It occurs to me that part of this story transpired before certain revelations, before some events occurred which disturbed my peace and the pace of this narrative, such as it is, which I was in no way able to predict or even to imagine. Looking back on it, the life I lived and am recording had been orderly and relatively contained. But at the time I lived it, I sensed myself, inarticulately, to be not quite in it, holding on rather tentatively, threatened by something, a presence or other who might be waiting in the wings, and who might make me lose my way, lose my grip. I was always at the brink of that, staving it off. Dante expresses it so elegantly: Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva oscura / chè la diritta via era smarrita. Yes, "In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to my senses in a dark forest, for I had lost the straight path."
I did not see Helen as an impediment, but took her for a miracle, my Beatrice, if you will. She existed outside my world, and so was a delicacy, an entity delicious in it, drawn into it but separate from it. I embraced her without reservation. To me she was unaccountable and yet, within limits, delightfully unmanageable. Now I see that my habits were designed precisely to control my world. And that I deigned to do so was typical of my approach to life before a certain dramatic break in my thinking, perhaps not dramatic, but one of import to me, and one which necessarily affected my daily routines. And surely one might—I will—call that dramatic.
John is due to arrive at noon. Yannis is nowhere to be found. I have already spent most of the morning writing, which included invitations to the soirée for Gwen. Yannis has not been home for several hours, not counting the evening hours. Yet this is not terribly unusual. He must have gone home to visit his mother, a widow. I believe he shares with her some of the money I give him, and that is perfectly all right with me, though he never tells me precisely what he does with his allowance. Nor do I ask. I assume he thinks I would not like it, were I to know, but in fact I do, very much, as I feel my largesse supports those who need it. This in turn supports me in feeling worthy and virtuous. After all, I am the scion of Calvinists and Puritans, an upbringing that still adheres, in some respects. In addition I have heard that Beauvoir and Sartre support the people around them, their adopted family, and I admire that greatly.
John appears. He is late but he looks beautiful. I would say as usual, but this afternoon he has a glow on. That is how my English friend Duncan might put it. Duncan would sleep with him right off, without so much as a by-your-leave. He would know just how to seduce a supposedly non-homosexual lad into his bed and into imagining that just this once made no difference whatsoever, that, no matter what, he was as good as new, still a man, that life goes on, and in fact it may not make a difference and life does go on. Duncan with his lime-green eyes and catlike cunning—Duncan would simply charm and charm and then pounce. But Duncan is younger than I, and even when I was younger, I never pounced. I am not the pouncing type. I am cautious, unless I am drunk, and then I don't care, and no one else does either, I should think.
John glances about my rooms with no hint of self-consciousness. He takes them in and I drink him in, a rich brew, a heady tonic. Some such idea wafts playfully in my mind. He is quite playful too; I am sure he is flirting with me in earnest. He measures the wall against which I want to place two bookcases. He moves gracefully and with assurance. He is a lissome lad, I think contentedly. And he seems to know what he is doing. He is even direct when it comes down to it—the nuts and bolts of daily life, the practicalities. We discuss the size of the shelves and whether I would want them all to be of equal height. I decide to have the top ones built for oversized books. John even appears interested when I explain how my library will be ordered and how it will differ in plan from that of the Dewey decimal system. Libraries reflect their collectors, and each library, I tell John, has a life and mind of its own.
Naturally talk evolves from shelves to books and to other subjects and at one moment to Helen, which is not a surprise. I am prepared for this. We are sitting on my couch, having tea. John discovers that I have not seen her for a while. I reveal the whole truth—that she and I may be on the outs—because now my subterfuge would be almost callous and surely unnecessary. John becomes alarmed, which surprises me pleasantly; his entire demeanor had excluded the possibility of his being shockable. He could not be just "a liar," as Helen had said, but a delicate young man, more complex and sensitive than she allowed. I keep reflecting upon how odd it is, how peculiar, that someone as hip, probably as groovy as John, in his colorful terms, should manifest alarm. His rationalizations for it are feeble, to the effect that it has nothing to do with him, but everything to do with her. Though I have my own doubts, I attempt to calm him, assuring him that no harm will come to Helen, who is willful and remarkably resilient. He now exhibits a grave scrupulosity, but says nothing. His expression, easily called up in my mind's eye, is full of meaning, yet ambiguous, even opaque.
I am still extremely curious about Helen's sister, and whether she was a suicide as I had surmised, and whether they were twins, which I have less belief in of late, especially now that Gwen is in town. With Gwen around I am more aware of my feelings toward her, twinnish feelings. In fact, I was in the process of writing something to that effect when John knocked at my door.
Long ago, I imagined Gwen and I were fraternal twins—man, woman, heterosexual, homosexual, black, white. But in a way these supposed oppositions meant nothing to me except as qualities that added to our specialness. The point was we were originals, that was what was most important. Nothing could really separate us. Gwen and I were two sides of the same precious coin. As Alicia might put it, we were each other's anima and animus. But I really don't subscribe to Jungian theory. It was true, though, that I idealized us, and perhaps I will always. From other sides of the tracks but on the same track, we were, and are, our own club. Gwen has often commented upon how discriminating we were in those days, how exclusive, no one was good enough for us. She was a greater snob than I in many ways.
She must have acclimated quickly to being the only black person in our group, and often the only female. She never let on what her feelings were, if any, about being singular in those ways. I knew then, and know now, very little about her other, earlier life, with her family, and little in regard to her attitudes toward or even her experience of race. In New York there was a black piano player she liked, but he too spent most of his time in white society. On one occasion I attempted to ask her. She uttered something rather abstract about being more about sex than race and disallowed, through her laconicism and gestures, I recall, any further questions, direct questions of that nature, anyway. It was a less strange remark then—to be about sex, not race, in a way—than now, although maybe not, since it was at the beginning of the sixties. I accepted her answer, as it neatly coincided with my conception of her. But in any case, I was not and am not one to press, even though I am unusually curious—this is often said of me. I have the urge to pry. Can this truly mean, as Freud suggested, that I am always seeking to discover my parents in flagrante delicto?
Gwen never wanted to talk about her family; it was as if anything said about families at all was childish or beneath contempt. She seemed to hold them in contempt. But all of us did then. She seemed, and still seems, not to think about herself in any of the ways one might imagine. This may be true of original people generally. But while she never made pronouncements about race, as if it didn't occur to her, and therefore ought not to others, I have now more than a sneaking suspicion that nothing escaped Gwen, that she always knew where she was and where she had come from. Very little escaped from her that she didn't want others to know, no matter how close one was. But this never occurred to me then. Gwen must have suffered the way one does when one lives a crucial aspect of one's life in secrecy, in the closet. She must have suffered in silence. Perhaps she still does, even in these more open times. I felt a chill and shivered involuntarily. I walked to the open window and shut it decisively. The cold air had blown in from some distant, terribly remote place outside me, outside us. Actually, I felt a bit like Rebecca in Daphne du Maurier's novel, which Hitchcock most successfully brought to the screen.
I was not terribly happy with the passage. It was likely I had not gotten it right, for no matter how I looked back at Gwen and myself, to recapitulate our past and to examine my perceptions of her, then and now, she and it—the past—slipped away, seemed just out of reach. I was too clumsily grasping at it, whatever it was, and it slid through my puffy fingers. Indeed even recent history was difficult to remember with precision. I wasn't quite sure precisely how long it was that I hadn't seen Helen. At first it seemed Gwen had arrived instantaneously, right after my telephone call to her, but now I believe more time had passed. But I was unaware of it. Time does that; I do that—refuse to acknowledge time's passing. I let it slip through my fingers. So, as often happens, I was glad to hear John's knock upon the door, interrupting my meditation and labors.
Now, gazing at John, my mind wanders to Helen, from Gwen to Helen, and to John, back to Helen, then to Gwen. I may be clumsy, inadequate, even unequal to the task of grasping Gwen and my relationship with her. Perhaps I am no longer an expert judge of Gwen. I feel, at least temporarily, unable to delineate her character and the quality of our relationship. The essential eludes me. As I watch and listen to John, I imagine too that Helen, like the grains of sand which measure time, has passed through and by, and that she may have slipped figuratively through my arthritic fingers. Though I mustn't blame my ineptitude solely on age, I suppose. I might have fumbled the ball when I was young. In any case, there is still time.
After some initial reticence, John is forthcoming. It is not hard to pry from him the secret he alluded to in the hospital, about Helen's sister and her past. He is a trifle skittish. But after discussing the shelves for a while and sitting on the couch, and after I poured us tea and observed the obligatory conversational gambits, he relaxes entirely.
It's beautiful here, he remarks, looking toward the window. I am always touched when young American men notice beauty. Especially beautiful ones. I offer him a few biscuits which ought to be fresher, but he seems not to notice. Then I mention my visit with him in the hospital and then, first putting my cup to my lips and pausing, I ask him what he meant by saying "not like her sister, man." John nods his head up and down several times, and it seems to me he is eager to divulge this information.
He speaks with an air of casual authority. Everyone thinks—and Helen indicated to him, at least obliquely—that her sister was a suicide. She was four years older than Helen, was finishing college, was obese, and very miserable. Helen and she got along all right, but not terribly well. Helen's arrival in the family was a disruption for the older one; and she was, like most children, jealous of the attention Helen received as an infant. Still she was, according to many, her father's favorite. To myself I note that, like Helen, I am the baby of my family. Helen's parents fought a great deal, and it was rumored that the noble father—for so he was viewed—was engaged in an affair with a woman not much older than the older sister at the time of her alleged suicide. There were no brothers.
The dark events were matters of great speculation, involving some rather shocking questions about the psychiatrist father and the sister and the effects upon the sister of the illicit coupling of the father and his lover. It was very nasty business. John thinks the sister was found in a bathtub. That's what he heard, but not from Helen. I didn't ask—discovered by whom?—for even I felt the need to expunge the ghoulish image that "found in the bathtub" elicits.
In my family, I remark to John, determined to be as forthcoming and open as he, we are two brothers, sons. He is older than I, I continue, and we do not get on . . . But just then Gwen pushes open the door and enters the room, in medias res, so to speak, as she did when Yannis and I were engaged in our troubling conversation.
Are my shoes here? Gwen asks; then Gwen sees John. They recognize each other. I perceive it in a flash, a charged flash. That special expression of chagrin passes over Gwen's face ever so fleetingly, and I am sure that she must have wanted to sleep with him, as I do now. A shadow hovers over my heart, an emotional storm cloud looms. It has been ages since Gwen and I longed for the same man. I think about this for no more than a second, though. I push it aside and study them. They are young. They are chatting. They are absurdly young.
Actually I am also disconcerted by having had confirmed what I suspected—that Helen's sister was most probably a suicide. It is just the kind of grotesque fact that sets my mind to work. As if from nowhere, an idea plants itself inside me and grows. I think the idea locates itself first in my head, which seems heavier and more difficult to balance on my neck. But then it flies downward, toward my heart, which palpitates in shadow. It is a simple idea; and my heart beats to its rhythm: I must find her. Helen may be in harm's way. I must go to her. My heart beats fast, fast, faster, faster. She may be in trouble, it goes. She needs you, Horace, it says, find her. Find her, Horace. This kind of thinking, I tell myself, must induce heart attacks. I place my hand on my heart. It ticks. I walk about the room and sit down again.
I say nothing of this to my guests, for even in such a condition, I am conscious that the assumption of Helen's need, produced as it were by and in my body, derives from a great anxiety that may have little to do with Helen. Yet I feel that it does. One can easily hold such contradictory ideas and emotions and still pour drinks for friends, I have found.
They have not noticed my anxiety. They talk to each other aimlessly, effortlessly. They are gossiping, discussing bands and clubs. I am both relieved and annoyed. Why does one always want to be noticed, in some way? I open a bottle of retsina and place three glasses in front of us and pour each full to the brim. Let us toast—to the three of us, here in Greece together. Gwen can barely contain herself. She is almost gleeful at my inarticulateness, at my witless toast, innocuous enough for all occasions. She winks at me and John. I gulp down my drink and pour another.
I had nearly forgotten John. He of course must be as anxious as I am about Helen. Thinking this makes me suppress my anxiety about her, and I realize once more the strange situation I am in, with Gwen and John. It is as if we are framed and constrained by an uncertain and unspoken desire that lingers in the air like a perfume distilled from electricity, not flowers. I look at both of them, fixing on my visage a patient smile to indicate that I am calm, even sanguine, which of course I am not, as I never truly am. Why should one be? In the next instant, I decide that John and I should make the journey together—to find her, to find Helen. John would want to, I am sure of that. But that would mean leaving Gwen on her own. This plan could wait until after the party. I dither internally and drink.
But I wanted Helen at the parry. And first thing’s first. It—the party—can wait, first thing’s first. Helen must be found. I glance at Gwen and wonder if she has been reading my thoughts, since I believe she can and that she is, in some sense, my twin, and don't twins know instinctively what the other one is going to do next? Don't they dress alike without planning and so on? For her part Gwen is impassive, waiting for someone else to speak, to do something, anything, and it is clear she will not be the one to take charge, make the advance, parry and thrust. It is more in keeping with Gwen that she not be the one, but be the one who bides her time, who waits. The one who waits, a rather clever title, I think. But for what Gwen is waiting, actively waiting, if that is possible, and John is also waiting, discomforted but keeping his cool.
How does one escape from these awkward social patches—should I stop beating around the bush and reveal ingenuously: I want you, John, or Gwen wants you, or let's be adults, or let's be children, as we are anyway, inevitably, all children. Surely, I caution myself mentally, to do so—that way lies madness. I drink another glass of retsina. Such a vulgar wine, so raw and crude, so right, so shocking. Retsina is blatant, not reticent, and how I wish I were capable of a flagrant display! Silence, ordinary sweet empty full silence, is intolerable in the moment. Anything would be better. A scream, a cat in heat, an off-key tune . . .
What is happening back home? I ask, innocently enough. What horrible events am I missing, what terrible things has Ford done lately? Who is this man Carter? The Peanut farmer has found favor with John, it seems, but Gwen refers to him as a cracker. They are off on a discussion of the Mafia, and how Sam Giancana was slain. He was tied to the CIA, and his murder, Gwen says, happened fast upon the heels of the revelation that the CIA was spying domestically, under Nixon's orders, and so forth, so Giancana must have been implicated. John seems impressed by Gwen's deduction, which I too think is clever, as I hadn't thought it.
I once remarked to Roger, when he and I had—and it is a rarity—the same thought: Great minds think alike, Roger. He quickly countered: And small ones. Even now that makes me laugh. Roger isn't all bad. No one is. Perhaps evil despots, but they . . . I am muddied by drink, muddled, that is, I can't focus and think. I study Gwen, who absorbs me into her and absorbs this scene into her as if it were already seen, and I think I understand better the term scenemaker. Suddenly I realize that since she's arrived my thoughts have been mostly taken up with her, and with John, and not actively with Helen, which is all right, I know, and perhaps wholesome. And yet, I have been thrown off the track of Helen, with whom I was engaged in something lively and new, I think, and I know she is angry with me, disappointed or whatever, like my mother, and she has disappeared. Helen has. My mother is dead. I would have hunted her down by now had Gwen not arrived.
I must find Helen. If she is not out of town, why did she not answer my note?
Drunkenly I think: Gwen stands in my way. She may have arrived here, she has arrived here, perhaps, in order to disrupt the progress of this story, its particular chain of thought, and its fascination, though that may be to the good. Or it may not be. But that is much too teleological. And why is it either one or the other, good or bad, with purpose or without? An old friend comes again into one's life and one must adjust to the changes she brings. After all, I wanted her here. And now, in a way, I don't. Is it because of John? John is captivating; it is hard for me to take my eyes from him, as from a mirror that reflects dully so one keeps staring, and still one can't perceive one's image with any exactitude.
If I were to arrive with him at Helen's door, wherever that may be, she would not like it. In a thousand ways she has made it plain that she doesn't want to see him, and how or why could I think otherwise. I must go by myself. But if I do leave, I know that Gwen and John will be thrown together, left to their own devices, and certainly I cannot count on Alicia to stand in their way. Gwen is cunning and may be treacherous. John is not mine, surely, so how could her desire for him be construed as a betrayal of me? Unless she were my enemy—a horrific thought, one of the saddest I have ever had, or ever had in a long, long time. It's the wine dementing me, demeaning me, soliciting demons to play louche tricks. They soak in a senseless alcohol-sodden brain.
In reality, though reality is, especially in my condition, debatable, Gwen deserves John. She can—ought to—have him; age before beauty. No, no, the other way around; in our case, beauty before age. Though Gwen is not quite beautiful but handsome. Also she is my guest, and I intend always to be a good host. It is an image I hold of myself, the gracious host, which must be maintained, I feel, as if civilization itself depended on it, and it may, actually.
Even now I am neglecting my duties. Hurriedly I open another bottle and pour us all more to drink. I have no food to serve them which I'm sure Gwen has already registered—Horace is starving us, she's thinking. I laugh out loud; it's amusing to think I might be purposely depriving them and that I wish them to die of starvation. They are quite thin already. It wouldn't take much to starve them. It is an interesting idea, one that might be useful. Someone could be holding them prisoner, they might be sex prisoners, love slaves, that kind of thing. Perhaps captives of a de Sade-type character, who lives in New Jersey or Connecticut, some unlikely locale, and they are bound together by his insanity, even manacled together in his faux-medieval fort. The neighbors never suspected, they would say, clucking nonsensically as they viewed the bodies being wheeled out from the dungeon-like cellar. I must for that down later.
Now John and Gwen are discussing Jackie Onassis and Angie Dickinson, and the Andrews Sisters, of all things, molls, and their gangsters. Can Jackie Kennedy Onassis really be thought of as a moll? I ask. Such a well-brought-up woman? Gwen makes light of this, having seen too many well-brought-up young women go to pieces, all the crowd around Warhol—Drella, she calls him—and she knows how these women trade, on a grand scale, their sexual favors and beauty, jockeying for better position and greater financial security. Gwen reports that the just-married Jackie Kennedy, when asked if she was madly in love with then Senator Kennedy, answered the newsman, No. Incredulous, he asked her again, and she repeated, No. Did she really, Gwen, I ask, did she really say that on camera? Yes, she did, I have it from a good source. Gwen has good sources.
I must admit I'm shocked, I rather like Jackie, and even approved of her marriage to Onassis. I can see how she'd like an older man. I am an older man, I'm thinking. I may be slurring my words, but what does it matter. What about Callas? John asks. Jackie marrying Onassis screwed her up, right? I'm astonished. This can't be my rock-and-roller John speaking, not about the diva Maria—it is Alicia speaking through young John. She is mad about Callas.
Hungry? I ask them. Shall we dine? Or dance? I mime a tango and mince around the room. Gwen joins in. I love Gwen. I hate myself for ever thinking her a disruption. Though she is. And so are John and Helen. Life disrupts life. I am getting little to nothing done, it's true. But the dance is life, and life is a dance, and life is a short dance, and oh, I am silly, and on and on. I whirl wildly about the room, as if I hadn't a care in the world, and right now I don't feel I do have a care in the world, only what I wish to care about. I do not wish for anything to care about. I am shockingly free. Free. Fancy-free. I come to a halt, throw my head back and pretend to strip off long evening gloves like those worn by Rita Hayworth in Gilda. Gwen roars with laughter and curtsies before me, her king or queen. It is as if she had been presented before royalty countless times. And even to think of countless times, of the ages of human existence, makes me sigh. I feel weak, I weaken before that august history, weaken before Gwen. I return her curtsy, and her courtesy, and snap the long invisible gloves in the air for emphasis, as if the gloves were designed as punctuation marks—periods or exclamation marks—and were oh so necessary to the sense of my performance.
John probably has no idea what I'm doing. For his sake I ought to have imitated Mick Jagger. It is for his sake I am dancing the tango of the gloves, is it not? For whose sake then am I dancing? Does one commit mischievous acts for oneself or another? Murder, a tango, a striptease. How I wish my body were beautiful! I toss myself here and there, hither, thither, and yon. My ecstatic positions are ephemeral, sublime, ludicrous, but they do have a logic, even if it is only internal. They make sense to me.
I stop prancing just as suddenly as I started, mentally patting myself on the back for bravado, nothing else. I offer to treat them both to a wonderful meal at the only restaurant on the harbor. John hesitates. Is he thinking of Alicia? Gwen notices his hesitation or reluctance. Damned hungry, she declares and grabs me by the hand, pulling me toward the door. This action leaves John standing alone in the middle of the room, with the empty wine bottles on the floor about him. They look like sinking ships.
We must go, I declare to John. John's hands dangle foolishly from his long thin arms. He himself is in some way dangling foolishly, even dangerously. Ah, I muse waggishly, a pretty boy is considering his options. He must soon come to a decision, having weighed the pros and cons of doing this or that, I suppose. He blinks, clears his throat, but says not a word, and then follows after us penitently, nay, passively. He's a young man easily led.
Will I be the leader or Gwen? Am I in any condition to lead? Actually the idea of Gwen and me as leaders is marvelous; in our present state, we ought to be inflicted on the public! To Gwen I bellow, in a mock English accent, Where will it all end? Hell, she mutters, just hell. O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I, I answer. I recite this line in the manner of Olivier, I'm almost positive of that. Dear Gwen, perverse Gwen. Perverse me. To dinner we three!