the armchair across from the bed.
I close my eyes, listening to the music. So soft, so serene. When I concentrate hard enough, the static noises disappear.
“Come with me, Robert,” she says. I feel her voice drawing closer to me, yet softer, almost an undulating whisper, a tide. “I want you to.”
“What if I said yes,” I ask slowly, dreamily. “Where would we go?”
She climbs on the bed and lies on her stomach beside me. I open my eyes and look at her. She kicks off her shoes and they fall onto the floor behind her with two quick thuds.
“Anywhere,” she says.
“What would I tell Jean?”
“Nothing,” she says, and then adds, “you could say you wanted to take the bus somewhere and draw.”
“She wouldn’t believe it—she thinks I’m way too indolent. She doesn’t even have me grocery shop.”
“It’s not entirely unlikely,” she offers. She runs a finger down the length of buttons on my shirt. “It’s entirely feasible.”
“What if we start,” I say.
“What if we start and it keeps going and it gets beyond us and it’s still going and then what do we do?” My eyelids loom heavily and I close them, quickly growing unable to compete with their insistence.
“It never does,” she murmurs, her lips touching the side of my ear. “You don’t have to worry about that—it will never be beyond us—”
“What if we can’t breathe? What if it fills our lungs like a fluid and eventually consumes us?”
“What if it doesn’t?”
I might say, “Maybe it already has and we just don’t know?” but I can’t tell for sure.
The music on the radio rises to a crescendo—a pinnacle it’s never reached. A place higher than I’ve ever heard it—higher than, perhaps, anybody has. Then it drops. A knock at the door.
When I wake up, the room is completely dark. I’m disoriented, can’t place myself in the context until I turn on the lamp above, on the little wooden night table. She’s gone. I’m still wearing my clothes, my shirt, my jeans, my shoes. The clock radio display informs me that it’s afternoon. She’s gone. No luggage on the stand, no sound of running water in the bathroom.
I call Jean from the payphone downstairs.
She asks me where I am.
“I’m so sorry,” I blubber into the phone. The tears flow steadily even though I’m shaking.
She says I should come home.
I wipe my nose with a wrinkled sleeve. An elderly couple passes me on their way into the restaurant and they look at me tenderly. Outside, the sun is staggering.
One afternoon, a month or two later, I take the mail in. Interposed between bills and catalogs is a postcard and I almost pass over it. It’s a long scene—a panoramic shot of a breakfast table on a wooden veranda, two empty deck chairs, fruit and croissants, a bowl and strawberries. Tiny paper caps cover glasses of cranberry and orange juice. Plants and pink and white and red flowers. Clouds provide a beatific backdrop for the majestic, pointed edifice beyond.
It’s from the Marignan-Elysees:
le 6 juillet 97 Dear Robert, This postcard is a picture of our terrace off of our room—it’s wonderful seeing the Eiffel Tower when we wake up & go to sleep. If you think the paper napkin situation was bad in Evanston, you should see Spain—they’re wax coated so that you get NO absorbency. Vive la France. Love, Eileen.
I flip the card over and stare at the scene closely—how beautiful it really is—a perfect rendering of such an inviting day. I can almost feel the warmth begin to permeate the room—it’s a brilliant July sun at its zenith—outside it’s even more wonderful than just looking at it—golden and yellow and fiery when I go to meet it. I start walking.