As I reread Natali’s message, I scrolled through memories of my first evenings in their house as my teenage years came to an end: spilling wine on hardwood and upholstery, Bernard and Natali patiently listening to my younger self as I affected literary seriousness, my speech no doubt a patchwork of interpretive clichés and errors of fact, their telling stories the import of which would often only occur to me years later. I remembered debating and/or flirting with other students and hangers-on, other young writers from whom I was desperate to distinguish myself, getting no help in that regard from either Bernard or Natali, since they treated everyone equally, infuriating me. But the memory that returned to me most vividly as I stood on East Seventy-ninth Street was of meeting their daughter, a young woman with whom I was for a time obsessed, and of whom I still occasionally think, despite having met her only once.
A distinguished South African writer had come that night to campus to read from his new novel, so I encountered the daughter at what was an unusually crowded gathering. It was perhaps the second or third time I’d been in the house, which meant I was still nervous, skeptical. I was standing in the dining room where food and wine and glasses had been laid out on the table, admiring a collage of Bernard’s on the wall, when a woman—older than I was then, younger than I am now—identified the source of one of the collage’s elements from behind me: a sliver of a movie poster for Murnau’s Sunrise. I turned to face her and was, as they say, stunned—large gray-blue eyes, a full mouth, long and jet-black hair with a few strands of silver in it, and an immediately apparent poise and intelligence for which no catalog of features could account. Realizing that I was just staring at her, it finally occurred to me to speak, and I managed to say something about the rightness of fit between silent film and collage, mute media that depend on splicing for effect. Whatever its merit, she acted as though I’d contributed something intelligent, and electricity branched through me with her smile. I asked her if she was often at Bernard’s and Natali’s and she said, laughing, “I grew up here,” and then I understood—her knowledge of the collage, her aura of brilliance, her obvious comfort in this hallowed space—that this gorgeous woman was their daughter.
We shook hands and said our names, but I was too overwhelmed by contact with the former to catch the latter, and before I could ask her to repeat it, she was taken away from me by a man, a distinguished professor of something, who wanted to introduce her to the distinguished writer. For the rest of the evening I milled around the reception waiting for an opportunity to insinuate myself back into her company, but somehow it never came, or I never had the nerve to act. Every time I heard her laugh or succeeded in picking out her voice from the general din or saw her move gracefully through a room, my whole body started, then I felt as if I were falling, a sensation akin to the myoclonic twitch that, just as you are drifting off to sleep, wakes you violently; standing there among the first editions, I was convinced it was the shudder of fate.
I found myself before the glass cases of curios and sculptures that lined one of the dining room walls and discovered that there was a small line drawing of the daughter in a silver frame, vaguely reminiscent of Modigliani in its elongation; I wondered if Bernard had composed the little unsigned portrait. By this point I’d outlasted most of the crowd. The wine gave me the courage to have another glass of wine, which in turn gave me the courage to take one of the now-available chairs in the living room and to listen along with the others to Bernard. He was telling the story, pausing every few minutes to stir the fire he was sitting beside, of a French author who, hard up for money, had fabricated letters to himself from famous interlocutors, then attempted to sell them to a university library. I glanced at Bernard’s daughter furtively; in the firelight, she was dusky gold.
Ben Lerner, 10:04 PM, Granta Books 2015, p. 35-37.