Hotel Paradiso (15)
Hard not to think it’s all a game
I’m here in a very beautiful place in the mountains, the days like all the days in Paradise: grand blue skies and lofty clouds sweeping serenely by, and vast forests of ancient trees, and great colorful birds soaring on the wind, and a sun that can dazzle the gloomiest mind.
The mountains are most splendidly arrayed in the evening when they wear the sweet rose of sunset. And the sky at night! Filled with stars beating in a crystalline silence of the purest kind! It’s the Hotel Paradiso: a rambling building, not quite French, not quite Italian, not quite Moorish, with arched balconies and miniature bell towers and wrought-iron railings and verandahs and red glazed-tile roofs of various heights — a glorious, improbable hodgepodge straight out of a book of fairytales.
The world is very far away. We don’t pay much attention to it. I have no desire to be anywhere else. This is my home. Truly, there is nothing to complain about. The facilities are first class. The staff is wonderful. I am well taken care of. I am free to be what I am. Be myself. I am free to think what I want. I’m the master of my own fate, the teller of my own story.
I am the I.
But you might be wondering: the same I as the I before? It’s a question I used to worry about when I first arrived here, as if awakening from a dream, but not anymore. No more questions.
I exist — isn’t that enough? Aren’t you reading my words? Words! In our heads, where reality is really located, that’s what everything is made of — the bricks and mortar of our shared consciousness! “Death,” “reality,” “consciousness,” yes, even “insanity” — just words. Words on a page — from my hand or someone else’s. What does it matter? The words are real. That’s enough for me. No more questions. It used to be that questions could be fatal. Yes, people died from them. Here, in this wonderful place I now find myself, questions are like bonbons, like delicious fruit. We can eat the fruit of all the trees. No sly serpents in this garden!
Even the tyranny of time has been overthrown and revealed in its true reality, not cruel but ennobling, even holy. The Trinity of Time. Three in one. There’s no need to agonize over the past; the past is like the dark, dank, dreary basement in your house, still there if you care to visit it. There’s no need to worry about the future; the future is and will be all that we want it to be. So time has been declawed. I don’t want to say it’s become irrelevant, but it’s certainly relative. It has become, in short, our friend.
The days pass pleasantly, imperceptibly, here in the mountains, in this refuge from the world, which seems as far away as a distant star. Walks in the arbor in the morning with Virginia Woolf. Skeet shooting with John Cheever. Late-night chats in the hotel bar with Jake Barnes over perfectly made martinis. Badminton under cloudless skies with the two Daisys — Miller and Buchanan.
My father and Nate are here, both busy with their own crowds. Dad is usually on the golf course, Nate involved with the theater. Both have active social lives. The three of us often meet for dinner, with Nate doing the cooking and Dad bringing the wine. I call the two of them the boys in my life.
We’re all kept pretty busy with one thing or another. Everything has been distilled down to an essence. There’s no radio, no TV. Even better: no distractions, no deceptions, no doubts. But there are plenty of lectures and concerts and discussion groups. People love to go out, meet other people, talk. After dinner in the evening, the streets are thronged with people, just taking a stroll. It’s like the old days. In fact, it is the old days. Time: it’s different here. Non-linear, a famous physicist told me. But like space — three dimensions all at once.
I belong to a support group for people who are having trouble dealing with their pasts. When I first joined, Humbert Humbert, who now calls himself Jocko (“I hated that stupid double name.”), was complaining that if he had just gotten some drug therapy and counseling earlier in his life, he probably would not have gotten into so much trouble. Harry Angstrom, a big, jolly, fun-loving guy, became a close friend of mine. He claimed he was an ordinary Joe, a thick-skulled Swede who just wanted to have a good time and cause as little trouble as possible. Instead, he was compelled to “screw every skirt in sight” and then “think about it every which way till Sunday.” Of all the people in my group, Tony Last was the one who harbored the most resentment for what had happened to him. “My first reaction was to blame you-know-who,” he told me. “I was so damned angry! I had so much rage! First time I ran into that vile man, it was at the superette — he was buying prunes — suffered from terrible constipation, I heard — and I just punched him in the nose — knocked him down on his big fat arse.”
Not at all in character, but who of us ever really was?
One of my closest woman friends is a lady who these days goes by the name Lila. She speaks with a charming accent, cooks gourmet, loves tennis, and has a passion for Russian novels. She has her own way of dressing — long colorful dresses, bold blouses, sashes, lots of jewelry, and hats. She’s always in a hat. She’s extremely attractive, in a Garboesque way, but doesn’t use it, doesn’t make a big deal over it. She and Carl Sagan were a hot item for a time. Likes her men intellectual. “I used to care for looks, big guys who worked out,” she once said, “not anymore.”
The most famous of her relationships was with Samson. I once asked her if she’d kept in touch with him.
“No,” Lila said. “But I’ve heard about him from mutual friends.” He’d gone out with Molly Bloom for a while, she’d heard. She couldn’t imagine they had much to talk about.
Travels with Henry
When I first arrived at the Hotel, I used to visit my mother in a little town called Creddley. In the beginning this created a slight problem. The hotel discourages newcomers from travel. If you insist, as I did, the hotel will supply you with a companion chosen from a group of guests who have volunteered their services as guides. My companion turned out to be Henry Mencken, a gruff, loud-spoken, cigar-chewing, hard-drinking gentleman who liked calling women “dames.” No one I knew thought he was rude when he did it, and I certainly didn’t mind. Within five minutes of meeting him, I knew we were perfectly matched. It’s like that here. Things always work out
“I like you, kid,” he said to me. “You’re you.”
Finally, a me I could be proud of!
“Most people spend the first few years of their lives auditioning for this or that role,” Henry said, “then once they find one they like, they stick with it all the way to the death scene, usually forgetting after a while who they really are. Not you. You haven’t forgotten.”
It seemed to be a compliment. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that there had been many times I didn’t feel like me at all.
Creddley is located in a gloomy little hollow, subject to constant fogs and downpours of a sticky mucus-like rain. All of the buildings are made of stone that has been blackened by soot from the many pig-iron factories located nearby. The townsfolk are a very close-knit group. They all wear the same black hooded cloaks; they all eat the same food, a bland porridge called chud, made from bean curd and yogurt; and they all practice the same religion. Everyone in the town is a devout Petrusian, including my mother, who still, after all this time, can’t understand why I find it impossible to take her beliefs seriously. As long as we avoid the subject of religion, we’re fine, but it’s something my mother finds almost impossible to do. “Is the stone eternal?” she’ll say for the millionth time. “Then God is eternal.”
My mother, like all Petrusians, believes in a supreme god called Petrus. Many people mistakenly think that the large gray boulder venerated in the town’s cathedral is just a symbol for Petrus, as if it were a kind of statue that the sculptor hadn’t gotten around to carving yet. In fact, Petrusians believe that the boulder actually is Petrus. The proof of their belief, they’ll tell you, is found in the ten thousand volumes of theological writings stored in the basement of the cathedral. Once a month a large truck pulls up to the cathedral and newly published theology books are unloaded onto a chute that leads into the basement.
Henry took me to one of these deliveries. As the books tumbled down the chute, he grabbed one and opened it. Inside, the text was entirely gibberish — just random letters formed into words and sentences.
“The wisdom of the ages!” Henry said, tossing the book back into the rumbling stream. “This proves my point exactly. Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing.”
“I take it you’re not a believer?” I said.
“Oh, I’m a believer all right,” Henry said. “I’m strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty, and common decency. It’s religion that gets my goat. I think people got it all wrong. Everyone assumes that the God who created the universe is still running it. More likely, he finished it and then turned it over to a board of flunkies to operate — in the same way many of our own corporations are turned over to incompetents or thieves. After all, aren’t we made in His image?”
“Is that a rhetorical question?”
“Up to you.”
“I’ve always felt that we have been made in our author’s image, inadequacies and all.”
“I for one certainly hope she looks like you.”
My mother didn’t care to hear about Dad. As far as she is concerned, she made the mistake of her life in marrying him. “Your father ruined me,” she once said. “I was such a fool. The man had no faith in anything but himself.”
“You loved him once,” I said.
“Sure, I was gaga in love — big deal! I got over it! I survived!”
After the visit, when Henry and I had dinner at a favorite restaurant and I repeated what my mother had said, he saw how upset I was and told me, “People have this knuckleheaded idea about love.”
“Oh, really? Are you the expert?”
“Everyone’s an expert,” he said.
“All right, let’s hear it.”
“People think love is like winning the lottery, like a summer afternoon that never ends, like a loophole in the laws of physics.”
“I’m guessing it’s not.”
“Hardly. You know, I once famously said that love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence. But I think that was too cynical, too facile.”
“I’m surprised. So what is it?”
“I’ve since concluded that at its best, it’s the kick in the rear end that gets you to look up from whatever idiotic thing you’re doing. Sure, sometimes it’s the patch of blue in a stormy sky, but mostly it’s the storm coming in to blot out a blue sky.” He pointed to a beautiful red rose in a crystal vase on our table. “Not this,” he said. “But the muck of the world, the stupidity and cruelty and general human nastiness the rose grew out of.”
“You’re a hard man, Henry.”
“Please, no kudos, my dear. I’ve been accused of having them go to my head.”
“‘Kudos,’ I love that word.”
Ihad heard that Emma Summers, my old journalist friend, lived in a town called Menshow. When I told Henry I wanted to look her up, he winced, biting down on his cigar. “Dreadful place,” he said. “Out in the desert. Very hot. People there think they’ve got everything figured out.”
“Can’t be any worse than Creddley,” I said.
He breathed out a long blue jet of smoke. “Wanna bet?”
Menshow certainly was hot, and very bright. Everything glinted and gleamed and shone. After ten minutes, my eyes were aching. Everything is made out of plastic, religion is outlawed, and there are strict laws making sure no one is like anyone else. In the center of town, in Tritium Square, there’s a monument as large as the Statue of Liberty. It’s a highly polished chrome statue of Edward Teller, honoring his invention of the hydrogen bomb.
Shortly after the statue was erected, Dr. Teller married my friend Emma. “The greatest thinker of all time — and he’s mine,” Emma told me proudly. Emma insisted she had a very happy marriage, but after our visit, it seemed the opposite was the case. The two of them argued constantly. When we were there, Emma mistakenly called him Henry.
“Why are you calling me Henry?” Teller replied angrily. “You know my name is nut Henry. Is nut even close. You are tinking of Kissinger, I know. Is he your loffer?” he asked her, his bushy eyebrows squirming like two excited caterpillars.
Before she could answer, the telephone rang. She picked up the receiver.
“Who is That?” Edward asked her.
“Nobody. Just hoots.” She hung up.
“It was your loffer, wasn’t it? It was Henry.”
“I told you it was just hoots.”
“That’s what you always say. Do you think I’m idiot? I never get the hoots. I haff never gotten one single hoot. Isn’t it little strange that every time you answer the phone and I am here, you get the hoots?”
“I don’t think it’s strange at all.”
“You never tink anything is strange.”
“You big dope,” she said.
“This is no was to talk to father of hydrogen bomb! You make me sick. Truly I am sick. You have no respect, darling. Look out window and see who is standing there in middle of Menshow. I am giant. I am beloffed.”
“Wrong, sweetheart. You are a twisted little coward who did whatever he had to do to make himself famous.”
“Yes, but look, look what I did!”
“Look, look, look what I did!” she said, mocking him. “Fucked up the world, sweetie!”
Later on the way out, Henry said, “What a charming pair, a real testimonial to marriage.”
“Something else you don’t believe in, right?”
“Marriage is a wonderful institution,” he said, “but who wants to live in an institution?”
“I certainly never did.”
One day I got a letter from Ned Horning, inviting me to pay him a visit. I told Henry I was interested in going. As usual, Henry thought it was a terrible idea, but I felt I owed it to Ned to see him one last time, given the way our relationship had come to such an abrupt end.
“Where does he live?”
“A town called Verital.”
“It’s pronounced vertle. You sure know how to pick ’em, don’t you?”
“Can we go?”
“Hey, it’s your funeral.”
Verital was a six-hour drive away, through the Morgellon Desert. It was dusk by the time we arrived at the tunnel mouth that leads into the city, which is located entirely underground. Henry gave me a quick briefing: “In Verital you never see the sun, never see the sky, but nobody cares because people claim that their own artificial light is healthier than sunshine and, besides, they’re too busy making money to worry about it. Lovely place.”
The city sits in a vast underground cavern, the floor of which is like a bowl, with the famous Hotel Diablo situated almost in the exact center. From there, you can see Verital spread out above you, a great upside-down sky of blazing lights in all directions, as if everything were on fire.
The Hotel Diablo is an enormous ratatouille of styles — medieval spires, modern window walls, Russian onion domes. One part of the building is the prow of a ship, another a Camelot castle fused like a deformed Siamese twin to a downsized Empire State Building. There is a piece of the Taj Mahal joined to the Leaning Tower of Pisa joined to the Cheops pyramid joined to the Transamerica building. There are gigantic bronze statues everywhere, emerging from the walls like frantic hotel guests fleeing a rampaging fire.
Inside, the din was at first merely deafening, then after a few minutes maddening. Clashing music to match the clashing styles of the building. Bright red laser lights flashing through artificial smoke. A double line of near-naked men beating huge drums twice their size. A double line of near-naked women writhing in gilded cages. Trapeze artists swinging and tumbling high above the floor. The clang and roar of enormous chrome gambling machines. It was like the inside of a fun house, with the floors and walls deceptively foreshortened and slowly tilting one way and then another. The number of people was staggering: more a mob than a crowd. I was immediately disoriented and grabbed Henry’s hand to steady myself.
“I’m going to be sick,” I said to Henry.
“I expect so,” he said.
Ned soon spotted us. “It’s great to see you again, kiddo,” he said, as a man wielding a video camera swooped in to capture the scene.
“Nice to see you, Ned.”
“You killed me, babe,” he said. “Cut me off in the prime of life. I should probably hold that against you, but, hey, we all make mistakes. Ha, ha!”
Everyone laughed. Who’d have thought that, in the end, death could be funny.
“I’m very sorry, Ned.”
“I know you are, kiddo. That’s great. Lost all kinds of sleep over the years? Nagging conscience? Gnawing regrets? Terrific. Appreciate it, really I do. Gotta tell you, though, I was in your place, it’d never even cross my mind. Not once, not for a nanosecond. Do what you gotta do, am I right, am I right?”
“It looks like you did okay for yourself, Ned.”
“Sure. I’m King Tut here in Verital. What more could a guy want?”
Ned introduced us to the woman next to him. Middle-aged, plain-looking, with short purplish hair that looked like cactus spikes, she was Ayn Rand, his “media consultant.”
“I’m trying to position Ned as Mr. Verital,” she said. “Smart, with it, on the edge, full of fun, and yet one of the giants of our age.”
“She’s really something,” Ned said. “Thinks I’m a genius — maybe a god.”
“Hey, why not?”
Ned gave us a tour of the hotel. There was the swimming pool of Jell-O and the swimming pool of beer. The ten-mile roller coaster. The Temple of Death, where a prisoner was executed once a day. We ended up in a large ballroom with a raised stage in the center. Ned, who seemed to blur when he moved, wanted us to meet someone special. “I was incredibly lucky to get this guy. Sharp as a needle. No inhibitions. Pure appetite. Untamed. Driven. Ego so hot, it’s radioactive.”
The man was Roy Cohn, whose rubicund, feverish complexion actually did make him seem radioactive. “Mr. Diablo,” Ayn said, with the pride of someone who had already “positioned” him.
Ned introduced us. “Roy runs our entertainment operations,” Ned said. “Puts on a terrific show. Got one coming up right now. Great timing. You’ll love this — come on.”
I followed him into another vast room where everything was bathed in a sickly green light, shimmering, swaying, nausea-inducing as if we were under a dying ocean. We slowly picked our way through the yowling crowds to a large blinding-bright room with a stage where a man and a woman were strutting and grinning, with proud dullish eyes, both sporting what Cohn called “gladiatorial genitals.” The woman, her lips curled in put-on menace, had white-blonde hair buzzed like a Marine recruit’s. The man had a long blond mane to his shoulders and a playboy’s lascivious glint in his eye. Specially designed bodies, Cohn explained. “Engineered for high stimulus response. Basically formula-one copulators. Vaginal dentition versus high penile psi. People love it.”
“And the point?”
“Reach climax before your partner. If you don’t, look out!” A grin, a wink. A truly hateful man. The house lights dimmed. The stage exploded in pulsing laser light. Demented applause. I was curious enough and stayed through the entire bout, Henry left shortly after it began. I found him sitting in the car, smoking a cigar.
I got in beside him. “Let’s go,” I said.
“I realized too late it was a mistake.”
“She did. Literally ate him alive. Let’s go home. No more trips.”
We headed for the main road that led out of Verital, neither of us speaking. We drove for two hours in silence. Then we saw the bright mouth of the tunnel ahead of us. I could feel the car speed up. The cleansing light seemed to wash through us as we shot into the blood-red sun just touching the world’s edge.
Henry pulled over to the side of the road to give his eyes a chance to adjust to the daylight.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
Henry noisily puffed on his cigar, blowing the smoke up toward a sky the color brie cheese. Before us lay miles of flat, empty desert.
“So many odd little towns, each one just as horrible as the next,” I said.
“It’s reality, doll,” Henry told me. “Better off just keeping away from it. Be grateful for where you ended up.”
I thought about those words. “Henry,” I said, “Am I dead or insane?”
He turned his head and took the cigar from his mouth. “I don’t believe it matters,” he said. “This is a place, kid, where all possibilities exist at once.”
“I don’t get it.”
He explained that in one of those possibilities a woman might fall out a window of a seaside Greek hotel onto the rocks below and sustain an injury that puts her into a coma. In another one, the fall might kill her. In a third, she might only dream of falling. Those were the three main ones. There were others and other variations, in fact an infinite number of variations.
“So which one is true?”
“None is true, all are true.”
“It doesn’t make sense.”
“It doesn’t have to make sense,” he said. “Lots of things don’t make sense but are still true. Like all your different kinds of zero. Like quantum mechanics. Just the way things are.”
“What do you know about zero and quantum mechanics?”
“Hey, I keep up!”
We drove across the desert through the night. The sky was clear and black and seamlessly joined to the earth. Speeding through the darkness, the cool air rushing past us, it seemed after a time that we were soaring through the vast heavens, a comet amid the stars.
A Question of Time
Several years went by before I found Garret. I say “years,” but of course there is no such thing here as a “year” in the ordinary sense, because there is no such thing as “time” in the ordinary sense, as I think I have mentioned. Time is omnipresent and fictional, like so much else here — a wonderful improvement on things as they used to be. For example, memory can have a tremendous effect on time — compressing it into diamond-bright points of brilliance or distending it until it looks like the gray featureless Atlantic spread to the horizon and beyond. It’s hard to explain. It just is.
“Space” is similarly different. Formerly, it was all a question of distances and how long it took you to go from Point A to Point B. Here A and B can be right next to each other, but it might take you a hundred years to go from one to the other. Or, conversely, two places separated by a thousand miles might require a journey of only a few seconds! In short, distance, like time, is more a mental thing than a physical thing. Which explains — although I’m afraid not too well — why it took so long for me to find Garret, even though he was living only a few miles up the road from the Hotel.
I mention all of this because it was “time” that brought us, finally, together. My friend Lila often goes up to the Academy for lectures. One day she convinced me to go with her to hear Richard Feynman give a talk on Time.
Time? What was there to say about it, now that it had ceased to be a concern? I’d done my time, had my fill of time, thank you, and was quite happy to be done with it once and for all. So now that time had been abolished, made outmoded, if not irrelevant, what was the point? No, there was nothing I cared to hear about time, but I went along to keep Lila company.
“Why are you so interested?” I asked her. “Not like you at all.”
“True,” she said. “I don’t really care about what the man will be saying, I just can’t stop thinking about the man!”
Lila had a crush. Not surprising: Lila had lots of them.
We found the hall where Feynman would be speaking and saw that there were some empty seats down front. The man in the first seat rose to let us by. He looked up.
“I guess you two know each other,” Lila said.
“Meet later?” Garret asked.
Garret was about to say something more, but the house lights dimmed, the audience hushed, and Richard Feynman strode onto the stage. We sidled quickly to our seats.
Feynman spoke for an hour. He covered a lot of territory, and, to tell the truth, a lot of what he said went right by me. I had too much else to think about.
“Time isn’t something that once was and now is not,” Feynman said at one point. “Oh, no. You see, it never existed in the first place. “It’s just a word. And it’s like a lot of abstractions that over the years have taken on totally bogus meanings. Everyone assumes that these words actually mean something. They’re just packaging. Empty inside. Whatever was once in there has vanished, or perhaps there was never anything in the first place.”
“What about clocks?” someone shouted from the audience. “They exist.”
“Clocks tick off imaginary minutes, measuring imaginary time,” Feynman shot back. “They don’t measure anything real. What is real is change. This is probably what the Greek philosopher Heraclitus meant when he said that everything is in flux.”
Lila, leaning over to me, whispered, “Just lost me on that one.”
“So what am I getting at here?” Feynman asked the audience. “Well, for one thing, if time is a bogus concept, then so is every other concept based on it: ‘past,’ ‘future,’ ‘eternity,’ and so on. Instead of seeing the world through the rose-colored glasses of time — all those nicely regulated intervals of predetermined size moving in a steady stream like a regiment of soldiers marching in a parade down Main Street — we should see it for what it really is: a vast complexity of interconnected processes, every single thing ceaselessly, relentlessly becoming something else, no beginning or end, all those processes self-creating infinite variety and infinite possibility, and yet underneath it all, a principle of utter simplicity — change.”
Feynman paused to let his words sink in. Nothing certain, ever. Everything a fiction of our own making. We might as well be musical instruments, playing beautiful music to one another. Our wonderfully expressed words, thoughts, ideas — nothing but pretty tootling.
The boat we were on, the Cristobel, was heading back to the marina, sailing due west directly into the huge red sun that was rapidly plunging toward the horizon. Raucous mariachi music blasted from a portable tape player, as Roberto Obregon mixed potent margaritas for the guests gathered on the aft deck. I was in no mood to be social. Garret and I were sitting by ourselves at the front of the boat, reminiscing, trying to work up some nostalgia. Like the boat we were on, our conversation seemed to lack a destination.
“I was just thinking about the first time we went out together,” I said. “We’d gone to the movies, remember?”
“Of course, I remember,” Garret said. “How could I forget? Here was the most unusual, the most beautiful, the most intriguing woman I’d ever met talking about being a character in the wrong book, telling me all she wanted was the chance to be unhappy on her own terms.”
“I asked you if you thought I was too weird, and you said no.”
“It was the truth,” he said, his face a near-silhouette against the crimson disk of the sun. “I was just surprised. Surprised to find myself with you, surprised to hear you talking about things, ideas, questions I’d been wrestling with nearly my whole life.” His face turned toward me, a black oval against the sun. “You see,” he said, “it wasn’t supposed to be that way. None of it. Your being there. My meeting you. Everything that came later.”
“Of course it was supposed to happen,” I said sharply, growing annoyed with the sour mood he was talking himself into. “It was inevitable. It was what I chose to happen. For the first time in my life, I took control and did what I thought was right for me.”
“Please, don’t be angry with me,” he said, turning sideways in the bed to face me. Behind him, the rising sun poured through the window. He lay naked beneath the white comforter, with just his head visible. It was cold in the room and, naked like him, I hurried to rejoin him in bed, slipping underneath the comforter. We embraced in the den of warm moist heat created by our recent lovemaking.
“I’m not angry with you,” I said. “I just hate it when you put yourself down.”
“If you only knew,” he said.
“But I do know. I know that I’m here with you. That we’re together as we were always meant to be. That’s all there is to know.”
“It’s just the surface.”
“What’s wrong with the surface?”
“It’s not the truth.”
“I don’t care.”
“But do you care to dance?” he asked.
He looked very handsome in his tux, standing in the burnt orange light of the sun coming through the windows that lined one side of the hall. Beyond the windows, an expanse of lawn rolled down to the lake, shiny as a mirror and reflecting the sea-blue sky with its fleets of white clouds.
“Yes, I would.”
He took me in his arms and swept me out into the dance floor, where the bride and groom had just finished their solo dance.
“I’m considered the luckiest man here,” Garret said, his breath warming my ear. “Every man has his eye on you — even the groom!”
“I doubt that very much. The place is crawling with movie queens.”
“So? Women who look good on camera. You look good in real life.”
Real life? I glanced up over Garret’s shoulder as the bride and groom swished by, and blundered into the groom’s shifty eyes before they quickly looked away. I squeezed Garret in gratitude for his compliment.
On the other side of the room, my father, hands in his pockets, was talking to one of his patients, Darryl Zanuck, a powerful movie producer and man of fashionable neuroses. Frank Sinatra had just finished a song, and now the band was playing “In the Mood,” which had caused a stampede of couples onto the dance floor. Nearby, sitting at one of the tables, Marilyn Monroe and Fay Wray, oblivious to the music and all those around them, were having an intimate conversation. Behind them, sitting at the same table, was a little girl in a white dress and black patent leather shoes, her long blonde hair held back with burgundy ribbons. She had such a smug look on her face — the look of a child who knew she was God’s gift to little girls.
“Who are you?” she asked me when I sat down beside her. “Are you a movie star, too?”
No, I was not a movie star, just a relative.
“Oh,” she said, nodding absently and losing whatever incidental interest she might have had in making my acquaintance.
“You look bored,” I said.
“I can’t wait to grow up.” She lifted her gaze to an ornate clock on a far wall. “Why do they make clocks run so slow? I like the ones that run fast. When I grow up, I’m going to have only the fast ones.”
“I have only the fast ones,” I told her.
“You do?” She seemed impressed.
“A minute goes by like that,” I said, snapping my fingers.
“Have you thought about what you want to be when you grow up?”
She nodded yes. “A movie star. All the men will fall in love with me, and I’ll fall in love with them. They’ll want to marry me, but I won’t say yes. I’ll never say yes.”
“Never.” Her lips were clamped firmly together.
“Because then I’ll be like my mummy.”
“Why don’t you want to be like your mummy?”
She shrugged. “All she does is stay home and pray.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“It’s boring. I hate staying home. I hate praying. Do you pray?”
“Truthfully, I don’t care much for it, either,” I said.
“It’s stupid!” she said.
“Some people don’t find it stupid.”
“I don’t care.”
“Maybe God cares.”
A note of concern came into her voice. “Do you think he does?”
“I don’t know. He’s supposed to care.”
“Well, I don’t think he does. I bet he thinks it’s stupid, too.”
“You may be right.”
“Do you have a husband?” she asked.
“Good. I’m glad.” She pointed to Garret across the room. “Is he your boyfriend?”
“Do you sleep in the same bed?”
“Why not? We love each other very much.”
Garret rose up on his elbow in the bed and looked down at me. His head, directly in front of the rising sun, was surrounded by a nimbus of light. “You’re very special to me, Zoe,” he said, his voice barely a whisper.
“It’s so strange,” I said. “I feel as though there’s more to us than we know. As if we must have known each other in some previous life.” His face grew suddenly serious. I felt the mood of the morning break. Trying to recover, I said, “But I guess all lovers feel like that.”
“Some do,” he said, “but there are other explanations.”
“Remember our first date?” he said. “You told me you felt as though you were a character in the wrong book.”
“Well, maybe you were right.”
“What do you mean, maybe I was right?”
He shrugged. “Your life is a book and you’re in it.”
“Metaphorically speaking, you mean?”
“No, I mean really.”
“Yes.” This was typical Garret — keeping up with a game long after other people got tired of it.
“So who is the author?”
“What if I am?”
“Garret, what is your point here?” I didn’t like the look on his face. It was too serious — worse, it was a look I didn’t recognize.
“No point. Just that I made you. I created you.”
“Sorry, I’m not buying this,” I said. “It’s not entertaining, enlightening, or even amusing.”
“But what if it’s true?”
“I hate hypothetical questions. Why are you telling me all this?”
He kept at it. “Haven’t you always wanted to know? Now you can. The key to everything. The end of secrets.”
“I hate it when you say things like that: ‘The end of secrets.’ So pretentious.”
“We’re close to the end of the book. Now is the time. You’re ready.”
I got out of the bed and quickly dressed. “Garret,” I said, “sometimes your sense of humor really gets on my nerves.”
He threw off the comforter and began putting on his clothes. “You know what I’m saying is true. You’ve felt it yourself. You’ve had peeks through the chinks in the wall. Think about it, Zoe. Think about your life. The themes, the storyline, the characters. It all comes to this. The final piece of the puzzle.”
“I have thought about it,” I said. “I think, therefore I am. End of story.”
“Not quite the end of the story. Here, I want to show you something,” he said, going over to his desk and opening a drawer. I stayed where I was on the other side of the room by the door. Garret took out a cardboard box filled with sheets of paper and handed it to me.
“What is this?”
I looked through the sheets. They were filled with writing. I read a paragraph, then another. I reached deep into the box and pulled out the last sheet. The last paragraph read:
Why not? We love each other very much.
For a moment my mind went blank. How could this be? “Garret, how did you do this?”
“Look familiar?” he said.
“It’s my book,” I said. And it was, sentence for sentence, word for word, comma for comma. My book. This book.
“No,” he said, “It’s my book.”
I thought about this for a moment, not willing to believe it was possible, but also curious about where this strange plotline would end up. “It’s a trick. Pretty clever, Garret.”
“No trick,” Garret said. “Unless you grant that everything so far has been a trick.” He pulled a page from the manuscript. “Think about it, Zoe, all these pages of dialogue — how could you remember all those conversations, word for word, going back to when you were a kid?”
“The basic facts are true; I just touched up the details.”
“The basic facts? All those adventures, all those coincidences? Doesn’t it all seem just a tiny bit made up?”
At times, more than just a tiny bit. Suddenly I understood what he was getting at. It was like seeing through a disguise, seeing through reality to another one inside it.
“Who are you?”
“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” he said. “Imagine that I have this idea for an amusing little romp through some outrageous adventures with an incredibly beautiful, incredibly sexy woman. A sophisticated piece of entertainment — all plotted out to a nice ironic ending. But as soon as I get into it, my heroine begins giving me a hard time. She is not about to suffer the fate I had in store for her, and she certainly is not about to stand for that standard-issue femme fatale personality I gave her. She believes she is different, better. Which isn’t exactly true. She becomes different. She becomes better. And she does it the only way she can. She takes pieces of me for herself. She thinks she’s creating herself in her own true image, but in fact she is creating herself in my image. My obsessions become her obsessions, my life is slowly transformed into hers. And maybe that’s why I become sympathetic to her plight. Why I go out of my way to help her, give her what she wants, forgive her sins of rebellion and disobedience. Why, at some point, as my fate becomes her fate, I fall in love with her.”
“I don’t think I can deal with this,” I said, turning away, wanting to leave, go somewhere else, but there was nowhere else to go. I had already gone somewhere else. The idea was not comforting. “I must have gotten the cuckoo gene from my mother. She used to have conversations with God all the time.”
“The Devil, too, as I recall.”
“To me, they were one and the same.”
“This has nothing to do with your mother,” Garret said, “or her hallucinations. This is not about hallucinations.”
“Well, that’s reassuring. You still haven’t told me who you are. If you’re not Garret, then who are you?”
He stood with his arms folded, a ghost, an enigma. Was this what knowledge was — betrayal, deceit, disappointment?
“Just an ordinary person,” he said. “A kind of messenger, a connection, a link. A sort of avatar. Come see for yourself.” He was standing in front of the window in a shaft of sun the color of orange marmalade. Outside, everything was drowned in freshly fallen snow. He held open his arms. This, I knew, was it. A simple decision on my part. Yet not a decision at all. I had come so far, to the edge of sanity and perhaps beyond. How could I not do it, how could I not want to know?
“But what about us, Garret?”
“Nothing has changed.”
“How can you say that? Everything has changed!”
“Isn’t that what knowledge is all about?”
It didn’t seem that knowledge was the point. “We were in love, Garret. The only real thing that’s ever happened to me. Or at least I thought we were.”
“We were,” he said. “We are.”
“Not if, after all is said and done, I’m just you or you’re just me, or we’re both just someone else.”
“Why not?” he replied, his arms still open, still waiting. “Maybe your definition of love needs to be revised. Come see for yourself.”
Too late for qualms now. I crossed the room into his arms.
He embraced me tenderly, hugged my body close to his, but his body was like the sun pouring through the window — bright, insubstantial — and I felt myself drawn into him. Instinctively, I closed my eyes, but it seemed to make no difference. Sight was inward and beyond.
It was true. I saw it for myself. He was an ordinary person. Much more ordinary than Garret. Astoundingly ordinary. It took me a while to come to terms with this, since everything I had ever done was a struggle to avoid being ordinary. I guess the disappointment is inevitable when what you expect is something like God (or at least Scott Fitzgerald) and what you get is some minor character not much different from the hundreds of other forgettable minor characters who’ve populated our stories.
He works hard but no matter how hard he works, it has become clear that the audience for his kind of writing is shrinking fast, as endangered as the spotted owl or the poor manatees. He lives a quiet, unpretentious life, reading the daily paper, listening to classical music, going to the movies, teaching at a local college, and spinning out novel after novel. He sleeps well. The nightmares of his childhood — dark corridors, spooky bathrooms, menacing doorways — are almost never repeated. In his adult sleep he finds a world of refuge and happiness.
I feel most at home in the deep place from where his dreams arise — the well of memory.
It’s a vast but familiar place. People I know are here. Things I have done are here. Even I am here, along with my own dreams. Time takes on the dimensions of space, and like a tourist I wander through the geography of his life. I can tell which ones are his favorites. Some are my favorites as well.
One stands out among all the rest — a confluence of feeling, an inflection point, a metamorphosis. It’s the tiny secluded beach beside the silver mountain lake reflecting sky and clouds, stretching out as far as the eye can see, and sitting beside him on the sand the girl in a two-piece bathing suit. He’s young, in his twenties, and he’s clearly Garret: idealistic, passionate, rebellious. They are talking non-stop, asking questions, learning about each other, testing each other, falling in love. Then the warm afternoon suddenly turns cool, they hear distant rumbles, and across the lake they can see miniature dark thunderheads. They are enchanted, amused; the world is full of magical things, and here’s another one. The storm with astonishing rapidity bears down on us. Everything is divided between light and dark, calm and turmoil, silence and noise. Slowly, one overtakes the other. The mirror surface of the lake turns into black corduroy. A cool wind catches my hair. Thunder booms like the sound of a far-off war. Our eyes have dared each other: there is no question we will stay where we are. The storm towers over us, its dark clouds crackling with thunder, jagged lightning bolts sizzling into the water, the wind roaring in our ears. In a wet crash, the gray wall of rain that had been steadily moving across the lake descends on us, huge warm drops, instantly soaking us, taking our breath away. The day darkens. The tumultuous air is heavy with the smell of ozone. Breathing it is intoxicating, thrilling. We are both laughing, embracing each other. We kiss, and I can taste his kiss, taste the rain on her lips. We pull at our bathing suits. The electric shock of naked bodies coming together. There is no art, no finesse, no thought whatsoever, just the urgency and fury of the storm.
In the little cabin, on the bed, I awake and find myself in his arms. Through a nearby window, day is dissolving into night with a clear starry sky and a pale fishhook moon. The cabin is quiet and dark. He is asleep, his eyes shifting under closed lids. I sit up and see a light across the room. The light is coming from the door of the cabin. It’s very bright. I get up to look and see that the door is a sheet of light so strong it hurts my eyes to look at it. I know what it is. I’ve seen this door before. It’s meant for me alone. I turn to look at the bed. Soon he’ll awake and get back to his life. My life isn’t here. Not in dreams — not in this dream, anyway. I’ve seen enough, learned enough. Time for me to go.
I walk through the door and into my own room at the Hotel Paradiso. It’s nighttime here, too, with the same fishhook moon, its platinum light illuminating the papers on my writing table. Outside, a beautifully clear night — so still, so tenuous! I can see all the way down the mountain and across the valley, lights dotting the darkness and mirroring, it seems, the night sky with its parade of stars.
You who read these words and in your smug complacency smirk at my poor plight, why don’t you ever say something? Answer me! Give me a sign! Nothing. The cruelest word in the language. The most obscene.
I look back at the pile of sheets filled with my scribbling. So many words, and yet so many words still unwritten. It occurs to me that I have not used the word “panache” — such a gorgeous word — so Old World, so full of style and pizzazz, its cousin. It always reminds me of peacocks and tropical gardens, of the top of the Chrysler building catching the last orange rays of a setting sun. I’m also sorry I never found a use for “ineluctable,” another beauty, with its bouquet of vowels and stereo l’s! And what about “discombobulate”? A stand-up comedian of a word, its syllables held loosely together with rubber bands, shambling and cutting up like a loony vaudevillian, a punch-drunk Punchinello.
There are so many wonderful words, upstanding citizens of our unending discourse. Ineluctable words, words with panache. Words of honor and integrity. Words that have the courage to ask why. These are the champions of our language, the heroes of our thought. Being in their company is like being in the company of the immortals, where time past converges at time present, in the thin black line flowing from the tip of my pen.
It’s also true that there are some notable stinkers — shifty no-accounts, charlatans, quacks, rascals, liars — or worse. Words with malice in their hearts. Words in sheep’s clothing. Traitorous words in high places. There are many more of these lowlifes than we think, slinking in and out of our sentences with impunity, undermining our best expressions, sowing seeds of discord. It’s our duty to expose them, confront them, take them on mano á mano. Too late now. I wish I had thought of it earlier. I’ve reached, it seems, the end of all I have to say.
I’m done with words. I’m at peace with myselves. I was in the right book after all. My book, our book. Now yours.
In the end, though, it’s hard not to think that it’s all a game, a trick of language. Our words impress us with their power and cleverness, but when all is said and written, they do nothing to change the nature of things. They just throw a light on the walls of our cell. And so the question of why — any question of why — is probably irrelevant: the world stands mute before our hysterical whys.
The sheet I have been writing on is nearly full. I feel emptied, superfluous. The room is a tangle of shadows and blood-red light. The melancholy fire of the steaming sun, half melted into the earth, brings tears to my eyes and the shiver of an unnamable thrill, and for a moment I imagine that the sun is like the glow at the end of that dream corridor I entered so far back in the past that I cannot remember where it was I wanted to go.