Because believing it makes it real
Billy Strange smiled awkwardly, and his hand shook as he rubbed the back of it against my cheek. Rain thrashed against a window, making the only sound in this anonymous hotel room somewhere in Inglewood, near LAX — the roar of jets coming in and taking off, coming in and taking off.
“Took us a while to get here,” he said.
Yes, it had.
“I always played it safe,” he said. “Let opportunities slip away. Always afraid to open myself to new experiences.”
“You tried. We can’t afford to bear our mistakes like crosses. Besides, I was the one who kept putting you off,” I said.
I didn’t really believe an opportunity had been missed. The old logic was outdated. Only the logic of today mattered. In some respects, I was pleased with how he had changed, in others I missed Billy as he once was, unspoiled, full of naiveté and the ambition to do something remarkable.
What happened to his interest in math? I asked him. What happened to his desire to plumb the mysteries of zero?
He laughed. There was, he saw, no future in math. He still loved numbers but not in the same idealistic, abstract way. Being a mathematician was like being a poet. Great for the soul, but a lousy way to earn a living. So he went to work in his father’s bank. But what about zero? Zero, he said, was still zero. What was the point of pursuing mysteries you had no hope of solving? What did it get you? Did it feed you? Did it pay your electric bill? Did it build equity? Zero was zero. Nothing. So he had joined the bank, as his father had wished. Plenty of numbers there. Numbers were good. Big numbers were very good. Not many zeros, except as place holders. Here, any other kind of zero was evil.
“We have special consultants who come in,” he said. “They put on ermine robes and cone-shaped hats. They go from computer to computer, waving their wands and chanting their Latin incantations, driving out all the bad zeros!”
He looked to see if I was smiling, and I was. I recognized the old Billy Strange.
“I once thought that zero was the answer to everything,” he said. “If you could just penetrate that hole in the middle of it, get inside it, you would be able to see the one thing from which everything came. Do you know where zero originated?”
“Yes, from the Greek god Zephiros, the West Wind. That’s all it is. A bit of warm air from the place in the sky where the sun comes to rest. What’s the meaning of that? It just is what it is.”
I wondered if he could see my disappointment and looked deep in his eyes, finding them inattentive, preoccupied.
He looked away.
I asked him what happened to his personal philosophy and his dedication to finding the essential mystery of the void. Not God but something far more amazing. Not something made up, but something real. He laughed again and said he couldn’t afford to waste his time on wild goose chases. He was now back where he started — a Christian, but not of the Episcopalian variety he rejected as a child. Now he was part of a small Pentecostal sect that his wife belonged to. “Makes life so much easier,” he said. “You buy the whole package and forget about it. They loved it when I calculated the Second Coming.”
“When is it?”
“Four hundred years from now.”
“That’s a relief.”
“How about you?”
“What about out me?”
“Not too keen with the way things are turning out.”
“My God, just look at you. You’re gorgeous, successful, rich. What more could you want?”
The late afternoon had turned to evening. I glanced at the window where our images were reflected on the dark pane, checking to see what such a person looked like. I found myself impressed, not because this woman was, in fact, myself, but because, despite all her insecurities and fears, her precarious footing on the tightrope of sanity, she seemed outwardly so sure of herself, so alluring, so confident in her powers to get what she wanted.
“Happiness?” I said, unable to come up with a better word that adequately described the zero at the core of my being.
“I can’t believe you’re not happy. I envy you. Your refusal to compromise, to buckle under. I envy your freedom, your willingness to take risks, break the rules, your determination to live life to the fullest.”
Maybe he was confusing me with someone else.
“We both made choices,” he said. “I make a comfortable living. I have a family. But I have a job with no challenge, no creativity, and a loveless marriage. It’s like being a little plastic passenger on that model railroad I had as a kid: round and round, the same cheap scenery over and over again.”
“You gave up on zero!” I said.
“Nothing comes from nothing.”
“But that wasn’t what you used to think. I read the book you wrote. I read it many times over the years. I still read it. I think you were on to something. It seemed you were so close.”
“Being close doesn’t count,” he said.
“Exactly. Seeing happiness just beyond your reach is equally useless.”
He asked me to explain myself. Why did I insist on saying I was unhappy?
“This is a bit heavy for a post-coital conversation,” I said.
“So? We’re not teenagers. Heaviness is permitted,” he said, so I told him what was on my mind, beginning with Dr. Paternoster, my shrink, and why I had stopped seeing him.
“Psychiatry seems to know why I’m unhappy,” I said, “but that doesn’t coincide with my feelings on the matter. I feel like I’m not in control, in the way that a character in a book or a movie is not in control. It has nothing to do with my brain chemistry. It has to do with the brain of someone else manipulating my life for some purpose that I can’t even begin to fathom. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?”
“Not at all,” he said.
“You don’t have to humor me, Billy.”
“I’m serious,” he said. “It’s a question of free will. God is the author of all our stories. We are all his creations. This world is one of his novels. It’s understandable that we should wonder whether we’re just robot-like creatures doing whatever he has decided us to do, or whether we really do have the capacity to determine our own fate. Philosophers have been debating that question for centuries.”
“And they still haven’t come to a conclusion. Maybe there’s a very good reason why.”
“Christians believe that we most certainly do have free will,” he said.
I wanted to tell him that Christians tend to believe anything that accords with their own inflated sense of themselves, but not wanting to spoil the afterglow of our coupling, I said instead, “So God is the kind of author who lets his characters dictate the story?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“The problem is,” I said, “I gave up believing in that God a long time ago. Maybe there’s another one better attuned to my needs. Still looking. I also don’t believe writers just sit down and take dictation from their characters. I write all the time and never once has a character ever tried to argue with me.”
“But you have no problem believing in a god-like author whose imagination you are a part of?”
“There’s a difference!”
“Sorry, I don’t see it.”
“God is incompatible with free will,” I said, growing annoyed with his willful inability to sympathize with, or even understand, my point of view.
“God is essential for free will,” he replied, not willing to compromise on a key article of his faith and impatient with my inability to see the validity of his argument. I had the sense that our conversation, perhaps even our relationship, was about to go off the rails.
“How do you know that?”
“I believe it,” he said. “At some point, that’s what you have to do. When the question has no answer, you have to go with your gut. You choose and you embrace that choice. Simple as that.”
“But it’s not real.”
“Your belief makes it real!”
I sat up on the bed and looked down on him, lying there, his hand behind his head, all smug in his ersatz certainty. This man with whom I had just shared the deepest physical intimacy possible, an act now revealed as the mindless, soulless bodily function that it was. Romance, love, mankind’s most exalted emotion — just a product of our glands. So there was the ultimate defining difference between us: he found belief as easy as making up your mind, I found it a profound insult to my humanity.
“I love that expression on your face,” I said, leaping up from the bed for my bag. By the time I returned with my camera up to my eye and focused on him, the expression had vanished, but I snapped the shutter anyway: sad-faced Billy with a reluctant smile beginning to form.
Bottom line, I was not about to let a philosophical argument come between us, especially since we appeared to be so compatible sexually. I chalked it up to pheromones and savored the exquisite irony of the situation: zero had made him desirable but unapproachable; it was only when zero had been removed from the picture were we able to come together as lovers. A momentary revelation: it was not his mind I had lusted after, but his body.
Thereafter, whenever I was with Billy, I merely turned off my brain, and things went along just fine. Let the glands weave their spell. I was well aware that he felt the same way and, like me, had determined that certain conversational subjects were henceforth taboo. At least on one point we were in complete accord: we both saw each other as efficient and convenient bedmates who could also be counted on to provide just the right superficial companionship required for shows, movies, concerts, and occasional weekend trips to Mexico. Your classic friendship with benefits.
We were able to sustain this relationship for several years, almost into the Clinton administration, when one day Billy’s prodigal wife Aimee suddenly showed up at his doorstep with several suitcases and a whiney Gretchen in tow.
“I’m sorry, Billy, I made a terrible mistake,” she said.
The mistake was not so much in leaving Billy as hooking up with his replacement, a constantly out-of-work alcoholic who regularly whacked her around and occasionally threatened her life with a .38 Smith & Wesson. Their disastrous marriage abruptly ended when Aimee, having long run out of affection for “the man of my dreams,” seized the gun out of his hands and shot him in the head. Everyone agreed she had acted in self-defense, including the authorities, who were glad to be finally rid of a man who had been a public nuisance since he was twelve.
Billy had no interest in knowing where Aimee had made her mistake. It didn’t matter. Seeing that he could reconstitute his family and once again become a father to his daughter, Billy happily took Aimee back.
“It’s the end for us,” he told me, after a final memorable weekend in Cancun. “It’s back to being a family man.”
“Well, good luck. I hope you know what you’re doing.”
“You take the good with the bad. That’s the way life is.”
Right. Live by the cliché, die by the cliché.
There was no doubt about it, I had become middle-aged, over halfway through my forties and heading toward a showdown with the most unwelcome number of all. The number that says unambiguously your youth is over, next stop old age. It was not a happy time. A woman is so thoroughly a sexual being that when nature begins to hint it has finished with her, some of us are tempted to take it personally and will strike back with all the weapons that medical science and technology have to offer. I was not one of those women. No hair dyes or Nautilus machines for me, no cosmetic surgery, no lifts, no tucks, no laser resurfacing, no liposuction, no Botox, or collagen therapies. I was determined to go out in the same container they had shipped me in.
If the rigors of time were taking their toll, so were the rigors of raising my fifteen-year-old son, who had decided that school did not agree with him and preferred to go to parties, drink and take drugs, and listen to loud music through earphones that would one day make him hard of hearing. Whenever I tried to do something about any of this, Nate immediately brought up all the “issues” a gay teenager had to deal with in an American high school. True, there were issues, and very serious ones, but I failed to see how non-stop partying was the preferred way of dealing with them.
“You just don’t understand,” Nate said.
“I do understand.”
“You think you do but you really don’t.”
And so on. I was there once, too, and firmly believed my parents were incapable of understanding me. In fact, I still thought they were fairly clueless. Yes, we finally figured out a way of getting along and avoiding arguments, but we remained wavelengths passing in the night. But I was distressed to think that I had repeated the exact same situation with my son.
“He’ll get over it,” everyone said. “And you will, too.”
As far as my career was concerned, I continued to have plenty of assignment work with time left over to assemble a new collection of photographs — this one based on experimental techniques using digital processing. My idea was to use one of the new and extremely expensive digital cameras to shoot scenes of nude men and women in a variety of erotic situations. These situations were inspired by my own dreams that I had written down over the years. I used various digital editing techniques to create the appropriate dreamlike, sometimes surreal look I had in mind — human bodies melting and morphing into patterns, faces multiplying in an emotion, black and white becoming man and woman.
I collected about fifty prints and launched a show called “Convergence” — that is, the convergence of reality and fantasy, male and female, dreaming and waking, being and becoming. The venue for the show was my best to date — the Museum of Contemporary Art downtown, among the Klines, Oldenburgs, Nevelsons, and Rothkos. Zoe among the luminaries of modern art! Evidence I had finally arrived? Everyone seemed to think so (attendance was pretty good), except for the critics, who expressed almost unanimous disapproval. “Tasteless and puerile . . .” the L.A. Times said in one of the kinder reviews. “Dali-esque porn made tired, predictable, and un-arousing . . . visual lethargy,” said another. “Makes you want to re-evaluate all her earlier work,” said a third. A fourth thought I should be arrested.
My agent said, “Well, at least the proles liked them. You can pick the twelve best and put them into a calendar, sell it in porno shops.” He was kidding, but just barely.
In the midst of all the critical hullabaloo surrounding the show, Zavy O’Dwyer, newly elevated to Cardinal, flew into town to meet with various studios about the feasibility of the Vatican investing in films.
“At last a prince of the Church!” I said.
“Never mind that,” he said, embarrassed, waving my compliment away. “They’d make me Pope if they knew I could double their income.”
“How have your meetings gone so far?”
“This has been harder than I thought,” Zavy said. “Apparently no one is interested in making films like The Ten Commandments or The Song of Bernadette. I met with Michael Eisner at Disney, and even he wasn’t interested. They had plans to do a cartoon version of the King David story, but the idea tested poorly with focus groups, who had no idea who King David was, and then there was the problem of what to do with Bathsheba. So they dropped it. Today, everything is violence and sex and depravity. And look what it has done to the world. Art is an expression of ourselves — that is true. Art imitates life, but life also imitates art. We’re fools not to see that, and when we do, it will be too late.”
“It’s already too late — we just don’t know it yet,” I said.
“People say the Antichrist is already among us.”
“That’s not exactly what I meant, Zavy.”
“Because, my dear, you insist on wearing those secular rose-colored glasses of yours.”
“That’s the least of my problems.”
“I can’t imagine you with problems,” he said. “Look at you, you look marvelous! At the top of your game and on top of the world. Are you upset over the contretemps your new show has caused?”
“No, that doesn’t bother me. Just my usual existential angst.”
“People still suffer from that?”
“Whatever it is. Every generation has a different name for it.”
“The last time we spoke you said you were doing well. Is that not the case now?”
I told him about the trouble I was having with my son.
“Teenagers — it’s to be expected. You get payback for all the trouble you caused your parents.”
“You’re not into karma now, are you?”
“God forbid, no!”
“It’s more than teenage rebellion, Zavy. Nate is gay.”
His eyes shifted away. “Yes, I can understand why you would be upset. It’s not an easy thing for a parent to come to terms with. But consider how hard it must be for the boy. He’s in the midst of a titanic struggle. Some never come to terms with it. It’s very difficult. I tell you, Zoe, as one who speaks from experience.”
“Zavy . . .”
“Very few people know,” he said. “I was very wild as a young man. St. Paul would’ve been proud. How did I choose to deal with it? Well, I put on this collar. After I became a priest and took a vow of chastity, that was the end of it. But I still have those impulses. I just refuse to act on them. I’m not ashamed or feel guilt. This is how God made me. I know he did so for a reason. It’s very wrong of the church to condemn us — nothing more than a theologically sanctioned prejudice. But the church is seldom right on these things. It should stay out of people’s bedrooms.”
“I feel very privileged that you shared this with me,” I said. “You’re the confessor, not the confessee.”
“You are a very special person, Zoe. I’m saddened when I see you unhappy. If you’d like, I can speak to the boy.”
“I appreciate that, but I don’t think he would. He won’t even discuss it with me.”
“Yes, that’s very common — and unfortunate. But in the end this is something he must come to terms with himself. Tell me how you are doing otherwise.”
I knew what he meant. “Things are more or less under control,” I said. “I’m on medication, but the voices still sometimes pay me a visit, just not as loud or insistent. I ignore them. Sometimes I find myself outside of myself — like I’ve somehow managed to fall out of my body, and so there I am watching myself from a short distance away, or sometimes even from the point of view of someone else. I’ve gotten used to that too. I just go with the flow, try not to get too stressed out, try to act as normal as possible. I know all these things are a result of the mixed-up wiring in my head, but they seem very real to me. I just have to make sure I don’t act like they’re real, or I’ll end up being carted off to a nice padded room.”
“Have you talked to a professional?”
“Of course. I have a prescription that helps.”
“Zoe, I’m so sorry to hear this,” Zavy said. “As you know, I am not a great believer in these psychological theories. We have a brain and we have a mind. The brain can be diseased but the mind never. The mind belongs to God. It’s incorruptible. I see no reason why these manifestations of yours cannot in fact be real. God has blessed you, my dear, with extraordinary powers, as He once blessed some of the saints.”
“I’m no saint, Zavy.”
“I don’t think that’s for you to say, my dear.”
“If anything I’m a heretic.”
“Jesus was a heretic.”
“Zavy, I have to tell you the truth — this is scarier than being told I’m insane.”
“All I’m saying is that this sort of thing can be empowering, a force for good. It’s not something you need to fear. Accept who you are.”
“Who I am. Well, who am I? That’s the question, isn’t it? The shrinks say I’m just a family of competing personalities bubbling up out of a chemical broth. You say I’m God’s creation, a very special creation, with a soul and an incorruptible mind and free will and powers no one except head cases have. And the best I can come up with is that I seem to be the creation of someone else’s imagination — which I know is crazy, and which everyone says is just a very nice metaphor, but which is how I feel. I don’t feel crazy or like a metaphor.”
Zavy, nodding his head, had remarkable patience with my raving.
“None of this really gets at who I am,” I said. “I don’t feel like I’m anyone. I feel tentative, a work in progress, a prisoner of the times and of my body and, in the end, of cause and effect. I feel like the inadvertent outcome of random cosmic forces, a self-conscious entity trapped in a delusion of free choice with no real control over my destiny, which in any case appears will be a hole in the ground.”
He stared at me in apparent wonderment.
“I’m guessing you disagree.”
“I just wish you had the understanding to see the very simple explanation for all of this.”
“Maybe you’re right, Zavy. Maybe something is missing, some crucial piece of information that once put into place would explain everything.”
“I’ll pray that you come to that momentous revelation soon.”
“Pray if it makes you feel better. I don’t think it’ll do me much good.
“God likes me,” he said. “Sometimes he does me favors. Perhaps he’ll grant me one this time.”
“Zavy, you’re too much, but I love you anyway!” I said and kissed him on his forehead, leaving a lipstick impression there. “Oops, looks like I branded you,” I said, preparing to wipe it off with a tissue.
“Leave it,” he said. “I’ll wear it as a badge of honor!”
Right after the election, I got a call from my father, a lifelong Republican, who predicted the country was now in the hands of a man who would bring it to certain ruin. “Slick Willie, they called him in Arkansas. You’ll see, and that wife of his, she’s even worse — wants to help run things right alongside of him.”
I wasn’t about to take the bait and argue with him, so I let him run on until the fit had passed.
Three days later, I got a call on my cell phone from my mother. My mother never called me on my cell phone. I didn’t really know why, but I suspected it was because she thought it was somehow immoral — in the same way that the Amish thought riding in a car was immoral. Her attitude was to refuse to countenance modernity: not ATMs, not VCRs, not fast food. She even had a beef with the renaming of familiar places: in her mind, the capital of China was still Peking, and when she had to fly to New York City’s other airport, it wasn’t JFK but Idlewild. Most of what people called “progress” was for her all a terrible mistake. She was sure that one day — maybe not in her lifetime — we would all come to our senses and quit trying to make things better.
My mother was brief and to the point. She was calling, she said, from a hospital in Burbank near Griffith Park. I had to come at once. My father had suffered some sort of attack. Be right there, I said. I was north-bound on the 10, stuck in rush-hour traffic. I needed to go in the opposite direction. I got into the breakdown lane and drove all the way to the next exit to turn around. It took me a maddening thirty minutes to get there.
At the hospital, I was met at the intensive-care desk by a doctor, who briefed me on my father’s condition. My father, he said, had had a stroke and was unconscious. Tests were being done to determine the extent of the damage. When I went into my father’s room, my mother was there, eyes closed, lips moving, a rosary entwined in her fingers.
“It’s in God’s hands now,” my mother said. “Why don’t you pray for him, Zoe?”
“Mother, you know I always let you handle that.”
My father remained in the hospital for nearly a week. I went every day to visit him. He gradually improved. He would need some rehab but was otherwise was on the mend. On the third day, there was another visitor in his room when I arrived. Her back was to the door, so I couldn’t identify her. As I walked in, she turned to look. It was Miranda.
“Zoe, oh my God!” she said in a whisper so as to not wake my sleeping father. She rose, and we hugged.
“We can go to the solarium to talk,” I said.
There was much catching up to do. Miranda no longer lived in Simi Valley but had moved to a much more modest place in Tarzana. “Home all the time now,” she said. “I had to quit my job.” She was living alone. Her kids were grown and had moved away, and one had started a family of his own. Her husband Hap, she informed me, had died.
“Miranda, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”
“We were divorced,” she said, “so I’m not officially a widow.”
“When did that happen?”
“We got divorced almost three years ago. One day he comes home and says, ‘I’m not happy living here with you. I’m leaving.’ And that’s what he does. Walks right out the door.”
“Was there someone else?”
“Oh, yeah. He left me for another man, Zoe. Can you believe that? Another man. What does that say about me? All those years of being deceived. It makes me feel really, really stupid.” Her eyes filled with tears. “What kind of cruel joke was that all about?”
“I’m sorry, Miranda.”
“Lots of people were sorry. Sorry it didn’t happen to them? I don’t think so.”
“Not what I meant.”
“What happened to Hap? How did he die?”
“He went up to San Francisco with his lover, who gave him AIDS. How’s that for a love story?”
I shook my head.
“None of the treatments worked,” she said. “It just ripped through him. I was so angry. I refused to see him. I thought he got what he deserved. Then the kids called and said he wasn’t going to last much longer. That he was asking about me. What could I say? He was the father of my children. So I went. Somewhere in Oakland. They’d moved him to one of those places you go to die. You can’t imagine how horrible it was. Lying there in that bed, barely able to speak. Nothing left of the man. Skin and bones. He wanted me to hold his hand. It was so thin and light. He apologized. Told me he still loved me. They were almost his last words. I didn’t know what to say, so I said I still loved him too.”
“Did you mean it?”
“She nodded, tears streaming down her face, her body heaving as she tried to suppress the sobs. I went to sit beside her and took her in my arms, her hot wet face pressed against my neck.
“Zoe, I’m so alone, so goddamn alone. How did I get to this place? What am I going to do now?”
I held her tightly and kissed the top of her head. Miranda’s arms were around me, holding me as tightly as I was holding her, holding me as if her life depended on it. We sat there, rocking back and forth, and I couldn’t help remembering the agonizing afternoon with my son, when he had blurted out to me the truth of who he was, and the two of us were locked in the same kind of desperate embrace. Her hand came up and caressed my cheek.
“We were such good friends,” she said. “What happened?”
“We each went a different way.”
“I was so sure I was right.”
“You made the best decisions you could.”
She pulled away; her face was red and shiny with tears and clear mucus from her nose.
“Look at the mess you’ve made of yourself,” I said, proceeding to clean her up with a tissue.
“I don’t deserve you,” she said. “I was always jealous of you. I didn’t know . . .” She took my face in both her hands and kissed me on the lips. It was a tentative kiss, then a more definitive one, her lips feverish and swollen, tasting of salt from her tears. I let her kiss me and then kissed her back. I’m sure I was as confused and uncertain as she was. I was thinking only of comforting her and being there for her in any way I could — this woman I had known since childhood and had once called my best friend, this fragile creature battered and humbled by the terrible vagaries of living. It could’ve been me. It might still be me: here under sentence of death in this prison we call our life, where all the guards turn away with professional indifference to our suffering, and the warden is just a political hack.