Chapter One – Eddies in Life
I was not sure on which floor she lived. I lived on the fourth floor, the top floor. I would see her out in the garden below as my apartment had a southern exposure, and the sun favors the south. Sometimes, she brought an easel and a canvas with her and she would sit in front of the canvas, painting. Painters always search the best spot for the light.
At other times, she came early with a small dog and once the dog had done his business she would clean up after it, then she would take the dog back to their apartment. She seemed to enjoy watching the dog chasing birds and barking after them. Later, she would come back to paint but without the dog.
She had blond hair down to her shoulders. Of medium height, slender, and seemed athletic. I could only see her profile because of the way she sat. However, it was not so much her looks that caught my attention, as it was the fact that when she came to the garden she would sit there and spend long moments, composing, painting, and perhaps dreaming.
I could not tell what she was painting for she sat sideways from where I stood by my window so it was hard to see what she was working on. She always sat in the same spot when she painted. What also struck me was that sometimes when she moved her brush on the canvas, it was very decisive, strong, with no hesitation. Whatever idea she had for that particular stroke, she wanted at all costs to make sure the impression she was looking to leave on the canvas was exactly what she had envisioned.
I could see her arm, supple and direct almost like a music conductor working on a difficult passage of a symphony. At other times, her arm movements were soft, delicate, musically lyrical, really. And in a couple of instances, her head and whole body swayed as if she were listening to music . . . perhaps she was listening to the music that the painting was producing in her head
Then I would not see her for days. I often wondered if she had moved out of the building, or perhaps was away. There was something special about seeing this lovely woman working assiduously on her canvas, concentrating on her work, deep in thought, creating whatever images, and using whatever colors of paint she was mixing. I would miss not seeing her in the garden. Then she would suddenly appear again, and the same routine as in the previous days would take place.
How I found out she lived on the third floor was that one day the elevator was not working and I took the stairs, and as I was walking down the hallway the door at apartment number 321 opened and she came out. We were both startled by the encounter. I do not know why. I guess neither one of us had expected to run into another person at that instant. She said something to the dog. I could not quite understand what she said, and the sound of her voice surprised me somewhat.
It had to do with the fact that though I had seen her many times before, I had never heard her speak. The voice was soft; cultured would perhaps be an apt description. I pay much more attention to voices, especially women’s voices than to what the women look like. It forces me to concentrate on things other than looks, and it also sharpens my own sense of sounds from others around me.
I have been struggling in becoming a full time writer. I have done it part time. So the sound of real voices is critical because I want to translate such sounds into words that my characters express. It makes me pay close attention to the different tonalities of people’s voices as they are in real life. It also helps me clarify what such characters say; their thoughts, and their words. It goes a long way toward helping me focus in making sure the people that I am writing about sound normal, human. I once read that the best musical instrument in life is the human voice.
On that morning when we ran into each other no greetings were exchanged between us at all. It was two strangers just crossing each other’s paths and that was that. I was not sure if she had ever seen me looking down on her from my window while she painted. She never looked up so I had no way of knowing if she would recognize me. Because I had seen her in the garden before, I had a vague idea of her looks so seeing her this close only reaffirmed my original impression: she was a very attractive woman.
It is always kind of interesting the things we imagine about the people we do not know or have never met. It is also fascinating, in a much larger sense, when we let our imagination roam freely, as it allows us not to be fixed on some specific fact, or thing, or detail, but gives us plenty of possibilities to imagine anything about others; what they are like, who they are, the mystery of their lives. The chances of discovery are always tantalizing.
Sometimes, I timed my own work schedule to hers as those mornings when she came to the garden to paint gave me a kind of impetus to time my work when I could sit down and write while she was out in the garden, painting. My schedule was set up by hers as it were. She certainly was much more disciplined than I was.
Once, I was tempted to go down and ask her if she would let me see her work. But then it occurred to me that she might ask me to show her my work and I did not want to take such a chance. I never show anyone what I am working on until it is finished. Thus, the writer and the painter lived within earshot of each other, but never made contact with the other.
Then one day I went to the local library. It was not very far from the apartment building where we both lived. I was browsing through the stacks hoping to find some book that would help me with an idea for a novel I had been thinking of writing. This would be an attempt to write a full length novel. I had come to the conclusion that if I wanted to write a novel, I had to sit down and do it. It could no longer remain just an abstract idea. The work had to be done. Then I saw her walk in. She went to the reference desk and talked to the person behind the desk.
She apparently was looking for some art books. She asked the clerk to see a particular art book by Modigliani. It so happens that he is one of my favorite painters. In fact, I had a Modigliani book at home with many of his works reproduced in that volume, plus I had a couple of posters by him. I decided to reach out to her, introduce myself, and tell her how much I had enjoyed watching her working on her art.
I found a book that I thought might help me with my own project and walked to the counter. I heard the librarian tell her that the book she wanted was not available for check-out. I glanced at the book and it turned out it was the book I had at home.
I decided to talk to her.
“Hi, I know we’re neighbors and it so happens that I have a copy of the book you want at home. If you would like, I can lend it to you.”
“Oh, how kind of you to do that,” I could see that she was surprised by my offer.
“I’ve been wanting to get a hold of this book forever. I’d appreciate it very much if you’d lend it to me.”
“No problem . . . are you walking back to the building now?”
“OK, may I join you?”
“Yes, of course.” She gave me a big smile.
I found her voice different for some reason. It was soft but precise and I had the impression that she took her time to answer questions. It was not hesitation per se. It was more like she wanted to make sure her answers were clear and direct. We walked out. It was a nice and warm day. The sun was shining and it made me think that it would probably be a good day for painting with the light enhancing the landscapes one might wish to paint.
“Are you a painter?” She asked.
“No. I’m sort of a writer.”
“What’s the ‘sort of’’ like?”
“Good question. Maybe, it’s like indeterminate. Is that a good word?”
“Yes it is if you’re not certain.”
“I can see your point. Can an artist be certain of his work? Isn’t the whole idea of art to question, to explore, to challenge, to go against the status quo? Attitudes that reveal a high degree of uncertainty, thus the artist’s world is filled with ambiguity.”
“Yes, but to question for its own sake doesn’t seem constructive,” she said. “An artist must question that status quo because he wishes to change direction, to try to find another way of looking at the world around us. Maybe investigate and seek out another interpretation of what one sees every day and tell us about it. Help us discover life. A way of teaching the rest of us something new.”
“So in your view there is a didactic element in art?”
“Yes, I think there is.” She seemed to hesitate before continuing. “Art does teach us something. It forces us to engage with life. We can’t ignore it. I can’t imagine that when you write or, what you write, is mindless, or dishonest. It’s your view that we as readers are exposed to.” She stopped and thought for a moment, then continued. “Of course, we don’t have to agree with that point of view; nevertheless, there is a didactic element that is reflected through what you write, and that means something to your readers.”
“Do you find that painting or through painting you get not only to discover some hidden truths about life, but it also helps you illustrate the possible venues that actually reveal those hidden truths.”
I was curious to understand the point of view of a painter as I had never met a painter before.
“You know, it’s a question that at the moment I have no definite answer for,” she said.
“Are you searching for some insight, some clarification about the human condition? I know you are a painter because once in a while I see you painting in the garden. I live on the fourth floor and my window overlooks the garden.”
“I’m not a painter, really. I just enjoy painting.”
“In my book that makes you a painter.”
“Thank you. By the way my name is Cassandra.”
“Hi, Cassandra. My name is Andrew, but most people call me Andy.”
We shook hands.
“I want to learn about painting on my own,” she said. “I’ve had classes. But it’s actually in doing the work that one learns technique, and one settles on a specific style that leads to discovering the inner beauty of the art of painting.”
“I see what you mean. Is Modigliani one of your ‘models’ more or less?”
“Actually, I’m torn between two very different painters, Modigliani and Kandinsky.”
“Why not simply accept both of them?”
“I do. Of course, I do. There was only two years difference between the two. But Modigliani died very young, age thirty-five. I often wonder if they knew each other while they lived in Paris.”
We walked in silence for a few moments.
“Yes, in a way Modigliani is fascinating to me,” she continued. “The choices he makes. The subjects he uses. The colors. The designs. What attracts him to a particular subject-matter? Why do you like Modigliani?”
“It’s like you prefer a certain kind of music. The arrangements, the instruments used, the tempo, the interpretations by different conductors. You can listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony conducted by different people and I suppose depending upon their artistic temperaments or experience and sensibilities, the sound you get is different even though the score is the same. The notes don’t change. It is the interpretation by the conductor and the orchestra that makes the difference, and Modigliani seems to make that happen with his paintings.”
“I think your take is correct.” She said, and then stopped.
We continued walking in silence for a few moments.
“Of course,” she added, “in painting some aspects are a given: the quality of the canvas, the different shades of colors, the fluidity of the paints, and the brushes and how you use them. Then the light, and at what time of the day you paint. Those components have their impact on the final work, not to speak of the subject-matter of the painting itself, and the result is just as remarkable as it is in music.”
“I read that Kandinsky was also someone who was heavily into music, and he was greatly influenced by it and put that knowledge to work in the paintings he did, and the colors he used, which are very striking.”
“Yes, they are,” she said. “I have also read about Kandinsky’s keen interest in music. And, of course, the amazing colors he uses in his paintings. I think, though, he’s more abstract in his paintings and style. Less human figures. Whereas Modigliani uses a lot of human models for his subjects.”
“So which do you prefer, Kandinsky or Modigliani?”
“I’m torn between the two. Maybe to pick one over the other is a false choice. They represent different interpretations, different stimuli . . . I like them both, actually. I think you have to be open to any and all kinds of painters. All of them contribute to enriching your life through what they do and how they do it.”
Her words were expressed with conviction and precision. We got back to the building. It had a courtyard in the front with a fountain in the middle. There was a female’s statue holding an urn from which the water flowed into the fountain. I liked the old building. It was built back in the forties, and rumor had it that at one time it had belonged to a Hollywood actress. Though, nobody seemed to know who she was.
“Here we are,” I said.
“I’ll go get the book.”
“I live in 321, easy to remember,” and she smiled.
“OK, I’ll see you in a minute.”
“You sure it’s OK, about the book, I mean?”
I took two books to her, actually. The Modigliani one and the other was on Cézanne. I had bought the two of them at the same time. One day, I was looking for a poster by Modigliani and though I did not find the poster, I found the book and the Cézanne’s as well. Modigliani had been influenced by Cézanne when he lived in Paris, according to some historical facts. Modigliani had always fascinated me for the manner in which he lived. He was an alcoholic, and also a drug addict. But his style of painting I had liked.
He was a contemporary of Picasso, and during his sculptor period worked with Brâncuşi, the Romanian sculptor. Modigliani suffered from tuberculosis, which eventually killed him. He was buried at Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, along with his common-law wife: Jeanne Hébuterne who committed suicide a day after his death. She was pregnant with their second child at the time. When I lived in Paris, I went to visit the tomb.
Defiance and disorder were the keys to understanding Modigliani’s style of painting. And he lived by those principles.
I walked down to Cassandra’s place. She opened the door when I knocked.
“OK, I also brought you another book on Cézanne, who according to what I’ve read had a great deal of influence on Modigliani.”
“Oh, thank you. Yeah, I read that somewhere, too . . . please, come in.”
Her small dog came out, was very friendly, and started smelling me in a typical manner that dogs have.
“What’s his name?”
“It’s a she?”
“What’s her name?”
“Really? Oh, wow. Like in Shakespeare?”
“Yes. My ex-boyfriend gave her the name. He was always quoting Shakespeare . . . so, Desdemona seemed to make sense.”
Desdemona smelled me a bit more, and then she appeared to be satisfied that I was a friend and not some enemy, and went back to her basket, got in, and settled down. Cassandra had not said anything to the dog. So the dog appeared to be well behaved.
The apartments in the building where we lived were not large, but they were constructed in a way that made them appear cozy and comfortable. And Cassandra had made some interesting choices in the manner in which she had decorated her place. She had posted some of her sketches on the walls. The sketches and unfinished paintings were varied, and reflected different stages of the works.
I also noted a stuffed toy of Piglet, Winnie-de-Pooh’s friend, sitting on a shelf. For some reason, this surprised me. I do not know why. On the other hand, the stuffed toy indicated a certain degree of fantasy, innocence of spirit about Cassandra.
“I read once that Piglet’s character indicated kindheartedness, tidiness, who loved flowers,” I said.
“Oh, I didn’t know that,” she said, and she smiled.
She picked up the toy and looked at it with a great deal of affection in her eyes. She put it back on the shelf.
I handed her the books. She ran her hand over them. It almost seemed like this was a way of greeting them. She put the Cézanne book down on the coffee table and opened the Modigliani book and started leafing through it. I could tell that she was very pleased by having the book she had wanted for a while.
“You know,” she said, after looking at the book, “the couple of things that I understand about Modigliani, which is why I like what he does, are: Defiance and disorder. He seems to have lived his life in pretty much that way. I’d like to think that my own paintings reflect that. But, of course, I’m too much of a coward to create disorder and to be defiant.”
“My understanding is that art does create disorder because in many instances it brings about changes in styles, and challenges the status quo. And in another sense, it also brings about a sense of defiance to that same status quo.”
“I see what you mean.”
“Well, it’s not my original thought. I read that somewhere,” I did not mind admitting.
“Is chaos a form of defiance?” Her question came out slowly, as if she were trying to be precise in expressing it.
“It’s disorder. Actually, I don’t know which comes first. You could argue that when chaos is created one possible result could be a sense of defiance to what is taking place. You don’t like it and therefore you become defiant. You want to challenge the status quo, maybe bring the opposite of chaos, thus, order.”
“Do you think that art brings about a sense of order, then?” She asked.
“Yes, in many ways it does.”
I had thought about this idea for a while. And even though the artist at first creates something new, and perhaps out of the ordinary, what he seeks is to find symmetry between what he feels and what he sees around him.
“The artist is confronted with the chaos of the world,” I said. “The chaos of life, maybe even of his very own life, of the way he sees it or senses it, and thus his intent is to create order out of chaos. And when you think about it, the artist whether a painter, a writer, a composer, constructs a world that is not in disorder.”
“Art seeks harmony, structure, a clear path, a vision,” she said.
“Yes. It’s a world ordained and well-structured and the ambiguities of life are simplified and the artist’s creation brings that sense of order to the rest of us who look, read, or listen to such creative efforts. Furthermore, the whole experience enriches and enlightens us. In addition to making us more human; it opens up our hearts and spirits, and I think makes us better human beings.”
“That’s nice, well put.”
A long silence followed. I walked over to the wall to get a closer look at her designs and sketches. I am not an expert on painting. In fact, I know very little about its techniques. I only know that I like some paintings better than others. I think it is all a matter of personal choice and taste.
Cassandra stood to one side looking out of the window.
There were two posters hanging on the wall. One was of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, and the other was of The Dreamer by Modigliani. I was familiar with both paintings. What was interesting in the display was that below these two posters, there were several black and white photos of Cassandra.
One of them was particularly striking. She was reclining on a sofa, by a window, and the light that filtered through the window somehow had caught her profile in such a way that her face was there, but not there.
But the kicker was that in the photo she was nude!
There was a primitiveness about the photo, and also a sense of rawness because of the way she was exhibiting it so directly. No doubt she meant to make some kind of statement by having her photo so predominantly featured. There was an obvious but subtle idea of having her photo near the other paintings. I did not think it was meant as a comparison to the two paintings. There was something more complex in the arrangement. The classic Venus emerging from the sea, and the girl, the dreamer, in the Modigliani painting, were paintings of extreme mystery and subtlety. Then Cassandra’s photo in between two distinct paintings, all three women represented beauty and mystery.
The juxtaposition was intriguing. The placement of the photo was not an accident that much I understood. But I must confess that the whole ensemble was both disturbing but also less revealing. It seemed to be suggesting something bruised and also hidden. Was there a statement being made? Or was it just one of those coincidences that only becomes apparent after the fact?
I was not sure if I was supposed to make a comment on the photo or on the fact that there was no doubt that Cassandra was exposing it in such a direct way; it seemed that something had to be said. It was a challenge to somebody! But who? It was very striking. I stood looking at the photo and I could not help but be forced to think it meant to make a raw, naked—no double meaning intended here— statement to the world. I was not sure if that statement meant also that whoever saw it; in fact, had to make some kind of comment about the subject matter. It was complicated, really. The photo was impossible to ignore.
I must also confess that for a moment I was unable to figure out what to say. I mean, it really was kind of like an in your face confrontation. On the other hand, there was something mysterious about her nakedness. Something hidden. I know this sounds contradictory in that when one sees a naked person, especially a naked woman, the mystery of her sex is no longer in question. It is there for the entire world to see. But the photo also seemed to be implying a secret. It was fascinating because the photo in essence was hiding Cassandra, the person, in her nakedness. That was the thing that struck me.
But what kind of statement was she making? Should I ask her? Should I ignore the photo? Pretend that I had not seen it. Or that I was not in the same room with the subject of the photo standing just a couple of feet away from me. I must say that the whole thing threw me for a loop. But, having been forced into the situation, I decided to act as if the whole thing was normal and that if she had wanted to embarrass me and, to some extent she had, I also had to treat the moment as something artistic, creative, and not dwell on the photo itself.
“That’s you, right?”
I turned around and faced her. I was not interested in playing games. She had invited me into her place. I did not know what kind of reaction she was expecting from me. And, yet, what I also found interesting was that even though I was looking at the photo with Cassandra in her birthday suit, her pubic hair exposed to the world, the sense of intimacy that such a photo could produce was missing, at least for me at that moment.
“It’s beautiful. And I am speaking of the subject of the photo as well as of the manner in which the photo was done.”
“When was it taken?”
“Some months ago. I lived in New York City. My boyfriend and I were breaking up. It was his decision. So I had this photo done in my vain hope that we would stay together. Kind of silly when I now reflect on it.”
She said this kind of wistfully, but not totally. Half matter of fact, half regretfully, actually.
“You know, I’ve never been confronted with a situation like I am being confronted now.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to embarrass you. Maybe I should have either taken the photo down, or given you a heads up.”
“Cassandra, I don’t know who you are really. I have seen you in the garden on several occasions. I must also say that I have been intrigued by watching you painting. I could not tell what your paintings were all about because from my window it was impossible to have a clear look. You’re a beautiful woman, who obviously has a life that I could not imagine. Seeing you in that photo is both revealing and hidden in your own mystery. Actually, it’s the hidden aspect of both the photo and of you that I find most fascinating, and not the way you expose your body.”
I appreciate your comments.”
“You know what I find interesting, if I may say so.”
“A moment ago you said that defiance and disorder, which were Modigliani’s modus operandi, were not things you dared do in your work. And yet your photo is exactly the opposite of what you said.”
“Life’s complicated,” she said, smiling.
“Yeah, it sure is.”
“I hope you’re not offended,” she said, softly.
“Far from it. But what I also find interesting is the sense of confrontation that you seem to have vis a vis the world. It‘s not common that a person, anybody, stands in front of the world without any clothes on and challengingly says: This is me, world!”
“It’s funny what you say. At first, I didn’t understand that was what I was doing. I didn’t think it through in my head. My life was in turmoil at that moment. Later, when I thought about what I had attempted to do I realized it was a feeble attempt on my part to try to save something that in the final analysis wasn’t worth saving. It taught me a good lesson about what’s important in life, but more crucial, what was really significant for me: My dignity and integrity as a human being were precious—”
She stopped and looked at me with clear eyes. It was almost like she was making sure I understood her sentiments. I could sense that she was being as open, candid and truthful as life sometimes has to be especially in front of a total stranger. Not afraid to reveal your inner most thoughts as honestly as you can. A kind of reaffirmation that life, though complex at times, also needs to be confronted directly.
“Did you ever find out why he wanted to end the relationship?”
“Yes,” she said, and I detected a sense of weariness in her voice.
I realized that it was really none of my business to ask any questions. I did not know who this woman was. I had no right to intrude in her life. She had made a choice, a strange and mysterious choice to say the least regarding the photo. In the ending of most relationships, it is usually a letter or a phone call that does it. Cassandra had chosen something so dramatic, so final that seemed to demonstrate that perhaps she wanted to give the relationship one final shot, but if it did not work out, she was not about to chase the impossible.
“He had fallen in love with someone else . . . “she continued, then stopped. Her face had now taken a distant look, maybe indifference. It was hard to tell.
“It’s fine. I have had time to absorb what happened.”
“I didn’t mean to pry. I apologize.”
“He had fallen in love with . . . well, with a man.”
Wow! Talk about life taking sudden twists. This is was a good one and a new one on me. Her voice was soft, quiet, but not bitter. It was someone stating a simple fact. I had apologized for my intrusion, but she had chosen to answer by revealing the reasons for the breakup. I was surprised she had been quite open about something so personal. But on the other hand, this was perhaps her way of coming to terms with what had happened and revealing such sentiments to, again, a total stranger, was what she needed to do. The complexity of the human is always as mysterious as to why we are who we are and not somebody else.
“But the funny thing was that the woman who took the photo,” she continued, “was someone I respected immensely. She’s very talented, which is why when we talked about the photo I thought it would be a fine idea. But, of course, it turned out that she was a good friend of the man with whom my boyfriend was having the affair. Pathetic, isn’t it? I never gave the photo to my ex. In fact, only a couple of my friends have seen the photo.”
I did not know what to say. I did not know if she was confessing something. Maybe she had never talked to anyone about it. Sometimes, it is much easier to discuss some personal or intimate feeling about ourselves with someone we do not know. Or perhaps she was merely reflecting on the vagaries of life. For a moment, I was kind of lost. She saw my reaction.
“I’m sorry. This is so much unlike me. I tend to keep to myself. You know,” she continued, “I often wonder why the word gay is used for homosexuals . . . it took me a while to realize that my ex was not a happy man. He was troubled, very much so. I always thought that the word ‘gay’ had to do with a state of mind, happy, carefree . . . what word should we use for heterosexuals?”
“I never thought about it, but you’re right.”
“A homosexual is gay. OK, a heterosexual is . . . what?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know if there is a word for us heterosexuals that would be the equivalent to the word ‘gay’”.
“Anyway, it’s not important.”
“I guess not.”
“Would you like some tea?”
It was pretty much the end of our conversation about her personal life. It was direct and simple. I guessed that that aspect of her life held no more interest for her and it had been brought up now because of my presence, and subsequent reaction to the photo. And it was a great photo of a lovely woman, no doubt.
“Thank you. That would be great, but are you sure? I don’t want to intrude upon your time.”
“It’s fine. I was planning on making some for myself. Now, I’ll make it for two people. Is it OK if we listen to some music?”
She looked for a CD; she did not tell me what it was. Then, the music started. It turned out to be by Rodrigo, Concierto de Aranjuez. I was very familiar with the music.
“I love this piece,” she said.
“Yes, it’s lovely.”
“There’s a very sad and yet beautiful story behind the music.”
“Do you want to hear it?”
“Rodrigo was blind,” she started. “Had been blind since age six. Anyway, he got married and his wife got pregnant, but was having a terrible time. There was fear she would lose the baby. She had to go and stay in the hospital for weeks. So, Rodrigo would go and stay with her during the day and when he got back home, at night, he would work on the concerto. And if you listen carefully, especially in the adagio, the notes are so dramatic, so moving, so full of desperation, and yet so full of hope that it makes the violins soar, and when you know the story you can see the human drama that is being played for us . . . it’s just majestic because it’s a love story.”
“I love the music, but I didn’t know the story behind it.”
“It’s not well known. It was their maid who told the story later. And I think he wrote the music for the piano.” she said.
“It’s hard to imagine any other instrument than the guitar playing this music.”
“Who’s playing it?”
“Of course. But can I share something with you?” I asked her.
“Are you familiar with Miles Davis?”
“The jazz player?”
“I’ve heard about him, of course, but I’m not familiar with his music.”
“He has an album called: Sketches of Spain, and in it he recorded a version of Aranjuez, which is also magnificent. It truly is.”
“Yes! I have the CD; I can make you a copy if you like.”
“Oh, that would be great.”
“I don’t think you can replace Romero’s version, of course, but Davis’ version is fantastic. I think you’ll enjoy it just as much. Musically, it’s a different experience. Earlier, we were talking about how musicians take the same music and the manner in which they interpret it makes us aware of the beauty and richness of their own work, and of the original score.”
“You know, now that I think about it I can see where Aranjuez can easily lend itself to a trumpet. The yearning sound of a trumpet or a guitar, the piece’s slow tempo, and the musical beauty of the piece itself, would make perfect sense.”
I could see that she was trying to imagine how Aranjuez by Davis would sound. I did not think that he could improve upon what Romero had done. But Davis was not trying to improve Romero’s version; he was just letting his own artistic creativity in music guide him, and his version was also a classic rendition of Rodrigo’s Aranjuez concerto.
“I love the image and the title of the album already . . . Sketches . . . it’s visual . . . yes, please, if you make me a copy, I’d be eternally grateful.”
The subject—her breaking up with her boyfriend—we had been discussing a few moments ago was now forgotten. She gave me the impression that it was most probably an intellectual exercise now. We do not know why relationships fail. Yes, we question them, certainly, when those failures are still fresh in our minds, in our hearts, but eventually we put them aside. There is no answer. And dwelling on such failures more often than not leads to heartaches and sadness.
She walked toward the kitchen. It left me alone while viewing her sketches and her photo. She was a very attractive girl, no doubt about it. But there was a sense of seriousness about her. But it was not standoffishness. There was a kind of self-regulating aspect to her behavior. Her small dog just sat in her basket quietly dozing off.
“Your dog seems kind of quiet.”
“Yes, she is. She’s always been like this since I got her. She’s getting old. And has had problems. But, she’s a great companion.”
“Where did you get her?”
“From the pound. They told me she had been left outside the pound. I happened to come by a couple of days later and it was an immediate love affair between us. She’s a pretty smart dog. My work forces me to be away for a few days at a time. So when I moved to L.A., I found a nice vet and I take her there where they look after her. But she’s happy to come home when I pick her up.”
“What kind of work do you do?”
“I work for an airline.”
“Are you pilot?”
“I‘m not that smart.”
I read somewhere that some people think pilots are like truck drivers.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that before, and from pilots,” she laughed. “I’m a flight attendant.”
“Oh, for a second I thought you were a mechanic.”
“Now, that requires smarts.” She laughed because she knew I was making fun of her.
“So where do you fly?”
“Before I got Desdemona, I used to fly international trips. But since I got her, I only fly domestic routes. Actually, I like it better and it does give me plenty of time to pursue my personal interests.”
The kettle whistled.
“Would green tea do the trick?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
She brought a tray with the tea pot and two cups.
“I’m sorry. Would you like some sugar?”
“No. Green tea with sugar for some reason doesn’t seem to go together.”
“They don’t. But it’s better to ask.”
“So when you flew the international routes, where did you go?”
“Europe. I did some of trips to Asia, but I found the long haul too tiring. I envy the crews who do those trips.”
“How do you get over the jet lag?”
“You don’t. Eventually, you get kind of used to it, but not completely, though.”
“I often wonder how the crews do it.”
“Me, too,” and she laughed.
We were quiet for what seemed like a long time. Listening to the music, drinking tea, and just as expected, the adagio was building to this amazing crescendo and now that I knew the story behind the music, it made perfect sense. It was majestic! It was a tribute to love. I could see that Cassandra was deep into the music. She had a far away and a kind of lost look. Maybe she was reflecting deeply on the fact that her love life had taken a sad turn, and now that she had told me the story of Rodrigo, the conflicting emotions of her own life came back perhaps to haunt her. Obviously, I did not know that.
When it was over, the silence that ensued was delicate, the lovely notes still lingering around us as beautiful as when the sun sinks slowly into the horizon, the colors of such a sunset impossible to describe.
Finally, I decided to leave. I stood up.
“Lovely music, isn’t it?” I said.
“Yes, it is. It’s one of my favorites. And this version is vibrant. Pepe Romero plays it so magnificently.”
“Yes, he does.”
“I once saw him play this piece at Carnegie Hall in New York. A great memory. Now, I’m looking forward to getting the Davis’s version.”
“I’ll copy it for you. Cassandra, it’s been a pleasure meeting you like this.
Thank you for the tea, for exposing me to your art, for the music, and for sharing Rodrigo’s story.”
“You’re welcome. And thank you for lending me the books.”
“No problem. Keep them as long as you need them. I live in 405, so you can bring them back anytime.”
“Are you sure?”
“OK, but why don’t you give me your number so I can call you before I bring the books back to you.”
She handed me a piece of paper and I wrote my number down. She did not offer her own number and I did not ask. We shook hands and I left.
As I was walking back to my place, I could not help thinking about what she had told me about her personal life, about the naked photo, the Botticelli, and the Modigliani prints. What kind of statement was she making, if any? But it was the photo that intrigued me the most. Again, she could have hung the prints probably as an afterthought. I did not know that. Was she an exhibitionist? This was obviously a very interesting and complicated woman. Was she trying to shock people who came to her place? Was she trying to absolve herself from whatever guilt she might have felt about what had happened to her?
Was she trying to remain within the memory of her pain so that it would remind her of how she had tried to deal with it? Was this a way for her to reclaim her own personal freedom from whatever psychological prison she had found herself in? Or, was she a sucker for pain?
It was a great photo, no doubt. The woman who had taken it had some talent. Cassandra’s pose was both erotic and yet classic. There was nothing vulgar about it. She did not really say whose idea it was to do the photo. Though, it did appear that it was mostly hers. At least, that was my impression. She said that the woman who took the photo knew the man with whom her ex-boyfriend was having the affair. I wondered how she found out.
Cassandra, in the classical Greek literature, was a character who would tell the truth but nobody would believe her. What I found interesting was the fact that I believed what this modern Cassandra had told me. There was no reason, as far as I could tell, why she would lie. Maybe the Cassandra of the legend had been replaced by a new Cassandra who told the truth. An interesting idea. I chuckled at my own reflections.
In learning about this modern Cassandra, I had entered into a fascinating story. She was a lovely girl. There was a strange contradiction going on, though. She said she was a private person, yet she had a naked photo of herself, displayed in a rather predominant way and she had shared the history of what had taken place with me. Yes, it was her place and she had a right to surround herself with whatever object she chose.
But in another sense, there was also an element of hedonistic truth in how she was hiding by exposing herself so openly. I must admit that the whole set up reeked of human insecurity, doubts and complexity. The old perennial fears that we are unable to control or get rid of. She took or had a photo of herself taken with the intention, perhaps foolishly, that such a testimony would be enough to persuade her boyfriend to remain with her. Was this a desperate move on her part? It seemed that way. There was something extreme, final, in her act.
You could not ignore that in so many ways she was exposing herself to ridicule. Again, was desperation the key to understanding what her actions revealed? And what added even more strangeness was that the woman who had taken the photo knew her boyfriend’s lover. I mean, talk about a bizarre situation.
But the situation was also fascinating. It demonstrated the extremes to which humans go to bring order into their chaotic lives. It sort of reminded me of something I had read about people doing whatever they can in order to survive the terrible loneliness of the night. And the other clear thing was that there was nothing vulgar about the photo. It had been done with a great deal of taste and artistic integrity.
The photographer and the subject of the photo had engaged in a complicated act. Who of the two had known the truth of the situation? Cassandra? The photographer? Looking at the whole set up, it would seem that the woman who took the photo knew what was happening. She knew the ex-boyfriend as well.
Was the photographer someone who would later make fun of her? Did she and Cassandra’s ex sit back and when the occasion arose make comments about the whole thing. I mean we humans are very often nasty and mean. Did Cassandra know or suspect that her ex had a somewhat different sexual orientation?
I suspected that the photographer understood the elements of the triangle. Girlfriend wants to keep boyfriend. Boyfriend has a boyfriend-lover. A photo is taken of jilted girlfriend. In the end, the photo is the farewell to another human event that has its own internal logic, but which logic is as remote and obscure as the other side of the galaxy.
Are those the secrets of the human heart? Cassandra did not seem to be harboring resentment, which in the scheme of things was practical. Resentment leads nowhere. Her passivity was not out of the ordinary, but left many questions unanswered. Yet the idea that she would still be resentful was a waste of brain cells. In many ways, dealing with life’s reverses and moving on was the most logical behavior to have, as life is never one straight line narrative. It flows like water in a river encountering obstacles, creating eddies, whirlpools, moving against the main current, continuously fighting to overcome such hindrances but in the end always overcome by the swift currents and disappearing into the flow. Life did resemble an eddy, sometimes.
What I had learned about Cassandra was both fascinating and perhaps a little aberrant. Was it normal? She had said that the reason she did the photo was a feeble attempt to save the relationship. How could a naked photo save the relationship, any relationship? What she did seemed unusual in terms of what people normally do. Maybe, in another sense, she might have sensed that their relationship was not going anywhere and through some perversity she decided to present him with something so out of the ordinary and so contrary to who he was that in the end the only outcome was the breakup of the relationship. Was this a farewell photo?
This idea also struck me that she might have already known of the relationship of her boyfriend with this other guy, and it was her way to mock them both and show not only that she did not care, but that she also had contempt for both of them. So maybe in a larger sense she was signaling that she did not really give a damn about either one of them. That she was above all of that. Or maybe she wanted to remind her about-to-be-ex-boyfriend what he would never have again. I mean, who knows? People are complicated.
A few days went by and I did not see her in the garden. I assumed she must have been working. Though Cassandra and her story were interesting, I did not dwell upon it for long. I was wrestling with my own demons trying to advance the novel that I had committed myself to put into words and not just keep it in my imagination. On top of which my girlfriend and I were slowly coming to the sad realization that our idyllic situation was not idyllic anymore. It had now come to the end of its run.
It sort of made me reflect on Cassandra and how she had dealt with the breakup of her relationship. I also had to admit a kind of curious morbidity about who this woman was. If truth were told, there was a sense of freedom about what she was demonstrating. I did not think, however, that my girlfriend would ever give me a photo of herself in her birthday suit. No, she would simply come to the apartment when I would be absent, pack whatever personal items she had left, write me a simple note telling me that she would try to keep in touch, and leave the key but no phone number or address for future references.
At one moment, I thought I should share with her my encounter with Cassandra and the photo that had brought me some conflicting ideas about what it meant. I thought that a woman’s point of view might illuminate the event. On the other hand, my about-to-be-ex-girlfriend was a bit jealous—though I never understood why—and any discussion that involved another woman would end up provoking comments that I would rather avoid.
It was kind of interesting to me the jealousy lots of women professed toward other women. I remember I had a roommate in college, and Geno was a guy who had a knack for getting women to come by, clean the apartment, cook for him, and hit the sack whenever he asked. I always marveled at that. And I was never jealous of it. On the contrary.
Yet, among the women I knew who had roommates, if one of them had a boyfriend and hearing the no-boyfriend-roommate talk, there was an element of what I called “professional jealousy.” It was always present. And this was supported by the comments that I would hear about that. And when I did ask those women why that was the case, I never got a direct answer other than that was the way it was. In fact, all of the women I talked to were surprised that I was not jealous that Geno had all of these women hanging around him. I never experienced that sentiment while Geno and I were roommates. I always admired him but was never jealous of him.
I remember talking to this girl one day. She was in one of my classes. She had a boyfriend, and I had run into her at a nearby coffee shop. She was waiting for him. Somehow or other we got to talking about how men and women are different in terms of how we approach life and what we expect to get out of it. And the conversation drifted toward the jealousy thing that I had observed in women, in general. Her response was quite precise which left no room for further discussion. And whereas I had been looking for some answers to this phenomenon that I had observed and had never gotten a direct answer; this time, I did. I have never forgotten it.
“We women think with our vaginas. Ask any woman,” she said. End of story.
I laughed because I thought she was just being silly, but I could see in her eyes that she was quite serious. This was not a laughing matter to her. In a very certain way, she was revealing something that I had kind of suspected but was not sure of. I have always thought her insight was for the ages.
Then I thought about Cassandra, again. If what the girl I had talked to back then said was true, that women think with their vaginas then; ipso facto, Cassandra had acted in the same fashion. She had thought with her vagina when she asked to have that photo taken. But did she think with her vagina before the photo was taken; or, as a result of thinking with her vagina she had the photo taken?
Did the photographer, also a woman, act within the same premise that women think with their vaginas when she took the photo? Then I wondered if by any chance the photographer had made another copy of the photo. After all, she must have kept the negative. Or maybe not. Cassandra did not say who had the negative.
I had heard of women who establish relationships with men who were homosexuals because it made them feel less threatened. It was not that these women were lesbians or anything like that. It was that the element of sexual predatory behavior in the males they encountered or had as friends was not present, and thus the relationship was not stressful as it would have been if the males were heterosexual. Not all women feel this way, of course.
I had also read about women developing a romantic crush on their male hairdressers. I guess there is an element of intimacy about a man softly touching and weaving his fingers through a woman’s hair. It reeks of sensuality and at that moment, the degree of closeness can be sort of an aphrodisiac.
I also had to admit that Cassandra’s photo for me was a source of wonder and intrigue. It was out of the ordinary that was for sure. Again, it seemed to border on some kind of exhibitionism, or even sexual predatory behavior. I know this sounds a bit over the top. But I had been around long enough to know that extreme sexual behavior was not exclusive to males. Women can be and often are sexual predators. Though, in the abstract, seeing that Cassandra was an attractive woman, I did not really believe that she would be suffering from lack of male companionship or interest.
I had to laugh. Here I was making these giant leaps of faith regarding someone about whom I barely knew. Though, upon further reflection, her photo was so prominently exhibited that is was hard to ignore and even impossible not to make the connection to something far more complex and deeper than the circumstances dictated.
I often wondered about the nature of love, the different forms that come to mind, about its manifestations. And how all of us try to find a way to show it, explain it, and live it. I wondered what Freud would have made out of Cassandra and her story. The more I thought about it, the more bizarre it seemed. I mean, was she looking for sympathy? I did not think that she had placed that photo on her wall on a whim. She knew why she had done it. It was hard to imagine that she did not know why she had done it. What seemed to be the case, in the final analysis, was that here was a rather complex and interesting woman.
I did not know whether she had found another boyfriend in the meantime. For an extremely attractive girl, as she was, I doubted that she would have trouble finding guys. But maybe she was not open or interested in another relationship, at least not for now. I had no idea how long it had been since her breakup. She had not mentioned it. And I had not asked. It was none of my business.
I thought, I am struggling to become a writer. I had been working on a story that was misguided, terrible. My idea was to write a story that would be coherent, that would stand on its own. But I had not found the rhythm to the narrative, or the truthfulness and honesty of the characters. And every time I went back to re-read what I had written, I felt like puking. Such banality. Though, to be fair, among the scribblings there were portions that were not so terrible. Like so many people, I tend to be overly critical of my own work.
Maybe I should ask Cassandra if I she would let me use her story as material for a more honest novel. One that would put me in the middle of something reflecting real people, a narrative that had tangible and human elements to contemplate and explore. One that would perhaps illustrate, in a way that I could not do in spite of what I thought were my powers of creativity, a story that would be true and honest. No bullshit.
Yet, I also understood that I had no right to impose my own creative frustrations and lack of talent on Cassandra, someone I barely knew. I would appear as some kind of predator, a peeping Tom, to something that ostensibly was a very private affair. My putative efforts to construct a novel of sorts were less than great. Yes, I had written some short stories and articles and they had not been rejected outright. In fact, some of the reviews were quite positive, which kind of surprised me, if truth were told.
I wanted to write a novel and that was what I had been working on. But I had my doubts that I had the patience or the stamina to put myself through so much pain and suffering. I also realized that my focus was much too vast, the narrative too contrived. And instead of trying to clarify the narrative and concentrate on the characters, which is what I prefer when writing, I was all over the place. I was finding it difficult to stay within the framework of the story. I was “sucking eggs,” like a couple of my friends are fond of saying when what they are doing does not amount to much.
I wondered if I were to ask Cassandra about using her story as a genesis for the book I wanted to write, which would be fictionalized, of course, whether she would consent to such an intrusion. But even if she were to agree and I would start asking questions that would no doubt be rather intimate and delicate, why would she accept such a request in the first place? What kind of arguments could I use? I mean, she had revealed some rather intimate facts about her life. You do not start telling a total stranger that your boyfriend had left you for a man. Maybe that was a way of trying to unburden herself from what must have been an ugly, sad, and terrible ordeal. I certainly was not judging her.
I realized that my fantasy about using Cassandra’s story to help me write my novel was ridiculous, and childish. It would be invasive and most probably resuscitate painful memories. And not only that, but would I be up to the task if she said yes to my idea in the first place? The more I thought about it, the more complicated my idea became. Besides, how would I present it to her? What could I say?
Excuse me, Cassandra. I’d like to use your personal story as material for a novel I have been meaning to write. I do not seem to have any original ideas at the moment . . . not that I ever did. My well is sort of dry. So if you do not mind, I would like to sit down and have you give me all of the details of what happened to you so I can use such material to write my book. What do you say?
I seemed to have found myself in a very strange dilemma. On the one hand, I wanted to work it out by myself. On the other hand, wanting to ask her and hoping that she would agree to my crazy idea was really over the top and maybe had no class. Kind of vulgar and most certainly dishonest on my part. I mean, I had to be open and forthright about what I wanted to do. It would put her into a most vulnerable position. I would end up, in other words, violating her space. No question about it. I would become privy to her intimate details, pushing her full bore.
I would want to know specific details of her intimate life. Was she inclined to have erotic thoughts? What did she focus on when she saw guys? Did she imagine how endowed they were? And what about her ex? How endowed was he? Did she imagine, for example, the kind of sex he and his boyfriend were having? Did she wish them the best, happiness?
Was she curious about when her ex discovered that he preferred men? Was this a whim out of some curiosity as is sometimes the case? Or was his decision, a lifetime decision, and not something that often happens to people who push the envelope? Did he ever talk to her about it? Did she suspect it at all?
My musings were crazy, stupid, really. It spoke to the simple fact that I had not yet come up with a plausible working scenario for the novel I wanted to write. But what if when I asked her, she said no problem, let’s do it. Then what? Did I have the courage to dig deeper into her as a person, her character, her history . . . her dog? Would I end up liking Cassandra or, worse, hating her? Or would she end up hating me?
I had better get off this tangent, I thought. I am supposed to be writing a story, my own fictional story and not her story. OK, what if I do not ask her anything but imagine stuff about her? In other words, write her story as I imagine it to be. Fictionalize it. The only reference to her would be that I would use her physical looks, that’s all. The rest I could make up. I mean, is that not what would-be writers of fiction do?
We take what we see around us and end up structuring some kind of narrative that hopefully in the end tells a human story. I did not think that a make-believe story about Cassandra would be any different than my just coming up with a story out of the blue and one where I invent a character, maybe the main character, whose name turns out to be Cassandra because I like the sound of the name.
What was interesting in another sense was that Cassandra’s type was not my type. I have already indicated she had blond hair. Her eyes were pure blue. For some reason, I was having a difficult time trying to put down her exact looks. Half of me wanted to invent her looks, while the other half wanted to just describe her as she was. From what I could tell, she had a great body. She seemed a bit shy, maybe not shy but reticent.
I guess my own imagination was stronger than the reality allowed. In a way, I wanted to make Cassandra fit my own idea of what she should look like, and not base it on the way she was. It was a rather strange sentiment to have. At that moment, I was not sure what my own reality was. I found myself trying to reconcile the idea of wanting to write a non-fiction book, with my idea of fiction.
Very often people ask how we can tell the difference between fiction and non-fiction. For example, let’s say I meet someone in New York, at a bar. His name turns out to be Michael. And he is a bond salesman from Kansas who happens to be in New York for his business. Then I write a story about him, but now I place him in San Francisco, and his name is Peter, and he is a lawyer. Everything else remains the same. The personal story he told me back in New York would be the same. The only thing I have changed is the setting but not the particulars, the personal. OK, is that a non-fiction story?
Some people will argue that it is a fictional story. Others would argue that it is not a fictional story, but a non-fictional one. It is true that many writers use their own personal lives whenever they write something. Many others actually disguise the personal stuff and also claim that though the story is based on true facts, it has been “fictionalized” for dramatic reasons.
So where is the truth? If the writer is simply describing events, then he is more like a reporter. Some people might even call that writer a simple stenographer; a note taker. I could see that I was painting myself into a corner—no pun intended. However, what I wanted more than anything was that my own writing remain true and honest. I did not want to be a note taker.
My train of thought was broken up by the phone ringing. It was my ex. She wanted to come by and pick up a couple of personal things she had left behind. I sort of welcomed the interruption. It was late in the day, and I had not advanced much with my writing. When she arrived, she seemed in good spirits. In fact, she said she was meeting some friends later that evening.
I sat in the living room while she went about collecting her stuff between the bedroom and the bathroom. I thought it best not to interrupt her. I could hear her opening the drawers and slamming them closed. I started thinking of Cassandra and her breakup, again. Did she go back to her boyfriend’s place to pick up her stuff? And did she run into his boyfriend? Was his boyfriend’s stuff already in the drawers? And if it was, what did she think? Or did her ex-boyfriend come to her place and slam drawers shut?
I had to admit that thinking about Cassandra took me away from what was happening in my own apartment, at the moment. If truth were told, I really had come to the conclusion that it was best for my ex and me to end our relationship. I was not in the mood to get into the reasons for our breakup. C’est la vie, that’s how the French express such sentiments.
My ex finished collecting her stuff. She came and stood in the middle of the living room, looking around for the last time. She had a strange and funny expression on her face. It was a gaze I recognized from before. It was lustful and uninhibited. I knew what she was going to say. We used to say it to each other all of the time: “Do you want to fool around?”
“One last one for the road,” she said.
She started walking toward the bedroom and I followed her.