A Lifetime of Foreplay

“One shouldn’t go into the woods looking for something, but rather to see what is there.”
—John Cage

 

Claire Doherty sold psychedelics. Pascal wanted hashish. So a mutual friend set up a meeting, at sundown, in the middle of a pine forest. I walked there with Pascal, and while he and Claire conducted their business I hunted for mushrooms. When I returned, Claire was brushing needles from her yellow dress. I watched Pascal’s eyes wander over her body, and I thought about John Cage, the composer, an expert in mycology. Cage had made identification mistakes. On occasion he had eaten poisonous fungus. How could I know which types were safe and which were not? Were the mushrooms I held in my hand worth the risks? What were the risks, a little vomiting, dizziness, hallucinations? Or death. How brave was daring? How daring was stupid?

“Acid made me an Übermensch,” Pascal had said once, and I believed him, or wanted to believe him. At the time I was an undergraduate studying a lot of things, but nothing in particular, at a large state university, and Pascal stood knee-deep in his philosophy dissertation, which had been going on, off, and generally wrong for over eight years. Because he needed seclusion if he was ever going to finish, he lived alone at the edge of the forest. His house was an old summer bungalow, packing-crate walls on a cement-block foundation, that two elderly women rented out year-round. In that setting he might have completed his thesis, might even have met his deadline, if he, or if we I should say, hadn’t fallen in love with Claire Doherty, who had this way of changing plans.

The three of us walked back to Pascal’s house, where I threw away the mushrooms and he baked the hash, using pound cake for lack of brownie mix. “Sure it works,” he said, to counter my doubts. Since I was broke, he accepted a Patsy Cline cassette in exchange for my share, which I washed down with beer, and which at first seemed to have no effect.

Claire sat at the cardtable in the kitchen, chainsmoking Gitanes but not taking any of the hash-cake or saying much.

I watched her smoke rings rise and dissolve. I studied her long black hair, which moved in waves that begged to be touched. I grew mesmerized by her flat red shoes as they slipped on and flipped off.

“Look closely at this woman, Nick,” Pascal said. “She has genius in her eyes.”

I didn’t dare. Hours had passed, and I was lost.

“What are you possessed by?” Pascal asked Claire, and she laughed. I hid in a corner, my face pressed in the crack. They couldn’t know what was wrong, why I moaned and clawed the wallpaper, because they weren’t inside my skin. I felt trapped there, inside my own skin, consumed by the tragedy of our bodies, which could never meet in any meaningful sense.

By the time I could focus clearly enough to insert key in ignition, Pascal and Claire had left the kitchen. I found them having intercourse, using the missionary position, in front of the stereo. “I Fall to Pieces” was playing, and there they were, there she was, on the floor, with him, not moving or looking particularly pleased, but by no means objecting. Not making a sound, she was resting her head on the yellow dress, her hands flat on the carpet.

My fifteen-minute drive home seemed to take hours. I stayed away from the house, heard nothing from Pascal, for days, during which I kept seeing Claire’s face. Those big brown eyes had been looking at me all evening.

Tortured by visions of forest orgies, I lost my resolve and called.

“Hey, man. What’s going on?” Pascal asked, as he always did.

“I’ve been busy,” I answered.

“Never mind. Listen, man, get over here right away. We’re having a party.”

I went, but as I suspected there was no party, just the two of them, half-listening to “Crazy.” The kitchen was filled with dirty dishes and boxes of brownie mix. The smell was unbearable. “Have animals died in here?” I asked Pascal.

“Why?” he answered, looking mystified.

I turned to Claire and asked her how it was going.

“Just fine,” she answered, not looking up. Dressed in Pascal’s gray T-shirt and grayer overalls, she was playing solitaire at the kitchen table. She’d pulled her hair into a ponytail.

“It goes in just fine,” Pascal said. He smiled, slapped me on the back, then wrapped his arm around my neck. “Guess who’s still wet inside?”

I broke free and watched him dance across the kitchen. Within minutes he was prone, perhaps unconscious, in the other room, once again in front of the stereo. “Pascal bowed down before his god,” I told Claire.

“Sweet dreams,” she said, shuffling the cards.

“You said it. What happened?”

“What didn’t. You saw him.” She fixed her eyes on mine, transmitting a message I tried frantically to translate. “He treats me like a walking vagina.”

I’d never seen this side of Pascal, but then I’d never seen him this close to a woman. Being Nick, though, I felt responsible somehow, as though I could have warned Claire about the Übermensch, the walking erection, lurking beneath his shifting surface. I said the first thing that came to mind: “You want to get out of here?”

She nodded.

“So. You’re a writer?” Claire asked in the car. We were parked on a cliff, looking down on the forest and the university beyond it, drinking coffee that had grown cold immediately after being poured."

“Do you mean someone who writes?” I answered, quoting Pascal. “Or do you mean someone who produces literature?”

“I’m not sure,” she said. “You don’t look like a writer.”

“What do I look like?”

“A banker. Or a cop.”

“Thank you. That’s what I get for asking.”

“My father’s a banker. I hate my father, but I like cops. I went out with a cop once. He used to fuck me with his boots on. When I broke up with him he busted me. I couldn’t blame him, really. He was doing his job. Now he sends me long love poems. I send him photographs.”

“You’re a photographer?”

“Model. I work with this guy. He’s a sculptor, really. He does these ugly things in plaster and papier-mâché. But he pays me decently. His name is Damien, like the kid in The Omen.”

“You pose nude?”

“First he takes pictures, which I get copies of.”

“Can I see some?”

“No. No one sees them.”

“Except Damien. And that cop.”

“That’s different. I owe him. I owe him my life, really. We were engaged. Besides, you’ve seen me naked.”

“That wasn’t my fault.”

“I didn’t say it was. He’s black, by the way.”

“The cop?”

“Damien. The devil. Do you mind?”

“Why would I mind?”

“Pascal minds. I think Pascal is a racist. You know him better than I do, though. The other night he threatened Damien. He threatened both of us, actually. He’s convinced I sleep with him.”

“Is he wrong?”

“What do you think?”

“I think it’s not an unreasonable assumption. Does he fuck you with his smock on?”

“Huh. You have a way with words, sort of. You get to the point. No wonder you’re a writer.”

“No wonder. I’d rather be a filmmaker.”

“And if you were a filmmaker, you’d want to be rock star. If you were a rock star, you’d want to be an actor. If you were an actor, you’d want to be a director. If you were a director, you’d want to be a writer. So you might as well stick with what you are. Are you any good, as a writer?”

I tried to think of someone to quote. “One of my professors told me I thought well but wrote like a self-intoxicated purveyor of three-penny romances. I was suicidal for a weekend. Now I send her long love poems.”

“Does she send you photographs?”

“Better. She edits the poems.” I sipped my coffee and waited for Claire to laugh. When she didn’t, I thought I’d better tell an interesting story. Did I know any? “Once I took a playwriting workshop and handed in my play early,” I said. “The instructor gave me an F. So I went to his office. He was black, by the way. The door was open, his feet were up. He was just sitting there, staring out the window. I introduced myself, then asked why he’d failed me. ‘I never got your play,’ he said. ‘Sure you did,’ I said. ‘The one about the funeral.’ He looked blank, I looked down, and there it was, sitting on top of a pile on his desk. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘I’ll give you an A.’”

Claire smiled. “So you’re not just a writer,” she said. “You’re a poet. And a playwright. No wonder you want to be a filmmaker.”

The sun was down. Between us and the university, which looked like a small and dimly lit city, lay a net of dark points. I started the engine and let it idle, then tossed my coffee cup out the window. “Pascal was right,” I told Claire, who shot me a look I’d seen before. “You are possessed by genius.”

Her eyes may have been on me, but Claire was still living with Pascal, still making love with Pascal. To drive a wedge between them, I asked her to teach me French or German, her choice, lessons at my room. But though fluent in both languages, she refused, viewing my request as the start of that symbiosis, parasitism, any romance between us would become.

I picked up some terms, however, mainly from overhearing conversations between the two of them. The French word I learned meant “agreed” and sounded suspiciously like “Dachau.” The phrase was German for “I love you,” and I used it once, or started to, back on that cliff, surrounded by fog so thick the trip down did literally take hours.

“Don’t,” Claire warned. She pressed a finger to her lips, then to my lips.

“My saying it doesn’t mean you have to.”

“I’m not going to sleep with you, Nick.”

“What would you say to a lifetime of foreplay?”

“I’d say I feel like a human pinball.”

“That’s easy enough to settle.”

“Then what happens? Do I fall in the gutter?”

“That’s not pinball. That’s bowling.”

“Where do you fall in pinball.”

“I’m not sure. You tilt, in pinball. Look, Claire, you have to tell him sometime. Or don’t you want to?”

“I want to. I want to go.”

“Where?”

“Portland.”

“Oregon?”

“Maine. I have a friend there.”

“That cop.”

“A different friend.”

“Another man.”

“A woman. She owns a hotel. She’s Chinese.”

Was the fog creeping in, or were my glasses misting over? Why could I never put a finger on Claire? How daring was stupid? I started the car and drove down, inch by inch, to the far edge of the forest. Then I walked with her most of the way back to Pascal’s house. That was on Friday, and by the time we cleared the fog I’d convinced Claire to leave him on Sunday. “Sunday morning. Like the Velvet Underground song. You’ll call me?”

She nodded.

I touched her hair and said, “It’ll be fine.”

Don’t worry. I’ll give you an A.

Then she apologized.

“For what, Claire? What do you have to be sorry for?”

“Indecision,” she answered.

I was typing a poem for Claire when the telephone rang. I assumed she’d told him, and I pictured Pascal banging his bucket head against a tabletop, Claire looking on in silence. But I didn’t find her on the other end when I answered.

“If our friendship means anything to you,” Pascal said, “you’ll get over here right away.”

I left the paper in the typewriter; a guarantee for my return; a tongue sticking out of thick, metallic lips.

As I drove over, I remembered the time Pascal had broken into my car. He hadn’t driven anywhere, just sat in the passenger seat, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, playing a harmless but pointless prank that left me more perplexed than angry.

If our friendship means anything, I thought. It means time, ties, tastes, places, people in common. Responses. I pictured him standing on the porch, holding a rusty steak knife, waiting to stab me in the back.