I’ve been reading this book called ‘I am not Stiller’-- one of those stiff yellowing 1960’s paperbacks one hopes to find at a thrift shop for 50 cents which have enough literary nourishment to sustain you until the next ‘discovery’. This one is especially entertaining— smart, ironic, edgy, cruel, confessional, brutally blunt and oddly charming the way only a failed modernist existential self-deceiving Swiss narcissist narrator can be. A six-hundred-page denial.
Anyway, I have this adopted stepmother who is perhaps Stiller's contemporary--- perhaps could have been his lover. She is the embodiment of everything I would have wanted in a parent-- passion, honesty, intelligence, the conviction that art supersedes morality, that superiority is not inherent but must be earned. Dessert first, if you like it that way; sex before love, etc. Swiss.
She is now 94 and slightly less generous with her wisdom; appropriately grouchy. Twenty years ago she commented during one of our Chelsea gallery tours ‘It’s so depressing; no one wants to fuck me.” Twenty years later, things have not improved. Her ex-lover just told me she’s been lying about her age--- that she’s actually 96. She has her vanities.
Her great tragic flaw, besides the fact that she feels greatly under-acknowledged as an artist, was her nearly fatal attraction for the man who claims to know her real age—a writer of some renown, notorious for massive sexual appetites and an impressive list of conquests. And while she is pretty tough and equally tough on me, the fact that she describes this period of her life as ‘sheer agony’ brings me again and again to the Pandora’s box of her memories. Some days she opens it, to my Gothic delight.
According to her stories, he was cruel. Insatiable as a lover, which is hard for a woman... it is his ultimate pleasure we crave, and this was beyond reach. He was unfaithful even while they were going at it... and his writer's ear was relentless and searching for the kind of genius which always evades one.
To me, his heart was soft--- he was appreciative and sweet and kind and generous. He piled wonderful books on our doorstep, and even tried to publish my middling poems. He sent us food, lovely notes and quotations, even befriended my building staff.
But my stepmother continued to humiliate herself through the painful long seminars year after year, continued to pay absurd tuition to turn in mediocre samples of post-Modern writing which tried for cruelty and only achieved the bitter tone of a desperate lover trying to feign non-chalance. He slept with nearly every single student, in various combinations and sexual fictions. She even tried a facelift--- very out-of-character-- but the more she carried on her version of the 1001 Nights, the less he considered her as a lover.
I once loved a boxer--- or thought I did. I admired his grace, his intense focused force, the way he laced his gloves, the way he ran his fingers through his sweaty hair... the way he smelled after a fight, after a shower. But when we were together--- he was gentle and sweet and tender and loving. I needed the boxer. And he lost our little fight.
It always fascinates me that cruelty elicits extreme kindness from some of us--- and excessive kindness is embarrassing and tiresome. My stepmother is cold; some days I think she despises me; I am too conventional, I am mostly monogamous, I bring her flowers on her birthday and this infuriates her. She hates holidays. She is anti-maternal, and I am content to sit at her feet and receive her rebukes like a blessing. Occasionally I cry. On the other hand, my own father is mean and I despise him. My real mother is quite mad and reinvents the past daily. We know so little of one another-- and there is so little time to unravel the fictions we all wear like fashion. My stepmother is childless and really never valued my attention.
So we look through our colored glasses, or our blindfolds, and we see what we see, we love what we choose to see, or what we cannot see. We are what we are not, or are not what we are. For some of us, we love what we love, even when or especially when it does not love us in return. Is this teaching the lesson, like a version of God, that there is no reward for love-- sometimes no answer on the telephone, nothing but a shadow in our bed when we awake? Or, like Stiller, nothing but accusations and a jail cell, for the crime of either being the criminal or not being the criminal.
On my block there is a strange woman who puts her little dogs in a pram and wheels them around.
She mutters and shakes her head at me--- wonders where I think I am going with that instrument I carry on my back and my stupid black boots. And why I talk to that kind white-haired writer whom she has described in an under-her-breath whisper as a 'murderer'. I do not fathom to know what prompts her charade with the dogs who seem quite morose and unfriendly. I do know, as does the writer, that she is not Stiller.