Tell Me How Long the Train s Been Gone 8

  “I think I should break up with Jerry,” she said.

  I took my hand away, and watched the streets go by. “I wasn’t sure you were really with Jerry,” I said.

  “Well, why do you think you’ve been seeing him all the time, coming in and out of my door, for the last six weeks?”

  “I wasn’t in your room, sweetheart. And he’s been coming in and out of my door, too.”

  “That sounds like Jerry. I’m beginning to think he’s not very particular about his doors.”

  “But you are,” I said. “Or you certainly should be.” I looked at her. I looked out of the window again. “Hell. I don’t know.”

  She bit her lip. We were approaching the park at 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue. “D’you know anybody who lives on Gramercy Park?” she asked. “Because I do. Gramercy Park South.”

  “Good for you, princess. Do you want to stop and pay them a visit?”

  “God, no. They’re just friends of my family, they’re here for a couple of weeks. My mother wrote me about them, and asked me to go and see them.”

  “Suppose they come to see you?” I sat straight up.

  “Well,” she said, “I don’t think they can. I think they still think I’m at the Y. I always write them on Y stationery.”

  “What about when they write you?”

  “Yes. That’s happened. But, then, I explain that I’m at another branch. And now I’ve told them to write me at the Art Students’ League.”

  “I think it might be simpler, after all,” I said, “just to give them your address.”

  “But, then,” she said, “they’d just keep sending these people up to see me all the time. And that would be awful.”

  “They’d have a fit.”

  “Yes. And I’m just so tired of fighting with them.”

  “And they wouldn’t like Jerry. Or Charlie. Or me.”

  “That’s true. But they don’t like me.”

  The taxi kept rolling. I said nothing.

  “Do you get along with your family?” she asked.

  I said, “No.” Then, “But I don’t really have any family. Not like you do.”

  She sighed. “Poor Leo. Poor Barbara. What’s the matter with us all?” She looked out of her side of the cab and suddenly started laughing. The cab driver chuckled, too. “Oh, Leo. You didn’t see it. This old, old lady in the middle of the street—and the bus was practically on top of her—she had no business out there—and she just put up her hand like this”—and she raised her hand in a gesture that looked like the Hitler salute—“and the bus just stopped. What brakes, boy. Or what a hand. You should have seen it. Sunday in New York. Wow. Kentucky was never like this.”

  We got to the party, which, as I remember, was somewhere in the Eighties, west of the Park. I remember an enormous foyer, artificial brown brick, lights flush with the ceiling, mirrors, and fake Greek columns. Levels, so that you had to watch where you were going, or you’d break your neck. A doorman stared at us, or, rather, at me; and we stood next to him while he called upstairs. Even then, he wasn’t satisfied but left his post and came upstairs with us. The door was open and there were many people in the room. But the doorman rang the bell and stood there. Barbara had been amused. Now she was getting angry, and this, as always, made me cool. He kept looking from Barbara to me, and looking over the heads of the people, waiting for the host to appear. I kept staring at him; but—cowards all!—he refused to meet my eye. Barbara said, “The Führer is proud of you. You have done your duty like a good little soldier, and tomorrow you will be promoted to the latrine detail. Come on, Leo.” She took my arm; the doorman danced as though he had to pee; the host, thank God, appeared. “But why are you standing out here?” he cried. “Come on in!”

  “Your man didn’t seem to want to let us in,” I said.

  “I just wanted to make sure it was all right, Mr. Frank,” said the doorman. “You understand.”

  “What? Sure it’s all right. What are you talking about? Kids!” He opened his arms wide. “Come on in.”

  Mr. Frank was smiling, but Barbara was dry. “This is Mr. Frank,” she said. “Mr. Frank, this is my friend, Mr. Proudhammer.”

  “Pleased to meet you,” we said, and our handshakes and our smiles meshed perfectly together. We went on in.

  I look back on that party now—I see it through the veil of years—in an indefensibly romantic way. In the light of all that came after, it has the weight of the portentous, the dreadful value of the crucial turning. There we were, Barbara bright in blue, I dull in dark. Young, young, terribly young, and with scarcely any weapons save our youth and what time was to reveal as our character—by which I mean our real preoccupations. Time was to tell us what we really cared about. Then, we really did not know. I see us moving into the room, piloted by the rather desperately smiling Mr. Frank—who had a mustache, an open, boyish face, much graying hair, perhaps too deliberately unkempt, and long eyes, placed very close together. He was the Art League instructor, and Barbara’s friend; I do not know what it was in his smile which made me feel how often—three times a week, at least—he had seen Barbara naked. And this was revealed in Barbara, too, in an attitude at once shrinking and haughty. Barbara had been imprecise—she was forever to remain so. It was not Mr. Frank’s friends who were giving the party, but Mr. Frank himself. His friends were the guests of honor. But it took a while before we met these friends, who were to have such an effect on our lives. There were, I am sure, hundreds of people there, and both Barbara and I, in our bright blue, dull dark fashions, were intimidated by them all. They glittered, they flashed, they resounded; they had that air, inimitable absolutely, of those who have succeeded. We recognized many of them, for many of them were famous. I think Sylvia Sidney was there, she was doing a play in New York then; and Franchot Tone; and Bette Davis. And many playwrights and many directors. I was amazed that I recognized so many. Yes, we were dazzled, dazzled indeed. In the long, high room, this elegant room—elegant if one bears in mind that elegance is scarcely permissible in America—they seemed different, both younger and older—for one saw the faces, off-guard, in life—and certainly smaller than they appeared on stage or screen. One saw that so-and-so’s teeth, for example, were a little crooked; and this one had bowlegs; this one was very drunk and was clearly intending to become drunker. One very famous actress struck me as having very narrowly missed being a dwarf: but she had seemed very tall, in her regal robes, when I had seen her on the stage as the queen of all the Russias. It may have been that night that I really decided to attempt to become an actor—really became committed to this impossibility; it is certain that this night brought into my mind, in an astounding way, the great question of where the boundaries of reality were truly to be found. If a dwarf could be a queen and make me believe that she was six feet tall, then why was it not possible that I, brief, wiry, dull dark me, could become an emperor—The Emperor Jones, say, why not? And I then watched everybody with this cruel intention in my mind.

  Barbara, meanwhile, was being very much the heiress of all Kentucky. She was armed with her beauty, and she knew it, and her intentions were no less cruel than mine. If the other guests flashed, glittered, resounded, she more than confronted this display with her own unanswerable radiance, an innocence more presumed on their part than assumed on hers—but she was certainly no more above using their presumptions against them than I was—and a trick she had, which was to make her fortune later, of dropping her voice. She sometimes sounded as though she suffered from laryngitis, and one had to listen very carefully to hear what she said. She knew, however, that she had the power to make one listen very carefully, she knew very well that she was not at all what she seemed to be, and, furthermore, she knew how to make the company know that, though they had fame, she had youth, and time was on her side. The trick with her voice was something she had picked up from Margaret Sullavan, an actress she admired very much. But it always astonished me that no one ever recognized this. Perhaps it was because she had mast
ered the trick and made it her own. It was no longer a trick, but a fact.

  The room had a fireplace and a mantelpiece. Rather unpleasant objects were placed on the mantelpiece, curios meant to remind one of Africa and of Rome. The room contained the necessary elements of Picasso and Matisse and Rouault, and, hanging from the center of the ceiling, was an extremely depressing and sibilant mobile. Just as the room was grim with splendor, it was also very heavily freighted with liquor and with food on two immense tables, near the open windows. Barbara saw that I had found my feet, knew what to do—that girl always trusted me—and, as we were operating, in any case, in tandem, she went on to her job in the perfect assurance that I would do mine. Her job was mainly to be charming, thus divesting the company of their spiritual valuables. My job was to be surly—my surliness being, precisely, my charm. At this point in our lives, Barbara and I had never slept together, but we had also, by now, been forced to discover how extremely unattractive and indeed offensive most people considered the truth to be. We no longer dreamed of telling the truth. Thus, Barbara knew herself to be branded, merely by the fact of my presence, with a letter far more dreadful than the scarlet one—and far more attractive, therefore she dropped her voice, forcing everyone to lean in to listen, and used her teeth and eyes to such moving effect that everyone wished they were me—and I was invested, by her presence, with an aura of dangerous recklessness and power. Nothing could have been further from the truth, but we were, as Pirandello puts it, in the process of living our play and playing our lives.

  Preparing myself for my role—I was to live with this inane concept for many years—I went to the tables and heaped food on a plate. Then I poured a very genteel glass of red wine. Since Barbara was now being so very delicate and Southern—she was pretending to be Scarlett O’Hara, was being extremely girlish and completely untruthful concerning the family “domains—but I reckon y’all say real estate, don’t you?”—I carried the immense plate of food and the genteel glass of wine to her. I even remembered to drape a napkin over my arm.

  “Why, my darling Leo,” she said, in her highest voice and with her richest accent, “How sweet of you! But how in the world”—she turned, glowing indeed, to the couple she had been so brutally seducing—“am I to manage it?”

  “I’ll hold the glass,” I said.

  “Not at all. He’s completely impossible,” she now informed the fascinated couple—“really! I will find a seat and sit down. And you will find yourself something to eat, and a drink—he drinks far too much,” she said to the couple, “but I’ve given up fighting him about it, it’s simply a waste of time. Do come with me,” she said to the couple, who were now regarding me with a very definite awe, “and, Leo,” she said imperiously, “do come immediately back and I will introduce you to the guests of honor. I don’t dare do it now because you’re not in the least amenable until you’ve got something in your stomach.” She smiled at the couple. “He’s really a very sweet boy.”

  I said, “Thank you, princess. Them’s the kindest words I’ve heard from you all week.” Then, precisely on cue, I gave the couple my most irresistible grin. “I’ll be right back,” I said. I went to the tables and got down a lot of chicken livers in a hurry and loaded up a plate and poured myself an enormous Scotch.

  They were sitting on a sofa near the fireplace. Barbara had a very definite eye on all the other actresses in the room and was selecting and discarding various details of their dress and manner. She was also attempting, with a success far from complete, some of the worldliness of Tallulah Bankhead. Her audience, though, which was probably amused, was also very firmly held. Barbara was talking about Miss Julie. “Leo and I love that play,” she said. “We’re convinced that poor, mad Strindberg wrote it with us in mind.”

  “But, my dear,” said the female of the couple, “the preoccupations of Miss Julie—we wouldn’t go far wrong, I think, in saying the obsessions of that remarkable play—and I believe my husband feels as I do—are so very Northern. Surely. You are not like that at all. You are—tropical. Truly. You give off heat.” She smiled, and batted her enormous blue eyes. “I feel it. All the way over here.” Her husband was sitting between them, and I was sitting on the other side of Barbara, practically in her lap. I ate with a silent, surly ferocity and, from time to time, I smacked my lips. I took great swallows of the Scotch. But I was also concentrating, for I had never read Miss Julie, and I now had to figure out, from what they—or, more particularly, Barbara—said, just what the devil our favorite play was about. The blue-eyed lady, however, had sunk the subject of Miss Julie without a trace. She said, “My dear Miss King, you haven’t introduced us to your silent, hungry, and very attractive friend.” Whereas, before, she had looked very steadily at Barbara in order to avoid looking at me, she now looked very steadily at me in order to avoid looking at Barbara. “So I will introduce myself. Lola San-Marquand is my name and this is my husband, Saul.” She extended her hand and I carefully wiped mine on my napkin before taking it. We shook hands. I liked her at once. I liked her enormously. I do not know what it was in her which made me feel, immediately, and with great force, that she was a sad woman, a lost and ruined woman, and, even, a gallant one. Her details were preposterous, but I read these details as the very signal of her bewilderment and sorrow. She was enormous, not fat in a hard way, fat in a soft way: one felt that she had become fat out of despair. Yet, she covered this despair with a stylish, loose, black sack. Her hair, which was very beautiful, very blond, and very long, was severely, impeccably even, perhaps masochistically, pulled back from a rather stunning brow and ferociously knotted at the back of her head. And over this glory she wore a black chiffon scarf, knotted beneath her—chins, perhaps accuracy compels me to say, but the original chin was a firm one. This was the uniform of Lola San-Marquand. I never knew her to dress in any other way. She must have had hundreds of black dresses and scarves—though, in fact, a black and impetuous toque sometimes did duty for the scarf. This, however, was mainly on opening nights. She impressed me—she impresses me still—as one of the most curious, most loving, devious, ruthless, and single-minded people I have met in all my life. She was brilliantly and brutally manufactured: she had not grown into her present shape, but had been hammered into it, or perhaps, as in some unspeakable vat, been lowered. Her hands were white and pudgy and soft. Yet, they were not without power, and the fingers were elegant. One felt that the pudginess of the hands was no more inevitable than the rings they bore—rather awful rings; that, trapped within Lola San-Marquand, was a beautiful, dying girl. But, alas, fatally, overwhelmingly at last, one became aware of the odor of that corruption.

  Barbara said, “You’re very right, Mrs. San-Marquand, and I’m terribly sorry”—but I felt that she did not, now, quite know how to carry on. My reaction to Lola—for Barbara was swift—had disarmed her; had caused the top she had been maliciously spinning to fall, with a perceptible thunder, uselessly and tamely down. She looked at me briefly, wondering if I thought she should be ashamed of herself, then concentrated on her plate, having made it very clear that she now waited to take her cue from me.

  Saul San-Marquand had also shaken my hand. His hand was wet and white, I felt nothing when I took his hand except a deep aversion. I disliked him at once, and as profoundly as one man can dislike another—from the very bottom of my balls. His lips were thin, his eyes were vague, his nearly snow-white head seemed far too heavy for his neck. He impressed me as a Jeremiah who had never had any convictions. Perhaps I disliked him because I liked Lola—he seemed, certainly, the most preposterous and deadly of all her preposterous details—or perhaps it was because I knew that Barbara admired him very much. Women liked Saul. No doubt it is due to some fatal lack in me that I never understood this at all.

  But perhaps I disliked him because he was one of the very few men I’ve ever met, if not the only one, who seemed really to dislike men. I am probably being unjust here, and, if I’m to be honest, I must confess to a certain bewilderment and t
o a very definite awareness that my attitude cannot be defended by logic. For I get along with women who dislike women very well. Perhaps the male ego finds the female antipathy flattering and perhaps it also flatters itself that it is able to understand this antipathy. Barbara, God knows, can’t bear women and has only had, in all the time we’ve known each other, a single close female friend—who can’t bear women, either, and who can’t even, in fact, bear the theater, and who has lately taken a post in a hospital in Hong Kong. But my own instinct, as to the male relation, is that men, who are far more helpless than women—because far less single-minded—need each other as comrades, need each other for correction, need each other for tears and ribaldry, need each other as models, need each other indeed, in sum, in order to be able to love women. Women liked Saul, but I never felt that Saul liked women. I felt that he used them, collected them, huddled like an infant between their breasts, and used their furnace to diminish his chill. If his chill could be—barely—diminished, it could certainly not be conquered. It eventually began to seem to me that the women clung to Saul in the hope of being able to get back some of the heat he had stolen. Perhaps some of them managed to do so, but his wife was not to be numbered among that improbable few. For warmth she had substituted a deft imitation, a most definite style, which was bizarre and bewildering precisely to the degree that one sensed beneath it a genuine impulse, perpetually, and not without bitterness, held in check.

  “We know that Miss King is from Kentucky,” said Lola San-Marquand, “but she has not told us where you are from. And, while I’m aware that the most unlikely things happen every day—that’s the very lesson, the charm, the discipline of the theater—yet, I must say, that the script which would have the two of you meeting in Kentucky would”—and she laughed elaborately, a high, clear, rather girlish sound—“impress me as lacking verisimilitude. Now, I’m sure that you’ll shatter all my preconceptions and tell me that you both grew up in Kentucky in the same house.”