The sepia-tinged lamplight showed Anik’s face to be distressed. “I can’t believe you brought me here, Mr. Hap.”
They’d gone to dinner the last time she was in New York. It was during the fallout of the Strauss-Kahn incident at the Sofitel Hotel, so she was fuming over that as well as her inability to smoke when their table was on the street. She had finally consented to patronize the Provençal restaurant that her cousin Ricard had operated for twenty years at three different locations between Lexington and Park. Hap had been to Ricard’s restaurant many times, so she suggested he be her Virgil.
“The waitresses here are Polish,” he told her.
“That’s why they’re tres jolie. If they were French they’d have acne and contempt.”
He had always appreciated the pretty Polish girls. “Jude calls it The Curse of Chopin.”
“Jude’s handing me off to you, I think.”
He laughed. “Oh, really? Jude has you to give you away?”
“In his mind he does.”
“Jude would never give anything away. He’s a selfish kid.”
“He should be a selfish man.”
“It’s the selfishness that keeps him a kid.”
She looked around. “The waiters are pretty too.”
“That’s good because they marry each other for green cards and fall in love with other people and don’t have the money for divorce and cry into their potato vodka.”
She laughed. “I married for a green card.”
He laughed. “You married a world-renowned doctor, not a waiter.”
“But I left with what I came with, nothing more. How many women who marry rich do that? Walk away from the big jackpot?”
His smile was close to a grimace. “Not many, Anik.”
“Shit!” she exclaimed, looking around at the lovely spring evening. “This is the land of the free. Why can’t I have a cigarette out here?”
He was amused. “Movies that show anyone smoking can now get an R rating.”
“And R stands for real, which is what smoking is. In Europe real people do it.”
That was then. This time around Hap brought Anik to the Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle. She was flying out at midnight and had called him to fit in a drink before her departure.
“Believe it or not,” said Hap, “I’ve never been here.”
“I believe that. It’s that you brought me with you I can’t believe.”
“It’s American French.”
“It’s American kitsch.”
“Animals frolicking in the park,” he said breezily. “All very benign.”
“It’s manic and absurd. Haven’t you looked? They all want to fuck and then eat each other. Have you not read Freud?”
He laughed. “Little girls love his books—Bemelmans, not Freud.”
“How would you know what little girls love?”
“Little American girls.”
“An ex-priest should not be saying those three words together.”
He smiled graciously.
“Jude may be quitting your happy people,” she told him.
“Did he tell you that?”
“Not in so many words, but he’s anxious to go.”
“He wants to be like me. He wants to disappear into the past.”
“Usually people want to disappear into the future.”
“Not Jude. The future is his enemy.”
“That doesn’t sound too promising for his career.”
She laughed. “He doesn’t think career. I think I told you what he wants is to pull the beard off the world.”
“He told us your next show was in Basel. Maybe he’ll head off there to do it.”
“He’d probably follow me to London. He knows I live there because it’s the world’s most expensive place next to Delhi.”
“I thought New York held that honor.”
She shook her head. “London’s rich foreigners are way ahead of New York’s in plundering and displacing the natives. My being there . . . well, let’s just say that I and others in the arts are like barefoot pilgrims making their way to the medieval guild halls. You Americans should take notes. Next it will be you and yours.”
Hap was in fact always taking mental notes—of the long-lashed rabbits in vests and dogs with bowties dining together en plein air. A debonair suited rabbit with his arms crossed, waiting for something to go down, waiting for a what’s-up. Another rabbit leaning against a tree, casually lighting a blunt, or maybe an exploding cigar. It struck him that this was the world as presented by Hap: species harmony, joyful picnicking, accessibility for all. Except that Anik could be right: perhaps the debonair rabbit was leaning in wait, with malice aforethought. Listening for the cigar to explode.
Suddenly Anik’s face lit up. “You still wear the cufflinks!”
He reached out both wrists to show her the faces.
She held his hands steady. “Now that is kitsch.”
They were a gift from Frank a few years ago. A pair of Janus masks, probably from the fifties, that the priest had rescued from a junk shop on the Lower East Side. The smiler was sticking out his tongue. The crier was bawling.
“I thought you were going to commission Tiffany’s to make you platinum versions?”
He smiled, reclaiming his hands. “Haplinks.”
“You are already your own product line. Why not toss in the jewels?”
“I’m afraid that rumors of my importance have been greatly exaggerated.”
“Are you still seeing that woman with the cooking show?”
“Yes, the one always licking her fingers on TV.”
He made a face. “That was a while ago.”
She shook her head disapprovingly. “Don’t the ladies keep asking you why no Mrs. Hap?”
He knitted his brows as if he’d never heard that one before. “I was going to come to the gallery opening, but Jude told us all to stay away. Your preference, he said.”
“It’s a fucking retrospective! Little pictures from way back that people can take off the wall and buy with a credit card.”
He laughed. “God forbid.”
“You know I never sell anything.”
He shook his head. “That’s why Americans hated Yoko Ono.”
She laughed. “And now they cash in on her at the Modern.”
As an artist, Anik claimed to despise sentimentality but also the co-opting of violence for any means other than to illustrate its random effects. She said that the way to understand any family was to determine who were the jailers: the children or the parents. Hew work was part performance, part documentation, part public participation. Her most famous project was at the Freud Museum, where she documented herself impersonating the psychoanalyst’s most notorious female patients. Visitors were able to sit in Freud’s chair and play Freud, asking the women questions. Her current project was the Stanford Eschey House in Hampstead. She was documenting herself impersonating the famous writer as she used each and every object and article under glass in the museum home while visiting the current sites he had frequented a hundred years ago. A colleague was filming her excursions. All over London she’d go as Stanford Eschey in his Edwardian suits. The purported goal was to discover why he killed himself in that house, at the peak of his career, a young, vital man of letters and man of men.
She could wear a man’s three-piece suit with a spirit-gum mustache because of the androgynous sensuality she seemed to exude no matter what. For many years she had Jane Birkin-style bangs draping down into her eyes. Then she cut them very short, but the allure did not recede. Her smoking didn’t ruin her face; she kept fit without ever once exercising. No one knew how she did it.
“I don’t understand you, Mr. Hap.”
“I don’t understand why you don’t understand me when I’m doing the same thing as you.”
She shook her head. “I don’t pretend behind a curtain.”
This curtain business he found offensive. As if he was some lewd Svengali, hypnotizing or tricking with magic. She was the one dressing up as other people; he dressed up only as Hap.
“You have this image,” she continued. “You are like some saint the lepers want to touch.”
He laughed so much his eyes began to tear.
She laughed too. “I’m serious!”
“This is all mere collateral. It’s such a . . . it’s hard to describe what it is to me.”
“Someone’s going to pull off your beard.”
He looked skeptical. “The world has a high tolerance for lies.”
She pursed her lips like a prude to show how much she found this unacceptable.
“I’m not saying that’s the way it should be,” he explained, “just that it’s the way things are.”
“Because so many Americans are unhappy?”
He thought on this. “It’s not that so many people are unhappy. It’s that so many people have such a high tolerance for emotional pain. Researchers call it the misery threshold, after William James.”
“I like William James. I know him from Julia Kristeva.”
“I was just reading a scholar discussing his preoccupation with ‘world sickness,’ what we call depression. This scholar sees Stage 1 as Pleasure Diminished, Stage 2 as Pleasure Destroyed, and Stage 3 as Pathological Melancholy. She stopped there, but naturally Stage 4 would be suicide.” He paused. “I had managed to reach Stage 4 without dying.”
She gave him a sly look. “That’s why you go through women, Mr. Hap. So no one can penetrate your past. You make your past the jewel in the crown.”
This he found amusing. “But the past is the jewel in the crown for you.”
“No,” she said lifting her index finger. “No. And do you know why? It’s not my past. My past is nothing, inconsequential. It’s the past of others I am helping into life.”
“But why disappear into any past? Why do you feel the need to subsume yourself?”
“I’m fifty-four,” she said. “I’m invisible.”
He shook his head. “But you’ve been doing this disappearing forever.”
“I need to disappear now,” she said, drinking up, “to get to the airport.”
Outside on the street, he felt he had to dodge couple after couple needing to get somewhere fast—all of them older men and women with money, from Upper East or West, dressed for something. He was technically one of them even though he thought of himself a mole with that false beard Anik kept talking about. It didn’t take a cache of data to realize there was no younger cohort to eventually replace these couples. People no longer amassed that kind of steady, legal money. With those under forty, it was feast or famine.
“London and New York,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s the same story. The bourgeoisie who can afford to live here . . . they’ll just die out like the spotted owl and California condor. And then what? Who’s ever going to go to Lincoln Center?”
“Foreigners,” she said coolly. “New York is still the biggest shopping mall for the world’s mad money.”
“Well, thank God we have yours,” he said, putting her into a cab.
She paused before disappearing. “When you are ready with Stage 5, you call me, Mr. Hap.”
As he continued to dodge the older couples on the sidewalk, he thought how the past seven years were actually like the never-land of the Bemelmans walls. He realized this wasn’t a new feeling. It was the same feeling from a very long time ago—when he was a teenager—his two years at a community college. He transferred from there to a spectacular school with no one the wiser. That was the plan, perfectly executed. He was from a poor family, but he was shrewd with money, willing to give up these first two impressionable years so he wouldn’t be saddled with debt. The other option was the military, like his father and brother, but that wasn’t for him.
He remembered thinking of it as a circus with animals, that community college. It was in the middle of nowhere, on a hill. What did people major in? Criminal justice, nursing, laboratory biology, computer science. Everything was “Afro-American” in those days, like Franco-American on the cans. The school gave basketball scholarships to kids from downstate. There was a smoke-filled Commons with a fireplace and lots of pillows. Pillows, bags of Fritos, and roach clips. The election of Ronald Reagan and the death of John Lennon—those were the start lines for his tenure. Culture was sparse. He remembered a Harry Chapin concert that people seemed oddly excited about, talks by Art Buchwald and Harry K. Reasoner attended by faculty and barely any students.
It was the Age of Higher Education and yet few at the college wanted to go anywhere fast; many floated on for years amid the pillows and roach clips. Graduating was filed under “eventually.” It was 1980 and half the campus acted like it was 1969. The 13th-graders in varsity jackets with girlfriends still wearing their cheerleading saddle shoes—not them. They were local color. It was the imports: the chain-smoking veterans who still wore fatigue jackets and dog-tags like the carpet-bombing stopped yesterday. The “Afro-Americans” from downstate with their tracksuits and briefcases. And the hippies who existed within the static haze of ingestible substances. They all seemed to work at army-navy stores a few hours a week. They knew a lot about denim.
There were no ages; everyone was just “older.” The criminal justice department head was naturally a former cop. At the start of every semester: “How many of your fathers or brothers have I put away?” All the hands would go up. That knowledge was hearsay; what he got firsthand were things like the Latin teacher—he had a hard time thinking of any of the faculty as “professor”—translating Nunc est tempus bibendi as “Now comes Miller time.” The college was so small he felt there ought to have been a popular group, but there was no center constituting critical mass. The most intriguing campus character was the manager of the college radio station, the chain-smoking Vietnam vet whose FM show spread out over eight hours a day, five days a week. He went by “the Hyena,” a nickname from his combat days. The station was in the basement of the Commons, and every day at eleven the Hyena would arrive in his fatigue jacket holding a stack of T. Rex albums under his arm. Nobody saw him ever leave for class.
Hap became editor of the college paper only because it would have ceased to exist if he hadn’t. The outgoing editor had hissy fits passing the torch. He worried that the paper wouldn’t continue as he had deigned. Truth was, no one read The Crier, published on stiff white paper, not even newsprint; continuity was a moot issue. There was an eager sportswriter who couldn’t spell beyond the fifth-grade level. Ken the photographer was nineteen but looked like Burl Ives. There was a woman named Margo—older and fat, who was a B’nai and eventually had her stomach stapled. She volunteered to typeset so that she could rewrite everything at the CompuSet machine, which gave you headlines in yards-long strips. People came and got assignments and never returned. There was a cute black girl with a cropped military jacket and long legs who hung out at the office all day but never did anything related to the paper.
The Crier’s office was directly above the Hyena’s studio. You heard the music through your feet—T. Rex of course but also lots of Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, the Kinks, and a whole lot of Who, plus acid rock that went on for a whole record side when the Hyena was on the phone. Once in a while he’d toss into the mix a soupcon of very much other: Joe Jackson’s “It’s Different for Girls,” Foxy’s “Get Off,” Otis Redding. There was absolutely no programming logic.
Hap suddenly remembered he had a girlfriend all through this. The Hyena had once said to him, “I couldn’t help notice your special lady,” and then made a bawdy sound. She was pretty, the girlfriend, an acquaintance from high school whom he’d re-met the summer after graduation. She thought they’d go on together because she’d always had boyfriends and that’s what you did with them. She talked way into the future. She planned to continue on to college and do something “science-y.” But he knew she really wanted to be Just a Nurse. At that time, high school guidance counselors were urging girls to consider a career beyond Just a Nurse and Just a Teacher. And yet this is what so many girls wanted: Just a Teacher, Just a Nurse, Just Three Kids.
She cried a lot the summer he told her it was over. She had applied and been accepted at a state school that was as close to his school as you could get without leaving the state. He remembered that he used to wonder if she stayed at that school. She found another boyfriend almost immediately, a guy struggling to finish at the community college.
Within that community college circus, he never once felt deprived of the two years lost from the cultural amenities of college life, the tweedy New England campus, the creeping complacency of knowing oneself to be superior to your blood lot. It struck him that maybe those two years of being impervious, just passing through, were the happiest in his life.
They were, weren’t they? The wrong turn he took came after the next two years, the year after his bachelor’s. A mistake was made, and look what happened? Was it unpleasant? Yes, but only at times in the beginning before tuning to often at the end. And when was the end? He could never tell. He knew the beginning for sure: it was the terror of becoming his father. They both had their first child, a boy, at the same age.
His parents both died before their time, in the happy Clinton decade—his mother of breast cancer and then his father of emphysema. That was the last time he saw his sister and brother, at his father’s funeral in 1998. “A wakeup call,” said his brother. “Get ready, Al. We’re up next.”