Staring into the dull silver of the elevator doors Agnes swirls out her red lipstick, which she strokes firmly onto her lips, back and forth, a brick the same shade as her penciled-in Marlene Dietrich eyebrows, matching her china doll moon face framed by brazenly red hair carefully flipped up. Agnes’ hair color changed with her whims, more violent seasons than the city’s monochrome. It’s my signature she would say. For someone like Agnes it was important to have a signature. How else will she remember herself?
The year before, in that same office, I had repeatedly found pornography on the desktop of the shared computer. Seeing the pop-ups of naked women in various postures, I initially wondered whether they were left there by the other instructor I shared the space with when I was not on campus. Perhaps it was her research, as she was a sociologist, one of the other adjunct faculty who everyone assumes is more permanent than we are. The images were the sort of pornography that seemed designed for men who hate women. I imagined in turn that she was also suspicious, or curious, about me. I wonder if, as a resident of this city—and a partial resident of the city that is the internet—I have become almost numb to absurd or hostile encounters. I did wonder later whether the joke was on me specifically, if this pornography was left there for me, but that would take some awareness of me, or what I had written about. I never figured out if it was a form of targeted or general harassment, or what—masturbatory carelessness?
I finally said something to the woman who worked in the office downstairs, an awkward conversation I tried to laugh my way through. We were asked to lock the office afterward, and the password to the desktop was reset. When the French sociologist (she was French) was told, she apparently just made a face of distaste, I imagine in a very French way, and asked if there were antibacterial wipes we could use to wipe down the computer and the desk, since we both ate our lunches there. Which, upon hearing this, I felt was the right reaction—and wondered why I hadn’t thought of that.
One evening in the early winter of 1976, an event occurred that would mark my childhood and forever after stand as a hinge moment in my life. The episode lay bare to my seventeen-year-old mind the threat undergirding the “traditional” arrangement of the sexes. Not just in principle and theory, but in brutal fact.
I was in my room, nodding over a book, when I was jolted awake by a loud crash. Someone was breaking into the house, and then pounding up the stairs with blood-curdling howls. It was my father, violating a restraining order. Six months earlier he had been barred from the premises. I heard wood splintering, a door giving way before a baseball bat. Then screams, a thudding noise. “Call the police,” my mother cried as she fled past my room. When I dialed 911, the dispatcher told me a squad car was on its way.
Yes, the dispatcher said. Some minutes earlier, an anonymous caller had reported “an intruder” at the same address.
The police arrived and an ambulance. The paramedics carried out on a stretcher the man my mother had recently begun seeing. He had been visiting that evening. His shirt was soaked in blood, and he had gone into shock. My father had attacked him with the baseball bat, then with the Swiss Army knife he always carried in his pocket. The stabbings, in the stomach, were multiple. It took the Peekskill Hospital’s ER doctors the better part of the night to stanch the bleeding. Getting the blood out of the house took longer. It was everywhere: on floors, walls, the landing, the stairs, the kitchen, the front hall. The living room looked like a scene out of Carrie, which, as it happened, had just come out that fall. When the house went on the market a year later, my mother and I were still trying to scrub stains from the carpet.
The night of his break-in, my father was treated for a superficial cut on the forehead and delivered to the county jail. He was released before morning. The next afternoon, he rang the bell of our next-door neighbor, wearing a slightly soiled head bandage, trussed up, as my mother put it later, “like the Spirit of ’76.” He was intent on purveying his side of the story: he’d entered the house to “save” his family from a trespasser. My father’s side prevailed, at least in the public forum. Two local newspapers (including one that my mother had begun writing for) ran items characterizing the night’s drama as a husband’s attempt to expel an intruder. The court reduced the charges to a misdemeanor and levied a small fine.
In the subsequent divorce trial, my father claimed to be the “wronged” husband. The judge acceded to my father’s request to pay no alimony and a mere $50 a week for the support of two children. My father also succeeded in having a paragraph inserted into the divorce decree that presented him as the injured party: by withdrawing her affections in the last months of their marriage, my mother had “endangered the defendant’s physical well being” and “caused the defendant to receive medical treatment and become ill.”
“I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man that I have never been inside,” my father had written me. As I confronted, nearly four decades and nine time zones away, my father’s new self, it was hard for me to purge that image of the violent man from her new persona. Was I supposed to believe the one had been erased by the other, as handily as the divorce decree recast my father as the “endangered” victim? Could a new identity not only redeem but expunge its predecessor?
You said no, I’m the one who’s leaving. Keep everything, I’m taking the child, we won’t need alimony. You moved out on October 15, found a babysitter, extended your maternal leave for health reasons, and on Monday, November 15—yesterday—you killed your psychoanalyst. You did not kill him symbolically, the way one sometimes ends up killing the father. You killed him with a Zwilling J.A. Henckels Twin Profection santoku knife. “The unique forging of the blade’s edge offers optimal stability and exceptional ease in cutting,” explained the brochure you were studying at Galeries Lafayette while your mother was getting out her checkbook. This knife, which belongs to a set of eight, you picked up at Julien’s apartment sometime that morning. You grabbed the case without a moment’s hesitation. It went straight to the bottom of your purse, the zipper of which you closed with a firm yank. Then something very strange happened. You were about to leave the apartment; your hand had already grasped the doorknob when a black veil fell over the room. Suddenly you were no longer leaving the apartment, it was the apartment that was swirling around you, rising on all sides, floor, walls, ceiling, as everything was suddenly overturned. Sweat pearled in the palms of your hands as thousands of insects thrummed inside your skull, a swarming army attacking the slightest bits of bare skin, blocking exits, closing off your eyes, nose, and mouth. You slumped down on the linoleum, your head on your knees to help blood reach the brain. Dug the bottle of mineral water out of your purse. Drank a few swallows, prayed to God knows whom, hoping that the terror would fade away. From beneath a low cabinet, the cat’s yellow eyes—all that was visible in the darkness—observed you cautiously. At last you remembered that you regularly consult a specialist.
Julia Deck, Viviane: A Novel, Translated by Linda Coverdale, The New Press (April 1, 2014)
He had Bekka for the weekend. She sat in the living room, tuned to Cartoon Network. She liked Road Runner and Justice League. Ira would sometimes watch her mesmerized face, the cartoons flashing on the creamy screen of her skin, her eyes still and wide, bright with reflected shapes caught there like holograms in marbles. He felt inadequate as her father, but in general attempted his best: affection, wisdom, reliability, plus not ordering pizza every night, though tonight he had again caved in. Last week Bekka had said to him, “When you and Mommy were married we always had mashed potatoes for supper. Now you’re divorced and we always have spaghetti.” “Which do you like better?” he had asked. “Neither!” she had shouted, summing up her distaste for everything. “I hate them both.”
He got back to the cats. “What should we name them?” One should always name food. “I don’t know.” Bekka studied the cats. Ira hated the precious literary names people gave pets—characters from opera and Proust. When he’d first met Marilyn, she had a cat named Portia, but Ira had insisted on calling it Fang. “I think we should name them Snowball and Snowflake,” said Bekka, looking glassy-eyed at the two golden tabbies. “They don’t look like a snowball or a snowflake,” said Ira, trying not to let his disappointment show. Sometimes Bekka seemed completely banal to him. She had spells of inexplicable and vapid conventionality. He had always wanted to name a cat Bowser. “How about Bowser?” In the pound someone with name tag duty had named them “Jake” and “Fake Jake,” but the quotation marks around their names seemed an invitation to change them. “Fireball and Fireflake,” Bekka tried again. Ira looked at her, he hoped, beseechingly and persuasively. “Really? Fireball and Fireflake don’t really sound like cats that would belong to you.” Bekka’s face clenched tearily. “You don’t know me! I live with you only part-time! The other part of the time I live with Mom, and she doesn’t know me either! The only person who knows me is me!” “OK, OK,” said Ira. The cats were eyeing him warily. In time of war never argue with a fireball or a fireflake. Never argue with the food. “Fireball and Fireflake.” What were those? Two lonely middle-aged people on a date.
“Did you notice him changing his personality and the way he acted around different people in different situations?” Balian asked Savio, a handsome novelist and screenwriter in the fantasy–science fiction mode. “Yes. He would start to tell a story, and if the person didn’t respond well, if they kind of went like [Savio mimed exasperation or skepticism], you know, like that might be a little bit of BS or might be too much, he would notice it, he would stop. You would never hear that story again and he would move on.” Having grown up to be an author, or, as he styled himself on the Internet, a “neo-confabulator” (Battle for Forever and Idiots in the Machine were a couple of his books), Savio was well equipped to describe the defendant’s creative process, its mechanisms and themes. It began with careful linguistic modifications: “He tried to affect what I think at the time he thought was an American accent. And he would practice things, each just with me sitting there, like ‘Pass me the bread …’” There were also adjustments of behavior, customized for the audience at hand. Around jocks, according to Savio, the defendant was “more relaxed.” Around people he deemed his social inferiors “and didn’t feel were worthy of his time,” he would “just be very short” and “wouldn’t even affect his speech much.” I felt a sense of recognition, hearing this. The careful edits and revisions practiced by the ambitious German eighteen-year-old as he gentrified and Americanized himself (“We talked about sort of living the American dream,” remembered Savio) resembled literary operations that I performed daily at my desk. The difference was that my artistic guesswork occurred in isolation, while Clark got to test his drafts and sketches in front of a living, responsive audience. I imagined the satisfaction he must have felt when one of his tales or invented manners hit home, drawing a smile or a nod, causing a face to soften and turn receptive. I had to wait months or years for the equivalents of such communicative rewards, and when they came—if they ever came at all—it was in the disembodied form of letters, e-mails, and reviews. There was much to envy in his approach. He didn’t live by writing, he wrote by living.
Walter Kirn, Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade, Liveright; 1 edition (March 10, 2014)
“Mae, now that you’re aboard, I wanted to get across some of the core beliefs here at the company. And chief among them is that just as important as the work we do here—and that work is very important—we want to make sure that you can be a human being here, too. We want this to be a workplace, sure, but it should also be a humanplace. And that means the fostering of community. In fact, it must be a community. That’s one of our slogans, as you probably know: Community First. And you’ve seen the signs that say Humans Work Here—I insist on those. That’s my pet issue. We’re not automatons. This isn’t a sweatshop. We’re a group of the best minds of our generation. Generations. And making sure this is a place where our humanity is respected, where our opinions are dignified, where our voices are heard—this is as important as any revenue, any stock price, any endeavor undertaken here. Does that sound corny?”
“No, no,” Mae rushed to say. “Definitely not. That’s why I’m here. I love the ‘community first’ idea. Annie’s been telling me about it since she started. At my last job, no one really communicated very well. It was basically the opposite of here in every way.”
Dan turned to look into the hills to the east, covered in mohair and patches of green. “I hate hearing that kind of thing. With the technology available, communication should never be in doubt. Understanding should never be out of reach or anything but clear. It’s what we do here. You might say it’s the mission of the company—it’s an obsession of mine, anyway. Communication. Understanding. Clarity.”
To be a part of things and yet not a part of things. To be accepted by most and yet eyed with suspicion by others. After embracing the triumphal narrative of American exceptionalism as a little boy, you began to exclude yourself from the story, to understand that you belonged to another world besides the one you lived in, that your past was anchored in a somewhere else of remote settlements in Eastern Europe, and that if your grandparents on your father’s side and your great-grandparents on your mother’s side had not had the intelligence to leave that part of the world when they did, almost none of you would have survived, nearly every one of you would have been murdered during the war. Life was precarious.
Paul Auster, Report from the Interior, Henry Holt and Co., 2013