By Kalev Pehme
As Welles relaxed with some Jack Daniels and peered down the great wall of Fifth Avenue from the sculpture garden on top of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he suddenly felt his spirit drooping and he knew why. He had come to hate all the fashionable and wealthy parts of Manhattan, because adultery had become all too conventionally common. He was thinking of his wife, who at that very minute was somewhere ensconced in some mica-black bedroom with white and metal trim in the svelte 70s shacking up with some executive of a large corporation or some sticky, fat financier whose allure was that he had a few billion dollars invested to accrue more billions. He knew that for Joyce it was all about the only way she could find sex exciting, and it was with money and financial power. It turned her on. It was the only thing in the world that she could be passionate about. Otherwise, her life would be flat and dreary, with only the banality of shopping to divert attention from her life. “I always come back to you,” Joyce admitted without admitting anything.
“I love you.”
Joyce was one of those Upper East Side women who always, but always, will look absolutely marvelous no matter what and whatever age. She was still young, but she was now strategically easing herself into what a good combination of diet, exercise, surgery, yoga, tasteful jewels, hair, dress, and just the right shoes, do for a woman to put her into a kind of timeless preserve of beauty that could appeal to the young stud or the baronial old man who knows that a great fortune is better than musk or pheromones and a far better aphrodisiac. When Joyce went to whatever fashionable restaurant it was that week to luncheon with other women of the same ilk, she and her friends became part of the furnishing of the restaurant that gave it appeal along with the fresh flowers and candles. The light is always right.
Welles wanted to move, but he was too poor to do anything and it was that reality that gave Joyce the control she wanted over him. Basically, he was a kept man, incarcerated in a gilded cage, wondering why it was that Joyce ever wanted him.
“Why is it that you want me, Joyce?” he once asked.
“Oh, silly you. Because you are a genius and some day that genius will make sure that hundreds of years from now everyone will know who I am.”
“Why would think I would do that?”
“Because eventually you’ll have to write about me because you’ll need to, and when you do, even if you make me into the worst bitch on earth, you’ll do it so brilliantly that everyone will think, god, I wish I knew her. And you know you will, if you haven’t done it all ready without me knowing about it. I should hack your hard drive.”
The truth was that he was writing about Joyce and for a long time. He wanted to do it like Proust, using all those slick, black limousines, orchids, tails, silken gowns, and great weights of gold and diamonds and mix them with refined images of art and long prose sentences that went on forever. In that swirling vortex of vertiginous images Joyce would emerge like Aphrodite out of the foam or on a shell with opaline skin and great tresses of curly blond hair. As he tried to weave this spell, he realized that it was an absurdity. Joyce was not Odette or Albertine any more than TriBeCa or the Upper East Side is the fashionable district of Paris in which Swann walked dolorously after seeing the Prince of Wales.
He sipped down some more of his drink and continued to stare about the Avenue and Central Park. He admired the Westphalian Wall and the flagstones of the sidewalk, but he realized that there was something different about Manhattan. It didn’t have the splendor and the wonderment that he needed to write about it in showy sentences. For all the millions, the amazing collections of art that private collectors owned all over the place, and the richly designed apartments with all the best of the best, his Manhattan, Joyce’s Manhattan, felt like the word “plastic” did when he was young. To inflate his sagging spirits, he richly inhaled a breath of nostalgia for pre-plastic New York, whatever that might be, perhaps that of the Depression age, when the homeless lived in Central Park or along the riverbanks and the wealthy on Park Avenue were Republicans who made fun of Roosevelts betrayal of his class and everyone dressed for dinner, not just for the parties.
He could hear the rumble and clatter of the Third Avenue Subway in his head, and felt the eerie loneliness that New York City used to have under the El. It was different from the loneliness he felt today in the 21st century. In the past the loneliness was from a genuine loss or lack of love in ones life. Today, he realized that it had nothing to do with love at all. Joyce loved him, of course, she did and, oddly, he loved her, if only for the fact that he had fallen for this doom.
No, it was about the way they lived now. Joyce no longer loved him without a contract and all her relations with all the men she had were contractual as well. Maybe it was always that way, he thought, but he had not noticed that years earlier when he was young. There was still enough reckless abandon and risk to love. Now there was none. And Welles was lonely and wished that at least he had the insanity of fantasies, flesh, a vast array of perversities or maddening anxieties that could invade that loneliness and fill it up with long sessions with a therapist who would prescribe this or that drug to make him happy. No, Welles couldn’t fill up his life with the torments of mental illness to escape. He was alone, because he longer thought like anyone else around him and even as perceptive as Joyce was she now truly did not know anything about him except that he was a brilliant writer, a completely abstract expectation since he had not written a book for over a decade and his literary accomplishment seemed to diminish from the public’s attention.
He was a slow writer and he couldn’t help it. The Saturnine plodding was part of his mental make-up where his melancholy also served to put him into an altered state of mind where Welles communed with something that at least was real, although everyone else thought that this state was something that either drug-induced or merely an insanity. There on the outer limits away from everything, Welles had been writing about Joyce. He had to rename her, as Joyce was really not a good name for Joyce. But he couldn’t think of an adequate name, so he left it at Joyce which he could with a single push of a button replace with anything, even the name of god.
Welles felt odd that he wrote so slowly on a computer. It would make sense if he had to carefully write out each sentence with his horrible orthography with a pen or pencil on lined or unlined paper. He remembered that Flaubert would spend weeks on a single sentence, but he was not Flaubert who truly believed himself to be an artist of a special kind. Welles really was not an artist in his mind. The word had been denuded of its grandeur, as he could tell by simply listening to the conversations of the people milling about the galleries of the museum over which he was drinking. He felt that calling himself an artist was giving himself a social pretension rather than an adequate description of what he was doing when he was writing.
“So where are you this afternoon, Joyce?” he murmured to himself.
Joyce left all her affairs to his imagination and never acknowledged them openly. He had no idea whether Joyce was saying horrible things about him to others or whether she was doing the same to the men she slept with, never giving them an inkling of what her married sex life was like. Perhaps there was just one large silence about husbands and wives and lovers that had to be kept, a kind of acknowledgement that these arrangements were solely for certain emotional purposes with no strings attached or for the inflated senses of self-esteem that people needed. They had mistresses and lovers; it was expected, after all. That’s what we do in New York. There is a morality to all this deception and betrayal somehow.
The rooftop at the Met was not very crowded, even though the sunlight and warm breezes, although too good for New York, nevertheless, had the affect of calming Welles down. He wanted to talk to someone, but he had no more friends. The really good friends all left Manhattan years ago and were lost to him in either some rural discovery or driving fast cars down the freeways of Los Angeles. Welles traversed the roof to get another drink at the bar, waited on line behind a few French tourists who were debating the relative merits of eating out in Chinatown as opposed to somewhere else.
Welles consumed his drink quickly. It was very expensive for so little booze, but he was there for the atmosphere, which no longer interested him. He left the garden and took the elevator back downstairs and walked to the great entrance hall. He looked up longingly to where the great statue of Perseus holding Medusas head once stood. It fell and broke into millions of pieces. He repossessed his notebook computer from the cloakroom, and walked out the museum carrying it down to Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street. He stood in the sidewalk watching the cabs lining up and the traffic flow and froze not knowing which to go. His head turned up the avenue and then down and then straight ahead on 82nd Street and he didn’t know where to go.
Again the distant ringed planet stalled his progress. Perhaps it was an omen. Welles closed his eyes. He decided he would cross the Avenue and then walk to Madison Avenue on 82nd Street. If he were to do so, then Welles made a decision. He would walk up Madison to 86th Street and then walk down to the supermarket bookstore and he would go to the cafe and write for the rest of the day, at least as long the battery would hold up.
Welles opened his eyes, and without much thought found himself before the entrance of the bookstore. But before he could enter, he heard his name being called, “Welles, Welles Pauwells!”
He turned and before him was a young woman, about 22 or 23, whom he vaguely remembered in another form. She looked a bit of a mess, completely not very Upper East Side at all.
“Welles Pauwells,” she sang out.
He nodded and she walked up to him and extended her hand for him to shake. He did.
“Do you remember me? I’m Arlene White. We met at NYU when you gave that guest lecture on the invention of the novel. You said it was Rousseau who really invented the novel form.”
Welles’s mind reset itself to the room in which he spoke. It was small, but comfortable with a large seminar table. He remembered where Arlene sat, two chairs down on his left, and he remembered that she was far more beautiful then. Quite stunning in fact, with dark sultry eyes and she teased him with her breasts. A smile came across his face. “Yes, I remember you. You asked me all those questions about sublimation and art.”
“I’m glad you remembered.”
“What are you doing now? Did you graduate or you working on a PhD?”
“No, I’m not in school, but I’m into a lot of things.”
“Do you write?”
“Sometimes. I have a notebook I carry with me.”
Arlene reached into her back pocket of her jeans and pulled out a small ringed notebook whose pages were ragged and some barely held. It wasn’t clear that Arlene was fighting over le mot juste on its lines. She looked dowdy, very thin, and her clothing, Welles now observed, she was dirty. Her hair looked bad, because they hadn’t been washed for a while. In the silence, Arlene fidgeted and she scraped her hands together.
A strange sensitivity inclined Welles to ask, “Would you like me to buy you a cup of coffee and some pastry? I was about to go to the cafe.”
“I would like that a lot. But, listen, Welles, I have a problem.” She hesitated and wrung her hands nervously.
“Yes?” Welles looked at kindly with every intent to help her.
Finally, she blurted out the truth in all its misery, “I need money.”
Now, Welles understood.
She continued, “I need $50 and I need right now. I’ll do anything for it. I’ll let you…”
“I understand,” Welles interrupted. “But I really don’t want to have sex with you.”
“How ’bout $25 for a blow job?”
Welles nodded his head sadly, and reached into his pocket where he kept the cash messily folded. He never carried a wallet any more. “Here, you don’t have to do anything for the money. Please, just get some help for yourself. Do it for me. Do it for a good memory we have of each other.” He handed her about $75. He didn’t count it, just gave her the bills.
Arlene’s face lit up, nearing the brightness of that day at NYU when he met her. Rapidly and with genuine thanks, Arlene leaned over and gave Welles a brief kiss on his cheek. “Thanks,” she said, and she turned quickly and nearly ran East on 86th Street and disappeared.
Instead of going into the bookstore, Welles decided to walk up Second Avenue to a restaurant which an acquaintance owned. He reached the restaurant, a dull-looking unsuccessful place which to his amazement managed to stay open. It occurred to him now that perhaps the restaurant was doing more than serving food to stay open. He went into the door, and heard someone say, “We’re not open until tonight.”
“Ed, do you mind if I hang out here. I just want a table to write on for a while. And a drink or two.”
The owner now recognized Welles, saying, “Sure, Mr. Pauwells. Use that one over there. What do you want? The usual?”
Welles nodded. He sat down, opened his computer, and then began to write for two-hours straight. Instead of writing slowly, Welles wrote rather quickly, at least for him. He felt tremendously satisfied and rewarded himself with some cognac, coffee, and conversation with the restaurant owner before he went back home.
Welles found Joyce in their opulent bedroom. She was about to remove her dress and change. Her hands were behind her neck about to undo a clasp. “Welles, be a dear, and do this for me.”
Welles undid the clasp and she let the dress fall to the floor. Welles saw no stains or signs that Joyce had done anything that afternoon. He always looked for a sign, but there were never. Joyce was very good at hiding things. “What did you do today?” he asked.
“I went shopping.” She motioned her head to an arm chair where two large bags sat holding whatever goodies it was that Joyce bought.
Joyce was in her most wispy and lovely bra and panties now, the ones that she always bought in exclusive little shops in Europe. She went through the ritual of removing her earrings and her other jewelry. It was obvious she was about to take a bath. Welles observed her, as he had done so many times. It was the sameness of the routine, always the left ear first, then the right, then the pearls. He noticed every movement as it was done in the reflection of the mirror. It had that look of a very expensive ad page in a very good fashion magazine. Joyce is elegant, Welles thought, very elegant and efficient in her movements. He decided to walk up to her and he lovingly put his hands on her shoulders to interrupt her.
Joyce smiled. She liked when Welles touched her, because he did it without any real calculation. She sighed and then asked, “What did you do today?”
“I wrote a lot today, unusually so. Did it at Ed’s place; it’s closed in the afternoons.”
“Oh that sounds very good. Why were you so productive?”
“I had some inspiration, from a girl.”
“Really, now that’s intriguing? Was she good?”
“You know I would never betray you. I am completely faithful. I believe in fidelity.”
“Yes, and I love you for it. I’m going to take a bath.”
There was a perfection of Joyce’s body that met up with an ideal that she had in her own mind. It was carefully constructed and deeply worked out. Everything was in place and there was no excess of anything on Joyce. She had all the right curves, and she walked well with the perfect posture. Joyce had made herself into a work of art, it was true, and Welles truly admired that as it was the kind of art he could never attain. Joyce disappeared into the bathroom and locked the door behind her.
Welles heard Joyce singing behind the door. That was unusual. Perhaps the whole day was unusual, he thought. Arlene came to his mind, again. He sifted through his memory of her in the seminar room. She really was so pretty, but she was pretty in that afternoon, too. Only she was dirty and desperate. He knew he had done something wrong in giving her all that money. She would be holed up somewhere in some stupor. She was very lonely, he could feel it now. But for a moment, a very brief moment, he was not. And for that, he was grateful.
Welles knocked on the bathroom door and called out, “Joyce, how about doing something different tonight?”
“Like what?” Joyce asked.
“How about going to Queens and finding something to eat there?”
“That’s what adulterous lovers do to make sure they don’t get caught in Manhattan, where everyone sees everyone else. You haven’t done that, have you, Welles?”
Welles laughed, “No, but with you I might like it.”
Now, he knew what kind of a day Joyce had.
“Okay, call the garage and tell them to get the car ready at seven. Do you have any ideas where to go?”
“No, do you?”
“There is a nice Persian place off Marathon Parkway. You’ll like it. Belly dancers come there every night and dance for tips. They’ll turn you on. I know how you like that kind of thing.”
Welles thought about what he had written that day. It was about the great silence that he could never penetrate. He felt good. Today, that silence broke twice and he had caught up in words where his Saturnine mood had stop retrograding and went direct for the first time in years and years.