Los Angeles where are your angels ?
"DRUGGY DOCTOR KILLS ADDICT PATIENT !"
Maria Santoro rolled her eyes at the tabloid type headline in that morning's paper. "God, what crap!", she thought as she plunged into the text. Ordinarily she wouldn't devote two seconds to that sort of sensationalism, but the line at the 7/11 was taking longer than usual, and a quick scan of the local news yielded nothing better. But by the time she reached the second paragraph, the successful lawyer and activist's attention was riveted on the black on white print.
"Wednesday, February 5th, at five-thirty-seven PM, a 911 call notified the police of a serious emergency at the office of Dr. David Levi in West Hollywood. Upon arrival, police could do nothing more than record the death of a female patient stretched out on the waiting room floor. The woman was a young junky, well known to LAPD drug enforcement officials. The hypothesis of accidental overdose was suggested first. Yet one detail shocked investigators who noticed the state of extremeprostration of the doctor. He was confused and incapable of answering questions as to the exact circumstances of the victim's death."
"David Levi? No way! Not my David Levi!" her thoughts raced while she forced herself to calmly finish the rest of the article.
"Enormous Pupils". Contrary to Maria's expectations, this remark did not concern the eyes of the deceased.
"The emergency physician dispatched to the scene noticed his colleague's clearly dilated pupils as well as his significant disorientation in time and space. Dr. Levi was convinced that he was in Israel, referring repeatedly to a trip to Jerusalem.
A more detailed examination would detect a recent injection of morphine combined with heavy use of barbiturates. It would seem that Dr. David Levi, himself a drug addict, had inadvertently injected his patient with a lethal dose of drugs. A recent family drama is said to explain the downfall of the practitioner who until then had been perceived by acquaintances and patients as a calm and well-balanced person.
Dr. Levi has been hospitalized and placed in a drug rehabilitation program. He is currently charged with involuntary manslaughter. The medical board has announced that it will rule on whether to revoke his lisence based on the results of the investigation."
Such heartbreaking banality. Except that when Maria was growing up, her best friend had been a kid named David Levi. David was chubby, and always laughing. Maria, a real celery stalk, was a full head taller. They were inseparable, everyone called them Laurel and Hardy. Once, when they first knew each other, she gave him a dart game which his parents instantly threw out on the pretext that his baby sister might get hurt with it. Years later he confessed that it was because Maria was a Gentile - and her family's minority blood surely didn't help. In the sixties Jews and Mexicans didn't mix. But that didn't make any difference to David and Maria. They adored each other and shared everything; marbles, candy, notes from class. Time sped by, she continued to grow, all in the legs; and David, with his curly brown mop of hair, stayed a kid, always coming up with some practical joke. During junior high school they started to grow apart, and by tenth grade, she spent her Summers working for Cesar Chavez and he was president of the Science Club. Two distinctly different paths to a better world. College put a continent between them. They stayed in contact a while, and tried to see each other during vacations, but after a couple of years they lost touch. She never forgot him, though.
When Maria saw the article, she had to find out if it was about the same person. She finally dug up the phone number of one of David's cousins who confirmed that her friend had indeed become a doctor and was practicing in West Hollywood. The cousin, however, knew nothing about the affair at hand. And since several other Dr. David Levis were practicing in the area, Maria saw no other option than to call the reporter, a guy by the name of Fitzgerald.
He told her to meet him around nine-thirty p.m. in a certain bar on Sunset. That he was young she could see right away, and none too scrupulous she discovered soon afterwards when he offered to sell the contents of his file on the case. She agreed, though, and in exchange got some blurry Xeroxed documents. The indicted doctor was indeed her David, born in Los Angeles of Samuel and Myriam Levi, Hayworth Ave., both deceased.
David had a spotless reputation; brilliant medical studies at UCLA, a quickly established, flourishing practice in West Hollywood, all the markings of success. So how had things gone so wrong? That's what she desperately wanted to know.
"That's all?", she asked.
"If you have the means," Fitzgerald informed her, "I am in a position to procure something much more interesting, some raw material retrieved from a Venice Beach bar."
She asked him his price. Leaning back to better assess her, and to assess just how high she might go, he took a long drag on his Marlborough. "Two thousand dollars," he let out in a sideways spew of smoke. The way he stamped out his cigarette seemed to say that was his final offer. She was in a hurry, and everything about him bothered her, but she had to take the chance.
There was an ATM around the corner, and his car, it turned out, was parked right in front. He handed her a large manila envelope from the front seat. She watched him drive off, and that was that. On the way back to her own car, she opened the envelope. Inside she found a spiral notebook filled with small handwriting: David's journal.
David Levi's journal
Oh forget it, I'll start tomorrow.
Here I go.
A journal. Who would have believed it would come to this? Mental masturbation for people obsessed with their own belly-buttons. But right now, I can't think of a better way of keeping a grip - and that is getting more and more urgent. My memory is breaking up into little, unrelated pieces. Words escape me. I confuse my patients' names, mix up their prescriptions, and spend time I don't have double checking everything I do. This can't go on. But if I take notes from one day to the next, maybe the "exercise" will beef up my brain cells again. In any case, I think it's really time to take stock of my life.
I don't know if I'm going to be able to keep this up; I really don't have the time.
Bad day. "Money makes the world go 'round." It certainly keeps me running around after it! If only I could have fun with some of it, but no. It all goes for taxes.
This is stupid. Everything I write sounds ridiculous.
I give up.
It's perfectly clear - I've got all the symptoms of yuppie syndrome. I'm too busy chasing money to pay attention to what I actually do to get it! This morning I couldn't for-the-life-of-me remember the name of that asthma medicine I found for Mrs. Howitzer. God, her name suits her! Eight-thirty in the morning and already on the offensive. She waddles into my office, pouring out her woes while gulping down the last bites of her egg mc muffin. She spreads it on so thick with her "dear Dr. Levi, (chew chew)", and "if you please, doctor, (gulp)", routine. I'll never understand why a woman who doesn't work has to come here to eat her breakfast.
We finally settled down to business. Since she saw that quack Johnson yesterday, today she had to come wave his homeopathic potions under my nose. That, too, is part of the routine. I'd love to just send her packing. Her whiny voiced prattle makes me sick. But that's nothing next to the "fragrance" of old onion rings and sweat wafting from her 5'3", 200 lb. frame. I hold my breath when I take her blood pressure. The complicated part, though, is trying to read the dial while turning my face as far as possible in the other direction. What a farce.
Even with twenty patients a day, I still don't have the means to be choosy. The infernal money game has just about got me. At thirty-three I look forty. I work, I pay, I work, I pay. As regular as the hands of a clock ticking off seconds, minutes, hours from my life. This morning I looked in the mirror a little too long. Scary. Little wrinkles digging in everywhere; on my forehead, between my eyebrows, at the corners of my lips. I've lost my laugh lines and kept only the sad ones. And the crowning glory? Baldness setting in. You can already see my scalp through the thinning hair. And Lena doesn't even seem to notice. Maybe in four years of marriage she's already looked me over enough to last a lifetime. That's probably it: she couldn't care less - so long as I bring home the bacon . . . In any case, there won't be any bread on the table if I waste any more time with this idiodic scribbling. It would be easier if I could just accept the inevitable: I'll always be just a broke little medic chasing small change. It's Kismet.
My faulty memory is really just an excuse. It worked fine when I was younger. Cramming for exams burned up some of it, and cigarettes erased some more. I know if I just cool it a while, it'll come back. So that isn't really the problem. No, what I have to figure out where I get this feeling that something's missing. Jeez, anyone else looking at my life would say I have it all; the practice is more or less profitable; Lena is gorgeous - and so far I think she's even been faithful. Maggie will be three next month, precocious and beautiful as any father could wish. So why do I feel like I have some internal San Andreas fault running down the middle of my soul?
I used to have a mission. But now that just seems ludicrous. God's little foot-soldier has lost his general. Night is gaining ground. I look for answers, but the Torah is mute. Doubt and Science are the land-mines of faith. Sometimes I think that a Jew without faith is even worse off than a Palestinian without land.
A hell of a joke, or a joke from Hell? This morning, again, I was reminded just how much a good dose faith would help. If I believed in it, I'd say that sly Providence sent me not one, but two messangers to rub it in.
The day began well, as far as finances go: three house calls between six and eight-fifteen - night rates. Bingo! I'd covered my costs before nine AM. Happiness was just around the corner. The weather was gorgeous so I opened the sun roof on the way back to the office. The radio blared usual refrain about capitalism in China, the hole in the o-zone, the war. All for the best in the worst possible world. I shut it out, concentrating on the rays streaming across my arms and legs.
This feeling of well-being stayed with me all morning. Between consultations I counted the silhouettes rippling back and forth across the pale blue curtains which soften the hustle of Santa Monica Blvd. Anonymous shadows on a milky screen. The whole effect is rather aquatic, but that's not what I was thinking about at the time. Potential patients. One of the advantages of having the street-front office in this complex is that the patients don't have to go searching for you. First door on the left is my waiting room. They appreciate it, and I'm like the girls on Sunset; I take whoever comes by.
Around eleven the door bell brought me out of my reverie. Normally, people ring once or twice - short notes which stop as soon as they release the button. This time, Red Alert: two or three hysterical, insistent rings, a short silence, then it started all over again. Very irritating. By the end of the ninth ring, I remembered that Jill had gone to the post office. And of course, she'd forgotten to turn on the surveillance camera when she left. I got up and rushed for the button which unlatches the outside door. My stethoscope seized the occasion to fall on the floor, right under my size ten, triple E's. A hundred and thirty bucks crushed beyond repair. Luckily I'd kept my old Lithman in case of emergency.
I steeled myself for a bad surprise, and like always, cursed that damned architect who installed these reinforced doors with no peep-holes. I should at least be able to check out the patients before they get their hooks in me. But no use complaining now. Remodelling is not in the budget.
Hell. Its one AM already. I'm wiped out. Lena's been asleep for the past two hours, and I have to get up at the crack of dawn. Too bad. The rest will have to wait for tomorrow. I'll get through it, though, even in bits and pieces.
No time. I worked all day and just found out that my in-laws are coming for dinner. Maggie has been clamouring for me all week. Still, I'll try to write after they leave.
Vestal: priestess of Vesta, sworn to chastity and entrusted with maintaining the sacred fire. Vestals who broke their vows were buried alive. That's what the dictionary says, and it seems to me that we doctors have a similar sacred charge. And if nothing else, Friday's providential messangers served to remind me of it.
I opened my office door just a crack and peeked out at my first messanger. She was parked in the big red armchair, keeping my anaemic rubber plant company. The way that plant stretches its scrawny stems towards the blinds always reminds me of beggar children in Delhi. If it were up to me I'd have thrown it out long ago, but Jill won't let me. Every day before she closes up the office, she waters it, and turns the pot so that it won't grow completely out of kilter. As if you could call that growing!
In any case, there she sat. She seemed calm. Too calm. If this was an emergency, it wasn't a bloody one. She looked OK to me. I motioned for her to come into my office. No reaction. Time stretched and yawned. I gave her a good, long looking over. She looked barely out of her teens; her flowery cotton dress was well suited to the warmth of the autumn day, but it was very childish. More appropriate to an eight year-old than a twenty year-old. She was wearing an old pair of Greek sandals, and her otherwise pale feet were more than a little black around the heels. The hot-pink patent leather purse she convulsively clutched really clashed with the rest.
I said hello and took one step toward her on that awful yellow carpet I was stupid enough to buy on sale. It's already piling and coming apart at the seams. As for the stains, I could just cry. I should have thought of it before; people drag in all kinds of things on their shoes; motor oil, mud, and if I'm really unluckily, dog shit. Even professional cleaning didn't help. The guy's excuse? "What do you expect with a YELLOW rug?" But he still expected to be paid. Money straight down the drain. I put up a sign by the door, but still nobody thinks to wipe their feet on the mat. Oh well, bad manners are a part of the age we live in, and detachment is part of my profession.
I said hello again, but the girl didn't say anything. She stood up like a robot and followed me into my office. She was smiling, eyes glazed as if she'd just woken up. Without even sitting down she blurted out, "I'm thirsty." I said, "excuse me?" She continued, "I need some water." I handed her a glassful which she instantly spilled all over my desk. Luckily the computer is on a separate stand to the side, but the new pile of prescription pads got soaked. I didn't say anything, the labs give them to me free, but just the same, I almost became unpleasant.
Time for a break - now I'm thirsty.
It's already two in the afternoon. I skipped lunch and now Lena's pissed off. I don't care, I'm actually starting to find this journal stuff fun. I'll finish telling about Friday even if I have to stay up all night. Maybe I should use a Dictaphone. A quick summary after each appointment and then I could copy it out later. We'll see.
Back to Friday. I threw away the top two prescription pads, then asked, "What brings you in?"
More silence. The girl continued to smile stupidly for two good minutes, and me, like a good doctor, I just sat and watched. Behind her, the Santa Monica ghosts slid by on their curtains. I suddenly had an almost irresistible urge to just leave her there and go play tourist with a glass of cold Fume Blanc on the terrace of that new place over on Melrose. Then reality set in: this month there's the pension fund, and the mal-practice insurance to pay. There's always something. And of course, the Hypocritical Oath requires a certain demeanour. I stuck it out and finally my patience was rewarded. After staring into space for a quarter of an hour, the little miss finally decided to tell me her troubles. Nothing complicated: she just believes she's a Forget-me-not. A little flower lost in the asphalt jungle. A sweet little nutcase. Her purse was empty except for the release papers from a psychiatric institution. I jotted down the number and called. While I was on hold, they treated me to Little Night Music, beautifully interpreted on the electronic piccolo.
The extension was busy for a long time. I waited. How lovely to think you're a Forget-me-not. Lazarus. No kidding, her name is Chloe Lazarus. I ask if that's really her. She answers sweetly, "Chloe, yes, that's me, Chloe . . ." Nineteen years old, a delicate child. A very slender, slightly cracked porcelain, that's what she is. Slightly cracked, but still superb. Periwinkle blue eyes. A wild strawberry mouth, inviting and sensual. Wonderful hands, light, relaxed, then suddenly clenched together in fear, the next moment flitting about aimlessly like two startled birds in front of her face.
Finally, I got through to the duty nurse, who barked out the regulation "hello", then arrogantly informed me that dealing with such matters wasn't in her job description. It seemed that there was a difference of opinion about the case within the department. She transferred me to the intern. He had indeed signed her release - against the advice of the supervising physician. He went on about a certain Marshall (whoever he is) who has brilliant theories but had been quickly fired on the grounds of an ideological rift with the boss. The intern believes that Chloe really is schizo but can be rehabilitated. He finds her charming.
So do I.
Before returning her to society, he gave her a shot of time-release neuro-stim. Its supposed to last one month. Very clinical, he tells me that if she hasn't been eating she's probably on a slight overdose.
He was right. She hadn't been eating. I had a hungry flower-girl in my aquarium. I knew the treatment: cormine-glucose and a taxi straight back to the hospital. That's what any competent doctor would do. I give her two glucose tablets to suck slowly, I pick up the phone and at that point notice two troubling facts:
primo, I have left the radio on the entire length of the visit,
secundo, I am falling in love with the patient.
It's not the first time and generally things calm down after about an hour or so. But this time, it isn't the normal feeling I've read about in Lena's magazines. I raise my defences. The obvious diagnosis: the onset of a massive counter-transfer undoubtedly linked to the ambiguous relationship I had with my sister.
We all have our crosses.
Sweet Chloe, so lost, so fragile. I didn't dare examine her. I entered the address of the hospital in the computer and then said, "basta". When the taxi came, I had some regrets. I wondered if she had anybody who cared about her. I hadn't offered her anything but glucose and water. On the other hand, she didn't pay me. She got in the taxi calmly. The driver was a chubby, moustachioed grand-dad type. She was in good hands. Everything was just fine. Before the taxi drove off, she thanked me with her angelic smile, her pretty petal arms dancing in the sunlight. A beautiful image of madness. If only it could always be like that!
Time is a trap. I notice that scenes go through my mind in a blink, but take pages and pages to tell. There are so many images, so many sensations. One instant flows into the next while our perceptions telescope from close-up to long shot views. Its so hard to sort out, and words consume an enormous amount of energy. I'm cold and hungry, and I haven't even gotten around to Providence's second messanger. I hear the Movie of the Week theme music coming from the living room. Dinner is ready. If I don't actually go sit at the table with Lena and Maggie, all hell will break loose.
Sunday, eleven PM
Time for the late show. Tonight it's "Key Largo", but I've already seen it a hundred times. Right now I prefer my own "re-runs". Rolling: Friday morning, messenger #2.
There were two patients waiting, so I decided to just grab a sandwich from shop across the street. But as I opened the door she barged right in. I barely had time to step out of her way as she swooped straight into that same red armchair. Her bleached, spiked hair made her seem even taller than she was, and went perfectly with the sharp angles of her elbows and knees. A spider folded up on itself, just waiting to pounce. A frightenly undernourished spider. Worn leather mini-dress and net stockings that hardly flattered the sinews and bones leading down to her stiletto-heeled boots. Spider in the morning, doctor take warning!
I softly closed the door and asked the lady to wait a couple of minutes. I always need a breather between patients, and this one looked serious. "Careful, David - she mainlines," I thought as I loaded the starter's pistol I keep in the upper drawer of my desk. You couldn't possibly hurt anybody with it, unless you used it as a bludgeon, but it makes a hell of a noise. The only problem is that in order to use it, I'd have to get it out of the drawer first. Even an old cripple would have all the time in the world to bash my head in. So what, it makes me feel better.
To make a long story short: at first the spider is well-behaved. I invite her in, anticipating quite an interesting conversation. She's in the early stages of withdrawal and starting to sweat.
"I have cancer," she squeezes out from between clenched teeth. And me, watching carefully from behind my most professional persona,
"What makes you say that?"
A standard visit. Fifteen minutes, maybe less. With cases like this, time seems to drag on. Across the room, the shadow game continues on the curtains. There goes the mail man. That's another advantage to having the street side office: if you call out for help, someone might just hear you!
All of a sudden, my spider glances towards the wall and, all on edge, looks back at me.
"Whydja turn the cameras on?"
I play along to see how far she'll go, "Is someone after you?"
She leans across the desk with a mysterious whisper, "Yes, friend. They're looking for me."
She calls me "friend" but she still hasn't introduced herself. I ask her name. She points to the tattoo on her arm. A wolf's head labeled Tania. I ask if that's her. She laughs. I note in passing a case of gingivitis and a fungal infection. If she's on heroine, it won't be long before she loses her kidneys.
She keeps beating around the bush but in fact she wants morphine to "comfort" her, as she puts it. I refuse. And that's where things stick for the next half hour. I look at my watch: it's twenty to one. Two raving lunatics in one morning - between them they've screwed up my schedule for the rest of the day. Even a saint would lose his cool! While the spider spits her paranoid shpeel, I count how many times the doorbell rings. Three. I have three patients in the waiting room, not counting the two who were already there when I took her. I'm sure that at least one of them was glad to let her have cuts. Poor guy, he looked terrified at the idea of sharing his wait with her.
Another fifteen minutes, and she wasn't about to give up.
"I know you've got some!"
Sure I do. Morphine, Dolosal, barbiturates and uppers. I have a whole panoply. But if I say "yes" even once, tomorrow the line will stretch from here to the Chinese Theatre. When the sun sets on the postcard image of palm trees and stars, Hollywood's streets grind their teeth. So I repeat, one last time,
"No, I don't have anything here. Now that's enough. There are people waiting. Tina be reasonable."
She bursts out in raucous laughter and lights up a Camel. Looking straight in my eyes, she tosses the match on the yellow carpet.
"Tania, not Tina. My name is Tania."
"So, you're giving me the shove-off. You seem nice, young Dr. Cool. You dress like my cousin."
"Yeah? And what does he do?"
"He deals, honey. Stop hypnotising me with your eyes! I know you're trying to read my thoughts."
After that I switch off. I stand up. She does too, and her chair tips over. In that instant everything spins out of control. I take hold of her arm. She stiffens. I push one way, she pushes the other. She's much stronger than she looks. I pull. She lets go and boom! Both of us on our asses. I lose a blazer button in the scuffle. Ripped right off, and a nice piece of fabric with it. Two hundred and fifty bucks on sale. Brand new.
I take a deep breath. We get up. She's pale, full of hate. She starts rifling through her bag, and my imagination goes wild. "God, if it's a knife, you'll wind up like Jesus; nailed at thirty-three." Grotesque. The thought had barely flashed through my mind when Tania flicks out one of those switch-blade combs, right under my nose. Smiling like a hyena, she jeers,
"Scaredja, didn't I?"
And with that, she begins ratting her hair like nothing has happened. A good little democrat doctor, cornered by his contradictions, that's who she's dealing with, and she knows it. Since I didn't have anything else to lose, I played the nasty card.
"Get out of here or I'm calling the cops!"
"Go ahead, asshole," she snaps back, "you can call in the cavalry and the marines, too, while you're at it!"
"You have reached the Los Angeles Police Department, La Cienega Station. All of our lines are busy. Please hold . . ." Its always the same, but when you've got a bomb ticking away in your hands, somehow the gag doesn't seem so funny. I held, like a good little boy, while my spider paced and ranted. Black madness, nocturnal delirium. She'd run out of hope, and I wasn't going to give her a refill.
Her name is Tania Angeli, she's been on the stuff for seven years. This fallen Angeli must have been pretty, but at twenty-eight she looks fifty. She's been in and out of the can for the last two years. That's what the cops told me. Now I've thrown her out, too. Tania, age twenty-eight, flipped out spider.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The cops came screaming up the street but since the light at the end of the block was out, I had three minutes of siren filled suspense. Who knows why she stuck around, but that whole three minutes Tania's eyes never left me. She shrugged and called me an asshole again when the cops finally hammered on the door. I opened, and good humanist that I am, suggested they go easy. For a cop, "easy" is about as gentle as Monday Night Football. They're trained that way.
The sergeant rolled his eyes, "So what'dja call us for?", and the whole team jumped on Tania who was waiting for them with arms outstretched. She knew the drill. They put her in a hammer lock, and that's when Tania finished me off. She yelled,
"Gotcha, Doc! See your pals? You're just like them."
And so on, until they packed her into the squad car. There was nothing I could say. I watched from the sidewalk. The car door was still open, Tania hemmed in by one of the officers while the sergeant radio'd in his report. She asked for a light, he obliged. The peace had been kept, for him things were cool. She took a puff, gazing at me with a ironic smile. Then I knew what she meant. She got me all right - infected me with the most insidious virus: a guilty conscience. I felt as old as Death. I seem to be following the footsteps of Louis-Ferdinand Céline; stumbling around somewhere near the End of Night. If I reach that point will I turn Nazi, too?
I didn't write at all this week, as if my efforts from last Sunday had sapped all my energy. I have to learn to pace myself and to make writing a habit. If I don't, I'll feel even more like a failure. There's an entire column of Doctor Levis in the phone book. And probably even several David's in the bunch. Today is Shabbat; if I called them, half would refuse to answer because of the spark in the phone. The other half would at least ask how I'm doing, but then my answer wouldn't be fit for a holy day. Nevertheless, I have to talk to somebody. Lena would never understand so I guess that leaves this little notebook.
Those two crazies from last week really got me down. Old people, poor people, jerks I can handle; sick bodies I can help. They make me feel more or less like I'm practising an honorable profession. But what can I do for nut cases who stick me with the role of the Gestapo? Avoid them, what else?
All week I drank like a fish. Lena isn't speaking to me. Maggie crinkles up her nose and squirms to get down when I pick her up. OK, when I drink I smell bad, and the uppers only make it worse. I know I shouldn't touch that crap, but where else am I going to find the courage to go on? With the pills, I'm strong, I see things clearly and I don't give a shit about anything.
That night after work, I drove around aimlessly for about forty-five minutes then wound up at this club I know on Wilshire. A hip no-man's mix of transvestite, punk and grunge. They don't say I smell. We toasted to life, then we toasted to death. I laughed. I don't know why I was laughing, but slumming did me good. Sometimes I need to drag myself through the dirt - as if the way I'd spent my morning wasn't degrading enough! But I guess the decadence of the place somehow made it all even out, helped me get my head back on straight again.
The decor: very dark, except near the bar where everything is aluminum and neon. Between the bar and the dance floor, tall cones of light encircle a few tables and stools where the "ladies" prop their hidden assets. Colored lights flash as they cross and recross their long, latex dipped thighs. Further away, the shadows are soothing, just dim enough to make you forget the time. Janna, the bar tender, writes spy novels. They say she's found a publisher. I hope so, would be fun to read something by someone I know. She's a strange, dreamy girl, secret and calm, a kind of behind-the-times type with long blond hair and cowboy boots.
We were doing tequila shots. In no time at all, I'd knocked back enough of them to plaster over all the dings and dents the day had made in my soul. They all know I'm the doctor on Santa Monica, but they think its funny. I don't have to justify myself to them. Justify what, anyway? The fact that I can't look myself in the face anymore since I've started filling out the prescription forms in advance? Last Tuesday, when old lady Jacobs came in, I saw right away that she was going to cost me some time. I saved ten minutes by filling out her prescription while she undressed. Otherwise, if she sees me writing, she makes comments, she suggests. Once she even went so far as to dictate! This time I bluffed. I told her I'd been thinking about her case, "Call me next week to let me know how my little recipe is working". Yeah, right! I prescribed what I always prescribe for her, just switching to different brands and product names. Is that good? Is it bad? I don't have a clue. In any case, she fell for it, and called yesterday to say that she's feeling much better.
I went for a drink at Manuel and Lyne's place. They just got back from Rio so we hadn't seen each other in a while. These days Manny is playing at being a pirate, he looks like a mutineer from the Bounty. Lyne cross-dresses, and is beautiful like only beautiful transvestites know how to be.
I told them the whole story about the forget-me-not. Manny nodded sympathetically and Lyne said,
"Hey man, I know what you mean, once I was in an elevator with this little asshole night watchman; he made a crack about my pantyhose and for a minute there I seriously thought I was going to kill him. When I told my shrink about it, I almost wound up in the nuthouse." Then she laughed before adding, "Next time I'll keep my homicidal impulses to myself!"
She's right. When you feel like you're losing it, discretion is the key to survival. But their distrust still hurts me. I'm a doctor, not a cop.
That night, Lyne had violet eyes. They change often. I know because when she's in town I see her almost every evening. She works the block between Detroit and La Brea, right by the bar where I sometimes stop on the way home. With her mane of red hair, her nice ass and round hips, she rakes it in. I've never tried it with her, but some nights, when Lena pulls that headache crap, I start to go crazy. I'm really tempted, but so far I've resisted. If I break down some day, I'll have to dare to write about it.
At one point Manuel asked if I wanted to do some poppers. Amyl Nitrate, perfectly legal over the counter. I don't know why I said yes, its always the same: I had fun for five minutes, and then I got a headache. I don't know what happened next. Yes, I do. I looked at my watch, it was almost five in the morning.
People think that doctors are so full of noble thoughts. The profession is overflowing with smart people. Unfortunately, the ones I know are really into percentages. 'You send me Mrs. Smith for a frontal x-ray, I'll send you ten percent in return. Systematically order the two side-views, I'll add another five.' Ten percent on appendixes makes the payments on the Mercedes; ten more for blood work comes in handy for week-end ski trips. Its done every day. Its clean. Its legal. I don't have the stomach for it yet. But I'll never forget the way Lena looked at me when we met Philips at the last charity dinner. He went on and on about his Wellness Center in Manhattan Beach. They're making a killing on diet pills. And to think he's only a chiropracter!
"Ah David, you should have listened when I offered you that partnership. You'd have been in on the ground floor. It wouldn't have stopped you from keeping your own practice. That's what Mark and Tony do. But we're planning to open another branch in a couple of months. And we'll need more MD's to fill out those prescriptions. . ."
If only I could get a grip on my mood swings! But I guess its just the way I am. The house is empty. Lena took Maggie out shopping. I'm drunk, the sky is grey. Another Winter in the Hollywood Hills. I would love to live in some tiny, sun bleached middle eastern village. LA's great weather without the all cars and the all the lost souls. I dream about it often; me, a Jew born and bred in California, as if "Orient" was some computer program ticking away in my genetic wiring. But that's crazy, and anyway, everywhere there's sun and Orient together, there are also bombs. Conclusion: Paradise is something you just have to keep wrapped up, nice and warm, right inside yourself. Strange. The speed is still working, I just realised that this hellish noise inside my head was me grating my teeth. I promise, I promise, I won't ever touch those pills again. Right. Promises as empty as a drunk's bottle.
Maybe it will rain today. The sky is definitely getting darker, an almost anthracite background to show off the Hollywood sign. The dead grass on the hills completes the exaggeratedly ominous effect. Any second now, lightning will flash and thunder will roar, and I'll find myself with the starring role in some B-series Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde. Funny, I used to like the rain. When I was a teenager I went to visit a cousin at his boarding school in the Bay Area. The school sat nestled on the side of a mountain, and when it rained, the footpaths absolutely oozed. After classes the kids would drag cardboard boxes to the top of the hill above one of the dorms and toboggan down. After a few runs, the boxes disintegrated, but we continued without, until our jeans, our sweatshirts, our hair were caked black. Just the kind of thing I'd catch hell for at home. For years afterwards I couldn't watch the rain fall without smelling the freedom of that day.
I'm dying to call the hospital to find out how Chloe's doing. My little flower in her cracked pot. I can't stop thinking about her. It's getting so I can't sleep. I have to see her again. I hold back, playing the scene over and over again in my head. Just write about it. Too late, I've got them on the phone:
"Hello. You've reached the Maxwell Institute. How may I help you?"
"I'd like to speak to Miss Chloe . . . just a second . . ."
I make a tremendous effort to bring her name back. Lazarus.
"Miss Chloe Lazarus."
I guess my memory is still pretty much intact, its just the locks that need oiling. The receptionist brightly invited me to "please hold". I held for three interminable minutes with their damned muzak Little Night Music, then the voice came back in the same key.
"Chloe Lazarus, yes, Psychiatry Seven, she is doing well but I can't connect you."
"That's the rule. Visits are allowed though."
I hung up before she could recite the hours. I know what they're doing; they're trying to break my little doll. Those assholes want to shrink her head. She won't hear any more voices, but my little flower will be a vegetable. Believe me, when those guys get their mitts on you, you come out with pot roast for brains. No way I'm going to let them do it. When I was a kid I heard voices, too; lots! Once I tried shutting them up one after the other and I counted how many there were. First, there was the one on top, the loudest, the one that chattered all the time. Just below was another, quieter, only piping up with random odds and ends; and then a few more, and all the way at the bottom, there was the baby screaming at the top of his lungs.
That last layer was scary. I talked to my math teacher about it. He was great. He gave me a nice little lecture ending with, "Whatever you do, don't tell anyone about this, you'll understand later."
Who knows where it begins and where it ends?
A little music? Good idea. Bartok or Bowie? Doesn't really matter as long as I get out of this armchair before it sucks me any deeper into its padded depths. Maybe I should go down to Hamed's to check in on the cousins. A little break with the A-rabs. Nothing better to cheer you up. Yeah, that's just the thing.
As I skirt past the couch, Lena unglues her eyes from the TV long enough to ask where I'm going. Maggie wraps herself around my legs as if I were leaving for a month and I make a note. Its getting to be quite a habit, sometimes I even write while I'm walking. One last quick glance around home-sweet-home; so sanitised, so empty. Lena likes the functional, minimalist look. Everything is white, red or black. Chic like an ad for a German loft. I guess she's homesick. The view is as marvellous as the mortgage. We dominate all LA, Lena tells her friends, we dominate. She likes to dominate; with the Von Dorstens it's a tradition. She spends her time comparing me to her father, but I'm just a little dark-skinned guy. I can't help that. I'm not a count, or tall, or blond. She knew it when she married me. I'm just a shabby saw-bones, a Jew with no money. We have nothing in common and I guess that's why we love each other, although sometimes I'm not so sure its love.
The grass is always greener . . . but once you're on the other side, you still have to find a place to sit and relax. I made the usual trek down the hill and along Hollywood. The boulevard was full of tourists. The stars in their eyes blind them to anything but the stars on the ground. Completely oblivious to the sex shops and the misery. Winos scrounged in garbage cans and a young homeless girl vomited in the bushes next to Frederick's. If my tourists strolled two blocks down to Sunset what would they see instead of the girls turning tricks?
This line of speculation tempted me to take a stroll myself, but then I remembered an ugly scene the last time I was in the 7/11 on the corner of Curson. Two of the girls had stopped in for a coffee to go. They were chatting with the checkout clerk when their pimp came tearing in spewing four letter explicatives. It seemed their break had overshot the regulation ten minutes and the boss escorted his ladies back to their strip, left fist full of black hair, and the right full of blond. Nothing too violent in such a public place, but still the memory gave me the blues. I spun around, staring at my thumbnail which was just begging to be bitten. I knew if I went on like this, I was done for. I am well on my way to driving the practice into the ground. A couple of weeks ago, I decided to close shop on Saturday afternoons even though it is one of the busiest days. Fifteen patients minimum, big money down the drain in exchange for the pleasures of anxious indolence. I have to crack down on myself.
I bit into the thumbnail and the next thing I knew I was walking through Hamed's door. I'm a regular there. Mint tea and falafel, along with the usual hamburgers and fries, and all of it dirt cheap. Fifty cents for a pastry if the owner knows you. A couple of music students are perched at the counter. Two of the four tables are occupied by some of the local Syrians; Farid from the liquor store on Sunset, and a couple of respected elders, hadjis who have been to Mecca. I feel right at home. When we went to Casablanca for our honeymoon, it was the same. I fit right in, I'm as dark as everyone else. And now, with my receding hairline and big, round belly I really look like a Mozabite baker. I'm packing on the weight; six pounds in two weeks. Its those damned diet pills. Every time I take them, I fast for two days, and then I compensate by stuffing myself the rest of the week. I have to start a real diet, and exercise, too. Maybe I could start playing golf.
To impress whom?
Where did I get this crazy need to be alone? What does it matter? To hell with everything, here goes my third baklava. That's the story of my life; up front, The Good Little Doctor strives to make the world a better place. Behind the scenes lurks The Saboteur, plotting to demolish everything. I have this compulsive need to wipe out, to destroy. When things are going too well, it eats me alive. I should have been a surgeon, at least then I could cut to the heart of the problem.
This young guy's been nervously scrutinising me for the last five minutes. He watches me write. Maybe he thinks I'm a journalist. Or a cop. I smile. Cops never smile, they don't have to be nice to aliens. OK, now he's reassured. Not too much familiarity, though, I don't feel like having him here at my table.
I just can't stand other people anymore. Maybe its because I can't stand myself. Maybe a loony like Chloe would understand. Lena sure can't. Life's too easy for her. She's beautiful, she's young. It would never even occur to her that a doctor could be insecure. To her, I'm the one who knows. When I go home, she'll still be in front of the TV, busy touching up her nails. Maggie will be huddled up next to her, indifferent, and without saying a thing, I'll water the plants while they pretend not to notice how late it is.
It's awful. Sometimes I can't stand them. Just the same, the house is always spotless and Lena does fabulous Eastern European cooking. What more could I ask for?
My mother mastered all those kinds of dishes, but that's about the extent of my cultural heritage. Dad was a dirty communist rat, only squeaked into America by the skin of his teeth when he got out of Treblinka. Mom worshipped Dad. Everything he said, did or thought was gospel. As a result I was twenty-two the first time I set foot in a synagogue. Just the same, what possessed me to marry a German, and a Prussian to boot? Always so at ease, so superb, my Helena Von Dorsten. She's way too good for me, and a full three inches taller than I am. I never had any luck with a girl like her before. I guess the beer-belly and dazed, myopic look don't exactly make the grade with model types. But she's different. Maybe she just missed her teddy bear. And there's Maggie, our beautiful little girl. With her, I forget everything else. Yesterday she asked me how far the sky went. That sure blew the cobwebs out of my brain. If only I knew!
Six o'clock and night is falling already. Only three more patients, so I'm treating myself to a longer break. All things considered, I've got to save that girl. I know, its a serious decision. If I screw up, they can revoke my licence, but I have to risk it. I have to do something big, something real, or I'll lose faith in everything. Its either that or head down to Equador. I could set up a little practice in some tiny indian village. Right. Until you see your first tarantula! And you don't even speak spanish. No, my boy, if they kick you out, you'll be treating the dregs. You'll deal drugs, or even worse, you'll wind up in some clandestine lab. Now there's a promising future, a great way to put your daughter through college. You declare war on the system and you liberate Hyde. Or you save Chloe.
But for now, nothing rash. Tomorrow I'll just go see how she's doing. As referring physician, its my right. She's magic. I'm falling in love with her. Right over the deep end, I know it. Stop it. In any case, I won't sleep with her, they say its fatal for psychotics.
Tuesday, eight PM.
Today my ladies had a girls' day out. Maggie came home with a new dress and shoes, and Lena came home without her hair. Actually its looks good short like that, but she knew I loved it long. I guess its just another way of asserting her independence.
Without a word to me as they walked through the door, they went straight to the stereo. Now Mick Jagger is belting out "Satisfaction" at the top of his lungs and the neighbors for five or six houses up and down the block get to share in the fun. I don't care. I stick in some earplugs and watch as they dance around, making dinner. Maggie shoots a worried look my way then back at her mother when Lena hands her two place settings.
"Its OK darling, Daddy has work to do." I get the message, but if she's going to take things like that, she'll only push me further away. Anyway, she's right. I do have work to do. I head back to the room I use as an office, turn on the computor and plunge into my pixilated world. Just as I'm warming up though, my little girl comes in with a tray. Lena's sending out the heavy artillery.
"Daddy, what are you doing?"
"Just making notes for work, angel."
How to explain to a three year old how much more this has become for to me? Its like a drug. I open my notebook and the ideas come rushing in. No sooner do they cross my mind than they're on their way to the limbo of the immediate past. I have only so long to force them through the pen before they're gone. It goes very fast, but Time is just another wave to surf.
Welcome to the Maxwell Institute. A slow travelling shot reveals long rows of iron bars then rises over a grey wall topped with vert-de-gris and rusted spikes. Pan across the leafless trees in the otherwise bare cement yard to the drab olive complex. The paint is peeling but a window shines in the sun, like Las Vegas in the middle of the shadowy desert of the wards. And in this microcosmos oozing care, nurture and normality, the crazies are supposed to get better. It's sinister, but MediCal payments go farther in places like this.
Chloe Lazarus. Under the care of Dr. Robert Hamilton, third wing on the left, second floor. The reception clerk functions; there is no other word to describe the activity of the invertebrate behind the desk. He suckled, he wailed, he grew up, he got older still, and now he's slowly fading away in his vivarium. God forbid that should happen to me. I want life full time. The truth, always the truth. And I write while I walk. Completely nuts!
I'll bring Chloe for a walk out here beneath these poor cemented in chestnuts. We'll build a labyrinth loaded with shrink-traps. If we make it through, we'll find freedom, the real kind; the kind that prisoners invent for themselves.
And on your left, ladies and gentlemen we have the neurological pavilion. Mandatory electroshocks. Two hundred twenty volts on the temples and one big bang in the memory. I did it too, like all interns. They made us, and I was such a coward, I wanted that diploma so badly, I went along with it. 'Morning, m'am. . . hello, sir, step right this way' ('though we can't guarantee you'll step back out again on your own two feet.) Like Ben.
I really liked Ben, he was a jew-boy like me. He was the wild one of the gang, the one who had come down in the world. Offshoot of a big, important family, so big that he was lost at the foot of the family tree. He was amazing. He'd done it all: Katmandu, East Berlin and Goa - at an especially unfortunate time for the veins. The wheel turns, the band plays on. Without Ben. Unlucky, or . . . Hard to say, but I don't think you can ever get enough love.
"I'm here to see Chloe Lazarus."
I've had it with tea-spoon stories, addicts bore me to death. I don't even feel like helping them anymore. But Ben was something else. He was a legend. I think about him still.
"Room seven. You a family member?"
"I'm her referring physician."
"Oh. In that case . . ."
It speaks. I run my eyes up six feet four of muscle and bone, topped off by a binocular periscope with vocal variability. Robocop in a ratty lab coat, and blocking the staircase. I excuse myself as I squeeze past, one false move from him would send you flying. He looks like a "Bob" or a "Joe". Basically a good guy, just a little edgy when the patients act up on full-moon nights. A little slap, or a light tap on the ribs never killed anybody. And it sure makes you feel better.
I've seen guys like this before. When I was an intern, we had two fractures in the same week. The attendant was really sorry, he hadn't realised his own strength. He'd be a normal man in the cardiac wing. Unfortunately, his job was taking care of crazy people.
Second floor. It smells like urine, disinfectant, and chicken noodle soup. Chloe, where are you? These ugly green walls would make a drill sergeant puke. Oh Ben, if you could only see me! The big bubbles in the paint pop when I stick my thumb in them, and I think about Alice, an angel of Swedish steel who stood up to the worst. Ben was crazy about her. She prepared his syringes because he never managed to keep things straight. He mixed up opiates and barbiturates. He said he'd stop when he got his diploma, but he had to do his fifth year over three times. That was it. Alice had dark grey eyes, I remember that. Cold eyes, indifferent to everything but Ben. You could see she loved him.
He had grey eyes, too, but his were almost transparent, with terrible depths of irony that made me feel like giving up on everything. The whole shebang; stethoscopes, tongue depressors and especially the pretence of being a Man Of Science. I was sick of it, even then. Ben, of course, just had to be smarter than the everybody else. The internship in heavy psychiatry was his idea. And heavy it was.
And here we are: her door has a window in it. Safety glass, but they put her in a double room and that's a good sign. I guess they decided she wasn't dangerous. On the right-hand bed sits my diaphonous flower, my forget-me-not. She's making the most of the timid shaft of light sifting through the bars on the window.
The occupant of the other bed, however, looks pretty worked up to me. She tosses and turns then flips over onto her belly. Her bushy red curls are flattened up the back of her head. If I had to put a label on the case I'd say -- absolutely nothing! What good is it having a head full of drawers if you've lost the key? No words, no knowledge; just me, David, one point of view. I knock very softly. The carrot top rolls over and sits up. In the middle of a pudgy face-full of make-up; her lips look like two big, bloody slugs. She smiles.
"Hey, George! How you doin'?" She can call me George all she likes. I say hello to them both. Chloe hasn't budged. She's as stiff as a board, still facing the window. I tip-toe around her bed and ask stupidly:
"Yes, that's her, want some cake?" Slug Lips takes a crumbly graham cracker out from under her pillow. I feel like an ethnologist holding a bowl of milk spiked with pee. If I don't drink it, I'll have the whole tribe on my back. So I take it, thanks a lot -- and I drop the iron curtain.
Silence and nibbling. The room is small. The tiled walls, like everything else, are that nauseating pea green color. I feel too big for this space, and abnormally normal.
"You've noticed, I'm not like the others. I'm just fine. You'll tell them, won't you, Mr. Edison?"
My friend the red-head is not easily put off. I listen politely, standing in the middle of the room; the chairs have been converted into bedside tables. She, too, finds herself abnormally normal for the place. We understand each other.
"I'm in the hospital because of this tumor. See it there?" She shows me her belly. There's nothing to see. She's fat and out of shape, but the abdomen is smooth.
"Uhum . . . does it hurt?"
"Only when it changes color. When it's blue, like now, that's good. When it gets green it means its time for them to come and give me a shot."
Obviously, I have a stupid "rise and walk" on the tip of my tongue, but I let it go with a simple "how are you?" No luck. I'm patient, I wait. Chloe's head pivots slowly, her body doesn't move. The word "catatonic" blips into my brain. I press delete. Her blue night shirt is hardly wrinkled. I'm sure she hasn't moved for hours. They've pumped her so full of I don't know what -- no wonder they think she's harmless. After a very long time, as if from very far away, a quavering voice starts mumbling long run-on sentences,
"Its you, I know who you are, you're not my daddy, you're the doctor from the other morning, in the taxi, you're the taxi. Is it night? Are we leaving?"
I answer: "Not right away," just to play for time. Its a miracle that she recognises me. I try a test, I still have to play the doctor. I ask if she knows where she is; I make myself sick. This is not at all what I want to ask her, but it makes me feel better. She doesn't know.
"I can't tell you today, they took all the names out of my head, no more names, no more. . ." Just as I think I've lost her, the sentence continues, she only knows that she lives in Hollywood, with Michelle, its in her bag, over there. I see it; a big bag, blue like her night shirt, blue like her eyes. I don't resist the temptation of rumaging through it, I want to know her. Inventory: the bag is full of junk including a harlequin romance and a creased ID card. Chloe says, "thank you" as I pass her the bag. She's coming to life, there's hope.
Knock, knock. Watch out, it's the nurse.
"Hello, ladies, its time for your pills. Open wide, Chloe."
Straight down the hatch with an obligatory swallow of water to rule out cheating. Nighty-night girls! This little lady is alert. She knows how to deal with her nut-cases. I watch from the sidelines. A cloud swallows the timid sun beam, and the green of the walls slips into grey. Two forget-me-not eyes stare up at the ceiling. Chloe is too far away, she doesn't see me. Any second, she's going to raise her arms up to the sky. It's a classic symptom. But no, she pulls herself back together and opens her bag.
"There, that's where I live . . ." She shows me a blurry photo of an kitchen. Her apartment, I imagine. She runs on vivaciously; everything's just fine, she's fine, she just can't understand why "they" are keeping her here, do I know why "they" are keeping her here? "They", the hundred-headed hydra haunting the halls. I can't breath. Everything seems fuzzy, playing all speeded up. Chloe bugs me. I like her better delirious. I barely listen as she reels off precisely the kind of prefabricated speech will get her out of here. Social discourse. She laughs. I sit down on the bed. She goes all quiet; her light's gone out again.
Where's the switch?
I look at the sheets, some crumbs on those sheets, a little hole in the bedspread. The red-head never stops staring at us. Its getting on my nerves. The sun chooses that precise moment to disappear behind another cloud, drowning everything in melancholy. I have to find that light switch. The photo. Chloe seems to be sleeping. I show her a cat drinking water from the tap. What's his name? Silence. She blinks -- it's coming.
"Chloe, where are you?"
She says that a voice tells her about me; she knows me very well, I'm that sweet doctor from over on Santa Monica. Her tone changes, more tender, more subtle. With that, she throws her arms around my neck and kisses me passionately. I know it doesn't mean anything. Carrot-top snickers behind my back. I move away.
"Where does that voice come from?"
Chloe is very pale. She hesitates; I'm at the door of the inner sanctum. If she opens up, I'm in.
"You can't understand. Everything is ordained. You see these zigzags here on the bedspread? Its a secret message. They leave them everywhere. Its part of a trap to lock up my brain. I have to read them all, its very tiring."
"You're talking nonsense."
"No, no, you see? Right here it says 'Chloe'."
I draw her attention to the fact that her roommate has exactly the same bedspread, but she doesn't seem to hear me. This story about zigzag codes is dangerous. If she blabs that kind of stuff when the boss makes his rounds, she's had it.
Then, nothing. It was late. I didn't insist. I promised to come back, but I don't know if I will.
I didn't go. I didn't have the guts. Maggie has measles so I sat all night next to her bed. But that's just an excuse not to go out. It's freezing outside. An ugly drizzle blows straight from the North Pole, pelting ice cubes at my heart. I'm holding on.
I went back.
Ben performed shock treatment. We all did. Sometimes there were broken molars, or other little fractures. When he chose that damned rotation, Benny knew what he was in for. But he hadn't counted on a patient making him take a dive. A nurse, with a pronounced affection for alcohol and barb's, had confused glucose with insulin in an intravenous during a recent night shift. The patient didn't hold a grudge -- he never woke up. And the nurse found herself in the detox wing where Ben worked. Rotten luck; he was her supplier. Naturally she couldn't wait to squeal this sickening detail to the head shrink who went on a rampage. Very nasty. Summoned up the guilty party and without any kind of hearing, ordered him to trade in his lab coat for a pair of regulation pyjamas. As reversals of fortunes go, this one went right through the looking glass. Ben reacted like an idiot: he jumped through the window, and since the bitch's office was on the ground floor, made it home without incident. But now he was caught in the gears of this fatal cycle. He found an efficient solution, though, without looking too far. That very night he sent Alice out for groceries then emptied a can of gas on his head and lit his last cigarette. But why am I telling that story?
And what does Chloe think about it? She hangs on my words. I'm certainly giving her the shock she needs, but less toxic than alternating current. She saw One Flew Over the Coocoo's Nest. She knows what I'm talking about and she's scared stiff. A good thing if it makes her feel like fighting.
"They wouldn't do that to me," she says doubtfully.
I drive the nail in: "Are you kidding? They'd jump on the chance. They'll do it as much as they can!" Actually, I don't know the first thing about it, but I don't have any choice.
"If you want, I can help you. But you've got to do exactly what I tell you."
We look at each other in silence. She's one hundred percent there, really paying attention, and God is she beautiful. I want to know more about them; what do they know about her, what have they been doing to her? "Tell me all about it, I'm listening."
She was sent into a small, very bright room. They all wore white coats, and spoke quickly, on purpose so she couldn't understand. There was a chair in the middle of the room, she found herself all alone in front of the mob. She didn't really use the word "mob", but I can just see that pack of wolves. I know them by heart.
The Department Head has cold eyes and a gracious smile. The rest nod approvingly at everything he says. She spilled her guts about the forget-me-not that dies. They really liked that image. Then came the zigzag messages on the bedspread. They didn't say anything about that one, but they scribbled furiously in their notebooks. I start with Lesson Number One,
"You can't ever tell them that kind of thing."
"But how do you know? You're not a head doctor."
We are going in circles.
"Don't you believe me?"
A question of confidence. She stares at me for a long time. I'm afraid she'll slip away into her fantasy world. I put all my cards on the table. I don't know how else to pull her back.
She smiled. Luckily, her survival instinct is intact. At least we've got that going for us.
"I believe you. And what do you want me to say?"
Just the simple truth. Talk about your work, your cat, your apartment. Tell them that you absolutely have to repaint before Christmas, and especially that you live with a girl who likes you a lot. That's true, right? Michelle likes you, doesn't she?
She makes a face. We'll have to work on that one. I promise that I'll come back every night on my way home. We'll rehearse our script like actors. We'll whisper. The plot is hatched. If I stick to it, if I come every day, I know it will work.
Sunday, December 3rd
She's already calling me her savior. I've got to be careful, she tried to kiss me on the mouth again. She's so different, so pure. Jet black tendrils frame her face, then tumble to her waist. God forbid those morons should get any brilliant ideas like shaving her head. You could die for hair like that -- and it follows that you could also hang yourself with it.
Those shits! I hate them so much I'm getting back my will to live. Its six o'clock, night has just about fallen. Across from Chloe's hospital there's a huge Christmas tree, all lit up. In spite of the rain, I spent a good ten minutes watching it twinkle. I almost believed in Santa Claus again! And now I walk along the high walls, laughing out loud alone.
Yesterday, I read over my notes again. It was shocking. I really had the impression that someone else is telling his story. Who is he?
This blank page reminds me that the Grapevine is covered in snow and I'm buried in an avalanche of anguish. I try to cheer up, telling myself that every cloud has a silver lining. But its only words, and clichés never fix anything.
Lena is incredible, she seems to understand. She didn't ask a single question when I came home. All the same, I volunteered that I'd gone to visit a patient in the hospital. She just poured me a glass of wine and asked if the girl was pretty. I rolled my eyes. Maggie was her usual irresistible self. Tonight we tackled a few serious questions, like about the bearded guy in the red suit who's coming soon. She asked him for a doll that walks, but she's a little worried because if the doll can walk, who'll keep her from running away? Am I doing that to her?
Everytime I look in her beautiful eyes I lose myself in this incredible love. She sizes me up almost like an adult, and when our two souls brush against each other, it makes sparks. We laughed, and then it was time for bedtime stories. Now, the house is silent. I thought of Simmias and Socrates on the subject of harmony. But sometimes even harmony is grating. I feel as blue as night-time snow and the thermostat is dropping.
* * *
When Lena wears high heels, she's at least a head taller than me. I hate it. When we first got married, we balanced things out; she wore flat shoes and I hiked myself up on boots with little heels. That's all changed. I can't keep up with her so I'll just stick with the comfort of English shoes. But I see right through her; while she saunters along on top of her stilettos, its all the better to poke holes in my ego. She knows I have a complex. Deep down, I think she's disappointed. She's starting to admire doctors a lot less. A fifteen hour a day work load for the salary of a junior executive. And the patients don't respect you, either. Just last week the mechanic from the shop down the street set me straight with a little, "keep the change". To them I might as well be a cab driver. After all, a real shaman is a lot more expensive.
I feel more and more like a stranger in my own home. When we first bought this place, I had no more money for all the decorating Lena wanted to do. That was OK. She loved me and smiled away her disappointment. When her parents saw the hodge-podge we called furniture, they offered to pay for "at least the basics . . ." Injured pride, and loyalty to me, got the better of Lena's in-born snobbery and the hodge-podge stayed. Since then, though, she has striven, piece by piece, to create a world she can be truly proud of. Slowly the colors bled away, leaving white walls, white couch, and now white floor. Thin black accents only reinforce the frigid Northern perfection. You'd never guess we have a little kid. No chocolate finger prints on the glass and iron table. No crayon marks on the chairs. And its the same from room to room. The only relief is the paintings she picks out. But those geometric polychromes make me feel like I'm living in an art gallery. Glossy, clean and brilliant. Unlike me. I'm not any of those things. I'm just a Jew from LA, but I could be from anywhere. Cosmopolitan, and easy prey for the pogrom. What I like, for instance, is hanging around the Mexican market downtown, or going over to Soong's for kimchee and rice. I'm a half-breed. Even among Jews I'm not kosher. My mother came from one of those old American Sephardic families. Dad was a Polish communist. The sort of anomaly that drives statisticians crazy, and to top it off, it even claims to have been born here . . .
Me, me, me. Always me. How do I get out of this prison? I think about the old neighborhood off Fairfax. I think about my father. In '39, he was supposed to start college, and I love Germany just the same. I could do without the Krauts, though. When I traveled through the Tyrol I used to watch them pour out of their Mercedes, pudgy faces poking from down jacket bundles, minds rotted away from too much Coke and wieners. Then I think about Wenders, Nina Hagen or how much I love Berlin. I feel sick and I laugh. I have the same feeling when I look at my wife, my prolitarized duchess doping herself on advice to the lovelorn and daytime TV. She sleeps standing up. She thinks she's on top of it, but she gets everything mixed up. For her, Austria is a province of Bavaria. But when I try to set her straight, she just says, "So what?". She was born in the Bahamas, she wants to be modern. Its true she's only twenty-six years old. God, I must seem all shrivelled up to her. My poor David, you read like a tabloid for sale on the dead end streets of your desperation. Its not good.
For a Monday morning, the patients are few and far between. They're making me pay for my Saturdays off. I've been sitting here with nothing to do for two hours already. At nine o'clock there was an emergency, though: some fool who got it into his head to dunk his cocker spaniel into a bubble bath. The spaniel bristled at the idea, so the guy got five stitches in the left hand and haemoglobin all over my carpet. I sprayed on some rug shampoo right away, but its a pretty hopeless case. People don't even imagine the worries we doctors have. The whole time I was suturing, all I could think about was the stains in the waiting room. How on earth am I going to get them out? And my six-foot-four adonis never stops whimpering,
"I can't stand the sight of blood, doctor, I'm going to faint!" Just the kind to ask "Where am I?" when he comes to. A real beef-cake. All muscle, hairy chest and mustache. Sex appeal personified, and proud of it. Viruses don't worry him, he sleeps with everybody he wants. His horoscope says he has nothing to fear. What is it that bugs me so much about him? The stains on my rug? Not really. Its more that he glorifies the flesh and I despise it. That's what separates us. I didn't wear gloves for the stitches, and given the state of my fingernails, if he's got AIDS, there's a good chance I'm next in line.
Shouldn't bite my nails, shouldn't use drugs, shouldn't stuff myself. Shouldn't, shouldn't. Shouldn't? Who cares. The day I die, no one will know the difference.
Eleven-twenty. Almost time for house calls. I know nobody does house calls anymore, but they've always been one of my favorite parts of practicing medecine. Beyond the fact that they pay better and leave more time to think between patients, there's also the insight factor. Often a person's home environment tells you a lot more about their pathology than they do.
On today's agenda: Granny Simon. She lives over by the freeway, in a fifty-seven foot add-on perched on the corner of a small, one story house. A young couple occupies the ground floor. They both work two jobs and dream of leaving that dump. I hate to think what will happen to Granny Simon when they do. Kate makes sure she eats. Which in these days, in this town, is saying a lot, because Granny is no relative of theirs.
In the meantime, my patient spends most of her time with three mice and a hamster. She doesn't get out of bed anymore, and she's starting to smell like a corps -- especially since she's developed bed-sores on her buttocks. She'll want to pay me with her last ten dollar bill again, and I'll accept without saying anything. The last part of the routine is that I put it back under her bed-side lamp before I leave. She's so out of it she never notices. Poor Granny Simon. At eighty-seven, I'll probably be just the same.
After that, I'll drop by to check on Mia. That'll cheer me up. She's been running a fever of 102 for two days, but she's one of my favorite patients. She's a make-up artist, about my age. I always dreamed about working in film. I know its stupid, but you always want someone else's life. And to think that there are plenty of guys who would trade theirs for mine! It certainly looks good from the outside.
I have to get my act together. Every time I go out on calls, I worry that one of these days I'm going to find myself in a real jam. On my birthday, I had a real close shave. Quarter to midnight, the phone rings. Its Mrs. Wakefield. Her husband was having chest pains. We'd polished off I don't know how many bottles of champagne, and to top it off, the neighbors brought the cake, a lovely pot-laced spice cake. Not too strong, but we were having a good time just the same. I went out on auto pilot, calling 911 on the way there. Of course, it was serious. Heart failure and no ambulance in sight. I could barely make sense of anything, except that it was a real mess. At one point I found myself kneeling next to Mr. Wakefield with an empty bottle of digitalis in my hand, and no memory of having injected it. He came through it just fine, but I could have just as easily screwed up the bottles. My cell phone rang just when the worst was over. 911 calling to verify the address. It turned out I'd inversed the street numbers. The ambulance arrived a second later, but I feel sick when I think of being so irresponsible. People trust me with their lives!
Until today, I thought Mia and Nadir had a story-book romance. And I feel even worse because I'm the one who encouraged them to have the baby. Nadir is still a kid - ten years younger than Mia, and from time to time he loses it. A sweet boy, from a long line of Kashmiri rug weavers. When the war started, his family fled across the border to Pakistan and settled in Islamabad. Nadir fell in with some Afghani mujadhin, brothers in arms, whose country, like his own homeland, was "occupied" by corrupt, outside forces. He was about to sign up with them, when his father got wind of it and packed him off to study architecture at UCLA. To me, the Jew, he explains that the islamists are the last defence against decadence. No point in contradicting him; he's perfectly capable of reciting the Koran one minute and quoting Marx the next. But then again, he drinks beer and lives with a Christian. Hardly fanatic material.
But that's none of my business; I've already done too much for them. Three months ago, Mia asked me if I knew of a studio to rent. I found her a two-bedroom, with a balcony and low rent. A real lucky break; right across the street from a day-care center. It seemed like a sign that these two lovebirds needed a nest so I loaned them the deposit. Lena doesn't know about that. If she did I'd be in for the "throwing money out the window" routine. I don't want to hear it, especially now, when it looks like she may be right. When they first moved in, Mia was in seventh heaven. In the morning she wakes up to the squeals of kids playing by the pool, which helps drown out the sound of traffic from Fountain. Too bad love has flown the coop; they had everything going for them.
In any case, it turns out Mia has a throat infection. I gave her some ampicillin. With friends I usually avoid it, but she's in really bad shape. As for the rest, I didn't even take any notes. Didn't need to, I still can't get it out of my head.
I ring the doorbell. No answer. I wait. I look at my watch: five past noon. Slippers flap towards the door. She ushers me in, starts to shoot the breeze in a cracked whisper. I hadn't seen the place since they moved in, so she wants to give me the grand tour. Their room is charming. Very oriental, full of venial odors; love, musk and hash mingle to form a heavy fragrance which makes you want to stretch out like a cat on the fat, embroidered cushions which constitute most of the furniture. There are wall hangings everywhere, and the round bed is nestled in an alcove they made by draping velvet from the ceiling. Most of this stuff looks like it came from the set of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. Its absolutely wonderful -- or very kitsch, depending on your point of view. Bordeaux, dark green and mauve predominate. Colors of the imagination. The exact opposite of my house. The baby's asleep in the next room. We keep our voices low. Mia is very pale. She gets back into bed while I get the stethoscope and tongue depressor.
"So the throat is up to its old tricks?"
"Yeah, but that's not why I asked you to come over." Sibylline exchanges. Something's up.
"Problems with the baby?"
She hesitates. "I guess you could say that." I press her. After all, Kamal feels a little bit like my child, too.
One rainy day in February last year, I happened to spot Mia at a bus stop. Her car was in the shop. I had a little time to kill so I offered to drop her off at work. We got to chatting, and she confided that she was pregnant. At the clinic, they'd gotten right down to business: her insurance policy wasn't up to date. The putative father was a "delicate case". According to the OB-Gyn, an abortion would be cheaper than delivery expenses, "but don't say I told you so."
That got me thinking about the rumors one always hears about haphazard eugenic experiments and I missed the exit. Mia started to whimper, though she's not one to pour her heart out. I consoled her with pretty words. Love conquers, and all that. I believed it absolutely. Today I'm not so sure.
"What do you mean, 'I guess you could say that'?"
I don't understand what she's getting at. She watches me with big, pleading eyes. With her short hair, she looks like a frightened little boy.
"Did you take your temperature, honey?"
I didn't mean to be so familiar, it just slipped out. She shot me a quizzical look so I decided to stand by it. After all, being friendly with your patients doesn't mean that you less good care of them.
She hadn't taken her temperature. She admitted that she was probably running a fever, but she really needed someone to talk to. Everyone thinks there's nothing to listening. In fact, there's no heavier burden. Still, I tell her OK, go ahead. I'm all ears, I make no judgements. I'm as neutral as a Jew with an Oedipus complex can be. I didn't have to say it twice.
"Last Summer Nadir wanted me and the baby to meet his parents. We went to Pakistan. Did you get my postcard?"
I don't know what I said, but she went on as if she hadn't heard a thing. I was sure she was going to announce a second pregnancy, and was all ready to go with my little speech. She cut me short:
"Nothing's been right since that trip. I don't love Nadir anymore."
Her absolute indifference made me shiver. However, since I was the good doctor who doesn't judge, and she the patient, I didn't say a thing. To tell the truth, I just sat there like a lump. After searching my black bag for my jar of impassivity, I finally managed a weak, "Excuse me? What did you say?" She repeated herself in the same cold, factual voice. "I don't love Nadir anymore. I can't even stand to sleep next to him. It's over."
"But you're still living together."
"Where do you want him to go with his messenger-boy salary? And anyway, he's only got a student visa, he couldn't find a sponsor, he doesn't even have any legal right to the child."
"Unless you marry him."
She looked away, bitter.
"That's exactly the problem, without me he's nothing."
That said it all. Her handsome Kashmiri warrior is just another rootless bum. She's got her child, now the father can go screw himself. Me and my big mouth, spouting off about love overcoming all obstacles. Sure.
I asked for the details. I shouldn't have, it would have spared me the nightmare that's just waiting for my head to hit the pillow. She confessed that she'd done something stupid. Really stupid. She looked away, then went on, "I slept with his brother." That got me. I was shouting before I even knew it, "Are you out of your mind?!" So much for neutrality. But how do you remain neutral in a case like this?
"You did that to a Muslim?! Under his own roof?!!" She answered with a tiny nod, then defiance got the better of her,
"Yes, yes, but he'll never find out."
I started to choke. I stammered. I was crushed. She went to get me a glass of orange juice. I drank it mechanically, but my throat stayed dry. It still is. When I pointed out she is sitting on a powder keg, she shot back candidly: "I know, but I want him to get out. I can't stand his hangdog look."
Hard to be more concise. Out of arguments, I said thanks for the juice, and wrapped myself in what was left of my tattered dignity.
"How much do I owe you?" She sugar coated the question with a creamy smile and a friendly wink. A stab right in the heart. In such cases, it seems, it's the unconscious acting up. I swallowed the insult. It tasted bitter and greasy. Nauseating. Hearing the confidences of a friend is one thing, granting absolution for a measly thirty bucks is another. Fortunately, I'd paid the premium on my stock answers. I asked if she'd paid her insurance. It worked. We slipped into paperwork mode and pretended to forget the rest. I filled in the forms. We avoided looking each other in the eyes. It reminded me of that bad taste you get in your mouth when you feel cheated by a whore. It makes you want to drag yourself even deeper throught the slime. I didn't say good-bye. I was too riled up, and even now, hours later, it still sticks in my throat. They were my proof that love exists.
Thank God there's Chloe. Only innocents and animals can restore your faith in something. I'm exhausted. I have to get some sleep. I'll tell all tomorrow.
When you keep a journal, the hardest part is sticking to it. Since Tuesday, nothing. Nada. Not one line until now, Friday night on the lamb, hiding out in a bar in Venice. For company I've got a glass of stale beer, and my notebook glued to the sticky red formica table. Panic attack. I'm on the edge of a nervous breakdown. If I don't get back on an even keel, brain rot will cut me down in the prime of life. Chloe. I saw Chloe. Chloe, Chloe; she's all I think about. My brain sucks up the barflies' buzz and consigns it to a vast pit of silence. Is that one of the first symptoms? Am I going off the deep end?
Laughter. Now there's a concept. I'd love to get back that absolute hilarity of adolescence. Where did it go? I used to laugh all the time. Used to? When was that? Yesterday. A long time ago. Time slipped into vary-speed mode when I opened my practice. Sometimes it's as slow as a death march. Other moments careen around corners like the Indie 500. I never know what time it is. My life is slipping by like a bar of soap, that's all I know. Chloe is all consuming. Tuesday evening, she wasn't in her room. I looked everywhere on her floor, but they had carted her off to central x-ray. Front and profile shots of her head to check for tumors; the whole procedure in that filthy basement. Luckily, my rage kept me going.
Tonight, I just gave up my consultations at five o'clock. I couldn't stand it any more. There were another eight patients in the waiting room; three little old men, the bird lady and four others I'd never seen before. I sent them all to Bartoli down the hall. She'll say I'm crazy, that I'm throwing my practice out the window. And she's right. Eight at once! When I saw them, I thought, "Who the hell cares? Let 'em die." It takes more strength than I have right now to even listen to their fixed-price lamentations, and the thought of touching them disgusts me beyond words. The only problem is that the quarter's rent on the office is due. Who's going to pay it? That question kept running through my mind while I ran through the hallways of the hospital, hunting for my little cracked china doll. In that world of sick people, the sickest aren't always the ones you think. What cretin could have had the idea of building anything so obscene? Central x-ray: six hundred yards of blockhouse passage ways, incessant comings and goings of patients through the drafty halls. Its like Grand Central Station for all the bacilli in the hospital. The pink walls with their little white flowers, look like a coat of paint on the barbed wire at Auschwitz. "Makes it more human" The decorator was probably snickering up his sleeve. I wandered around that ant-hill for an hour or so, and even if I never saw Chloe, at least I was as nearby as possible. Coming back home that night I was happy, dead tired, but happy. Have I stumbled onto some secret (and very strange) formula for happiness?
Wednesday I was back again, more truculent than ever. She was in her room, but the red-head had been replaced by an anaemic vegetable who swayed back and forth on her bed. A mephitic slap knocked my breath out as I came through the door. The poor artichoke surely suffers from incontinence. I took a couple short, quick breaths through the mouth, then Chloe smiled at me. I felt as big as God. There on the formica, against a background of flat beer, I see her now, radiant and beautiful. She's my light, my hope. Even if I lose myself with her, I'm saved. What a mess. One moment I'm in seventh heaven, and the next I think, "you're in for it now. You're in love with a schizophrenic."
My angel hid her wings under a perfectly sublime sky-blue robe. Definitely in my honor -- or so I like to think. This time, I almost kissed her, but one last ethical reflex saved me. Since then I've been seriously working on the alternative self destruction scheme: turning alcoholic. We worked on our act. Lesson Number One: Socialisation. "Yes sir, I have to leave here. Otherwise I'll lose my job."
"If I'm not there, nothing will get done."
"What do you do?"
"I fill orders in the candy warehouse on Washington."
She really did work there. Only they fired her a year ago for absenteeism. The social worker knows it, everything is right there in her file. But that doesn't matter as long as we convince the shrinks. We went over it so many times she wound up finding a few polished phrases which would come to her easily. She should do just fine.
Eight PM. Ambience like a shipwreck in this place. Filled to overflowing, and like Gericault's Raft of the Medusa, everyone is going under. The last five minutes I've been watching a lonely blond on her bar stool crow's nest, looking for any sign of land. Her eyes sweep the horizon. Long red nails of her left hand hang on for dear life to the mast of her cocktail glass. Her voice, filtered by too many Camels, orders one more of the same. "Chin up, honey", I almost want to tell her, but she doesn't really need it. She's got guts enough for two. Tonight however, guts or no, the fish aren't biting. She probably still gets her fair share of tricks - but no longer her choice. Drunks, working stiffs, illegals even more exhausted that she is, but otherwise its over, and she knows it.
Across the bar, Madame the proprietress holds court. Wide as a barrel of merlot, she chain smokes cigarillos and loves cats. There's a whole flea-bitten bunch of them tacked to the walls, under the ropes of the marine motif decor. Persians, siamese, calicos. An angora stares at me through glossy paper eyes. And, while we're on the subject of cats, Madame just happens to have one that needs a home. Guess who's going to fall into that trap? The most broken down, worst off of any of the girls in the joint, Loren the street-walker. Pure putty in the hands of that big sweet-talker. Bastards! Even at the bottom of the line, when you can't get any lower, they're all trying to rip each other off.
Let me palm off my damaged junk on you. That's right, for you, my dear, a special price. Just one little bill for this handsome pure-bred with almost all his shots. And I sit there feeling guilty for non-assistance of a person in danger. Its an occupational hazard, nothing really to worry about. Loren has tears in her eyes, "Oh Monique, he's so cy-ute!"
Spot lights filter through billows of smoke down to the bar. The juke box coughs up misty twangs and Loren repeats between two snaps of her gum,
"Oh my God he's adorable. I hope they'll take him at the hotel." And out she goes, cat under arm. The bar tender, a tall black guy with a waxy complexion, shrugs his shoulders. His sense of fatalistism is probably what got him the job, after all, this place is called The Unexpected. Even I just wandered in by accident. Its not a very tempting place.
There's a real character over at the bar, slurping his beer behind a huge pile of fried chicken. He's about average height, slender, and very well dressed. Too well dressed for this dump. He keeps glancing my way while holding forth to the boss. This guy is quick. In less than five minutes, he's managed to get the attention of the whole crowd. The theme is psychology - right up my alley. He says that he wants to drop his analyst, a "Jungian", he specifies. Madame drags on her cigarillo with a dubitive look. She really has no idea what a psy-Jungama-trist might be, probably something special for Bel Air nut cases. And our chatty friend regails us with his adventures, amazing and amusing one and all. I take notes.
At one point, he was really rolling so I asked if I could turn on my tape recorder.
"So?" prompted a house painter ensconced between two glasses of wine.
"So he said yes. He knows that I'm writing and I need material." That makes an impact. Everyone is in rapt attention and the braggart dispatches his beer with a peremptory gesture.
And what do you write," I inquire, pinching myself hard so as not to burst out laughing.
"Popular romances. And I rake it in, if you want to know!"
"Go on, Ivan, knock it off. That's enough of your bull - you'll drive us all crazy!" Madame is fidgeting behind her counter. She knows the tune, she avoids group dynamics that might degenerate. Everyone turns back to their drinks, and the brouhaha settles back into harmless murmurs. Respite. Ivan the Terrible seems to need to confide in someone, and he's already spotted me. I let it happen. At this point, his megalomania can't do me any harm. I invite him to sit down. Ivan is very chic. His Harris tweed covers an Oxford shirt. Everything reeks quality. His manner of speaking, too. He weighs each word carefully before lauching it off the tip of his lips. "And to whom do I have the honor of speaking?" Just like out of some old 30's movie. A friendly preamble. I introduce myself, he does, too; Ivan Daniels. "No relation to Godfrey", he deadpans.
"And what's her name?" I try to cover my embarrassment by pointing to our charming hostess heaving her gelantinous blondness between the bottles and the bar.
"Monique?" Her real name is probably along the lines of Zelda or Gertrude, but she puts on airs. She can't stand me."
"So why come here?"
He closes his eyes for a few seconds and a small sigh escape from his lips.
"Oh, I just need to come down to Earth from time to time. You know, touch base with real life. You can't do that at the Regency." He lets his voice trail away. So much for feigned modesty. I know all I need to know. His nails are manicured. He's no manual laborer, nor even a genteel bum. He's got a close shave. I make him out to be a lunatic and start up where we left off:
"What do you do for a living?"
"Time. I steal time. But then doesn't everyone? And you?"
"Me? I'm a doctor. And I guess, in a way, you're right."
"Well, I won't come to you when I'm sick!"
He laughs. He'd be happy to drop by, though, to say hello if time and circumstances permit. He just may do it since he never knows what he'll be doing from one minute to the next. I press on and ask if he really was a writer. He points to my spiral notebook. "Like you."
I hope he's doing better than me, otherwise he'd do well to hire a ghostwriter. We get into some of my own escapades. He listens in a very civil sort of way. After three rounds I pay the bill and dash off to the hospital.
Saturday, 10 o'clock.
Two patients in two hours. At this rate I'm paying to work. Oh well, they came before, they'll come again. In the meantime, they're not here, and this is the height of flu season. Its the price I have to pay for the fun and games I've been having instead of keeping my nose to the grindstone. Sometimes I have the strange impression that my subconscious is having a secret dialogue with my patients. When I desert them, they leave. If I hate them, they torment me. In order for things to work, I have to like them. But its always me who has to take the first step. Why shouldn't they just like me? Nobody ever worries how I'm doing, not even my family.
No use looking for new problems, today got off to a bad start anyway - just like the cards predicted. This morning I drew the Devil and the Tower of Destruction with Death in the middle. My horoscope in the Times confirmed it. You'd have thought it was the front page there was so much bad news. Nothing but catastrophes. Its a good thing I don't believe in that crap. Nonetheless, there've been some weird coincidences. Take Loren, the girl with the cat, for example. Lena bumped into her later the same day I met her. What was the probability of that? I saw her for the first time at The Unexpected in Venice Beach. Lena came across her barely two hours later in the Safeway parking lot in West Hollywood. The poor soul was wandering around in the dark, hugging the cat to her chest, completely downcast. She needed a place to crash because, as might have been expected, the hotel manager had refused to take the cat. Then he threw her out, too. She had been shivering there, telling her story to anyone who would listen, rather than abandon one of God's creatures. A saint. Lena broke down, and I didn't say no. Maggie is thrilled to have a furry little animal to spoil. We call him Kismet. Suits him to a tee. He has a star-shaped mark on his forehead and white socks on his feet. When things like that happen, I think the Great Scriptwriter is having a good time, so I purr, too.
In the series of catastrophes, there's the imminent arrival of the Von Dorsten's. Maggie is going to stuff herself again on her grandmother's strudel, and everyone will speak German for a week. But that's all just fine. I see the real problems coming from another quarter. I just got off the phone with Chloe's mother. An absolute Fury with a voice like razor blades. She says she's on to me and she's going to tell the shrinks. If she makes good on that one, they'll surely take care of making my career shrink. I've got to watch out for those creeps. They'll want to do my head next. No, if she says anything, I'll kill her. Piece of cake. Digitalis and potassium chloride, a little mixture that gets big results. I can see it now: I offer her a drink, spiked with knock-out drops, then I finish her off without leaving a trace. And a suicide note to tie up loose ends. Except that this constitutes a prewritten confession.
I reread and note that I'm planning a murder without the slightest flinch. This time there's no doubt; I'm losing it. All because I always feel like I'm on the outside looking in at my own life. How can I fix that? I don't know how to do anything else. I couldn't even run a car wash.
As it turns out, Chloe's mother is a nurse. So when I mentioned the shock treatment at the Maxwell Institute, she more or less understood the stakes. Still she refuses to trust me until she sees for herself. She doesn't live in LA, unfortunately. I really have to see her in person. The phone is just an obstacle. We quibble, we measure our words, but in the end, reality is elsewhere, in the smiles, the silences, the clenched hands. I guess it isn't really as black as all that. I did manage to get one week's reprieve from the old harpy. Nothing left to do but cross my fingers.
My beautiful forget-me-not is blossoming. She's livelier already, more alert than any other patient on the floor. If I'm not careful, though, I'll fall into her trap. I almost forget that I'm only holding her by the tips of my fingers. If I let go, she'll float right back up into the clouds.
I love her.
I went to see where she lives. Selma Avenue, right in the heart of the worst part of Hollywood. The guys on the ground floor of her building run a gambling den. Some old, torn up curtains pretend to hide the players from outside scrutiny. Guys go in and come out passing along the word. Stakes are high and I didn't hang around.
Chloe didn't lie. Her roommate's name really is Michelle. She's a pre-school teacher. Has my darling nut left her nurse-mother to learn about life with a teacher? Interesting path.
On the second floor, the tenants in the right hand apartment keep tabs on everybody else. For those on the left, tonight's menu features liver. They've left the front door open for a little cross-ventilation - at the expense of anybody going by. My stomach does a little flip. Everything here is grey, brown, dirty. Distilled Bukowski. One more flight of stairs then there, apartment 301: Chloe and Michelle's place.
I rang for a long time. I knew someone was there, I'd seen the light through the peep hole. Finally, a little pointed footstep rewarded my patience. "Who is it?" I imagined a face as pointy as the tiptoeing I'd heard.
"Hello, Michelle. I'm Doctor Levi. I'd like to speak to you about Chloe. Do you have a second?" The choice was her's: either she could open up, or she could listen to the doorbell all evening. I heard the dead bolt slide back and several chains drop. I had put on my raincoat and fedora for the occasion. I was playing straight Marlowe, but with the added benefit of hiding my receding hairline. To make a long story short, the girl asked me in, but no further than the front hall. It was hate at first sight. Too tidy, too pale. When I saw her button down pink striped shirt and top siders, I had a flash about Mrs. Lazarus and got right down to business. "Chloe says that you are a teacher. Do you work in the area?"
"Over on Lexington. What do you want to know about Chloe? Its not my fault. She shares the rent. We see each other in the evenings, that's all."
"Do you sleep together?"
I threw the question at her like a cop, right in the face. She didn't blink. I guess that's how I saw the word murder flash across her eyes.
"And what business is that of yours?"
She was right. It was none of my business, I just need to poke around in Chloe's life. I explained about the electroshocks and all. She didn't seem wildly upset. She's stiff, icy, but she's got nothing to fear. She's already a zombie. I felt like telling her so, and just when I opened my mouth, she cut me off.
"I've had enough of that wacko. Before they took her to the hospital, she dismantled all the bedroom furniture because there was a spirit inside. Now she's a flower - and flowers don't pay rent. So what do you want me to do?"
"Just give her another chance."
I took advantage of the opening to delve deeper into their relationship. They met through the classifieds, for strictly real estate purposes. Michelle is broke, like all teachers, and given the neighborhood, she didn't want to live alone. I can understand that, but I defend my Chloe:
"She's no crazier than a Khmer Rouge."
"That has nothing to do with it."
"How do you know?" The night before, I'd seen The Killing Fields.
We spent five more minutes going in circles like that. I remember having to look at the hardwood linoleum for a long time while she rattled on; her frustrations gave her bad breath. And then, suddenly, it hit me that the Holidays are coming up, and I had to do something nice to warm up that goulag.
"I could put up a Christmas tree to welcome Chloe home". "Don't you think its a bit early?" was all the bitch found to say in reply.
I got one just the same. Heaving my potted pine up the stairs, it occured to me that maybe I am just a little nuts. But putting up the decorations, I felt light at heart. That's a good sign.
"That's it?!" Maria flipped back to the date of the last entry: Saturday, December 9th. A full two months before the accident. The absolute silence told her, even before she glanced at the clock, that it was the middle of the night, but that didn't stop her from dialing the number of Fitzgerald's portable. She got the answering machine. She left a terse message, then paced around the room.
"Bastard! Greedy mother- . . ." Cursing was all she could do until he called her back - or showed up at his office, which ever came first.
There was no point in even trying to sleep, but maybe she could use these quiet hours to catch up on some work. She sat back down at her desk and pulled a dossier off the top of the closest pile.
Half an hour later, still cursing, she admitted the futility of even a productive distraction. She grabbed her coat and car keys and headed down to the garage.
Driving around usually helped focus her thoughts, but with tonight's suspension points just hanging on air, her questions only lead her in circles. The car, at least, got her out of the hamster wheel, because when she finally stopped, she found herself parked in front of David's house. Nice, but nothing out of the ordinary; well maintained, lawn mowed. Very upper-middle class LA, all its secrets locked safe inside.
From there, Maria drove down to Chloe's. A quick pause next to the bar across the street only made her realise that she didn't even know which windows to look at.
At six AM the phone rang.
"I wondered when you'd call," Fitzgerald opened.
"Where's the rest it?" Maria shot back.
"Meet me at the coffee shop on XXX in twenty minutes." He hung up before she could say another thing.
"What are you trying to pull?" she hissed as he slipped in beside her on the vinyl bench. He jerked the cigarette out of the corner of his mouth and blew the smoke above her head before saying,
"I knew you wouldn't lay out four grand for unknown goods."
"And you think I'm going to give your two more now?"
"No. Now the price is six total. The two I already have, plus four more."
"Four thousand more?! Are you CRAZY?!" Her exasperation and stress forced the last word out much louder than she intended. With a quick glance he told her to keep her voice down. He looked back down at the burning cigarette he was sharpening in the ashtray.
"There are two more notebooks. Take it or leave it."
"You know I can have you arrested for with-holding evidence from the cops?"
"Sure you can, but I know you want to see the journal before they do."
Which really was the long and short of it, Maria reflected as she replayed the scene in her mind on the way home. He had her. An expensive pill to swallow, but the important thing was now she had the rest of the journal - she checked the date of the last entry before she let Fitzgerald leave. Wednesday, February 5th, two days before David's arrest.
Wednesday, 13 December
Writing, the vital impulse.
Lena is sleeping and I've got the whole night ahead of me. This week I won't get behind. I'll take notes every day, all in a jumble, but every day. This strange mania keeps me from sleeping, even when I'm exhausted. Its like a drug. I have to spill my guts, to vomit all over the paper. Its scary though, because when I can face rereading, I hear that other guy, the con-artist, the cynic who hustles his way through life. The objective facts are the same - I'm not making anything up, its only the lighting that changes. And when the lights are up, I feel like I really am someone. One thing though, before I die, I want to meet the guy who runs the lights.
I don't even bother trying to understand them anymore. While my patients fret, I scribble, and while I scribble, I listen, barely. Just enough to catch the pauses and insert the necessary "uhum". At night I take the prescription pad home and recopy my musings into these notebooks. I classify, I sort. And its that much less time I have to spend alone with Lena. On good nights, I'm rich and famous. I burn my royalties on weekends in Cabo with some sixteen year old Lolita. But as a general rule, things end badly; I get knifed in a dark alley by some Dutch sailor, or maybe a Swede, but always strong and blond like a homosexual fantasy. I write everything down. I daydream, and from one page to the next, time passes.
Monday: a hectic day. The media were all in an uproar over an alleged outbreak of spinal meningitis in three counties. All I got out of it was a day on the phone doing PR work.
"What did you say? Vomiting? And what's he doing now? Basketball? Don't worry. Let him play."
I did play the quack a couple of times, though, just to cover expenses. Old hag Fisher deserved it. I peered up her nostrils for a long time, and finally, put on one of my confident voices,
"Not to worry, Mrs. Fisher, this will eventually clear up. You're a fighter." Worked like a charm. She made another appointment for next week and while we were at it, I referred her to my excellent colleague down the hall for lab work. We're not on the ten percent referral rate yet, but he does regularly send over a few cases Napa's finest. I couldn't resist. The old bat lives on Easy Street; she collects insurance policies. My scruples are crumbling. Mr. Hyde lurks behind every corner. It seems we all go through this, it happens every day. And I'm not the worst. Mr. Adler's visit on Tuesday confirmed that. When I asked him to remove his coat so I could take his blood pressure, he gave me a funny look then sniffed that his other doctor didn't make him undress. Most instructive.
Today was kiddie day and most of them were brats. The exception, of course, is sweet Nicole. Six years old and sprouting wings. Two new rows of feathers show in her latest blood count. Fifteen times too many white blood cells and she's already haemorrhaged twice. Doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure this one out.
My muse pretends to desert me, but in the night I can feel that she hasn't really gone far. I wait. Time gallops past, telling me to erase all reference points, stop marking the days and just let life come, here and now. LA drifts off to sleep. The houses on the hill go dark one by one. Only the Hollywood sign does night watch with me.
Nightmares curl sticky tentacles around my chair. A feast of blood and flames. Diaphanous and deadly white, Lady Leukemia grabs my little girl. Says Nicole needs a playmate. I scream. NO, get out of here, bitch! I'll get help from the Devil himself, if that's what it takes, but you won't get her! Severed limbs and evil smiles, another interlude features cherubic Khmer kiddies inserting bamboo under the nails of suspect intellectuals. My mind wanders on to Michelle and other assholes. I'm so sick of everything. I'll take up anti-goy literature, spew hate and find myself a rich widow to mistreat. Right. I don't even have the guts to kick out the baby Nazis who pollute my practice. These days they multiply like roaches. Last week I found a poster in my waiting room, "Faurrisson is right, the camps never existed", signed The Revisionist Movement. Slime has a signature. Sometimes, when I'm at the end of my rope, I'm sure I could skin them alive. Other times I think I'd rather let myself be killed. Just get into one of their fucking cattle cars and off we'd go to the camps. As simple as that. If men are so evil, its not worth living.
Why is it that when I let my mind wander it always makes a beeline back to Death? Is it a Jewish thing? Maybe my serotin level is low. For sure I don't get out enough, and I don't get enough sex. Lena's more and more distant. Maybe its my fault, but something always gets between us. Tonight, while I was in here writing, I heard them laughing in Maggie's room. It was pink and luminous, an aura of happiness in the middle of all my gloom. I didn't have the right to intrude. All this unhappiness, all these worries, hollow me out. I knew I'd spoil everything. OK. That's enough. Freud kicked the bucked whispering, "What's the use?" I have to keep my head above water.
Yesterday, Arny's brother, Lucas, came by. Arny is an old med school buddy, like Ben. He's high society, too. His father has a few galleries here and there; Beverly Hills, Paris, New York. An infallible nose for art that keeps the dough rolling in. What goes around comes around. His kids all have the problems that go with it. Arny's on Valium. Lucas is on coke. A real Ashkenazi, old Lucas, blond as a Ukranian. Used to be into body building and wind surfing. He was actually fairly well-balanced when I first met him. Now, his six foot five, 130 pound frame, could hang glide without a wing. He talks to me about his conjunctivitis, about his singing career, about his disintegrating left nostril. That's why he came, by the way, a little hello in passing. He's so cliché its almost funny. Too bad its no good for the image of the office.
We always begin our appointments with a little friendly banter. He pretends he's just dropped by. Rule number one: never tell things like they actually are. Mustn't let on that he's reached the end of his rope and we both know it. He's hardly slept a wink since the ants and spiders started cavorting on the bed. This morning I'm sure he did his last line not five minutes before coming in. Probably right in the parking lot. Luckily the Porsch has tinted glass. His eyes dart from one thing to another while he rubs his sweaty palms together -- classic symptoms. Good old Lucas. I look at him and paste on a smile to match his own sociable mask.
"You aren't putting on any weight. What brings you in?"
He snickers sheepishly: "Just wanted to say hi. You know those vitamins you gave me last time?"
"You need some more?"
"Yeah. I've been kind of overdoing lately. I've got to get back in shape."
"Why not go to Club Med?"
"Can you see me down there? Give me a break! No, you have all I need to get myself going again. I just need some vitamins and a little sleep. The record really drained me."
That's Lucas for you: everything is always almost finished. All that counts is that he started. The record is on the tenth re-mix and Papa's footing the bill. Ever polite, I ask about the family. "Arny's raking it in. He just bought himself an office in the new Seagrave Building. He's set now. His balls are covered in gold." I appreciate this image all the more since Arny never had any balls.
I apply the standard treatment with an extra dose of B complex for the appetite, plus little pink pills to raise his spirits and some blue ones for the insomnia. With that he'll be as good as new in two weeks. But Lucas isn't an easy patient. He refuses to be examined, he can't stand to be touched. We negotiate. Just the blood pressure, OK? 180 over 90. All that snow is rusting away the plumbing. Ah come on! Its only numbers. Fine. Whatever you say, Lucas. Time to pay and say good-bye. With a nonchalant flip of the wrist, he tosses an envelope across the desk.
"Enjoy the blizzard." I take a look. There's at least a gram of white vitality inside. Lucas pays in kind. I don't refuse. I'm actually doing him a favor, since he needs a break from this stuff. Last night I did a two line toast to his health. LA-Bogota non-stop on the mirror. I know I shouldn't, but its so good. The city is just waking up and I'm not even sleepy. I've been writing all night. Everything is beautiful, crisp and sparkling. I've got icicles in my head and snowflakes in my veins. I don't feel sick anymore. I'm not afraid. Finally I feel like a real doctor.
* * *
Its hard to stay awake today. My nerves are in shreds after all the poison I shovelled up my nose last night. I swear on my mother's grave, I'll never touch that stuff again. Why can't I tap into that absolutely clairvoyant state, without drugs? Just be pure inside, lucid outside. I'll never make it. Its already too late. A reed, that's what I see when I close my eyes. David Levi, the hollow reed with rotting roots. I bend when the wind rushes through the empty spaces of my being. I make idiotic, syrupy little notes while the gods laugh. The pen slips and I slide back into sleep. Don't let go. Twelve more patiently wait their turn, and if I keep drifting away like this, pretty soon I'll wind up thinking I'm a forget-me-not, too.
I wonder what she's doing right now. Chloe, my little flower tossed in among the shrouds. She must be going over her role like mad. Yesterday we whispered through the dress rehearsal. She's convincing. I think she'll be able to pull it off.
"How are you, Chloe?"
"Very well, Doctor, thank you."
They'll love the "very well" lead in. If things are going "very well", it must be thanks to them, with their pills and shock treatments. They can't imagine anything else. I put myself in their shoes: a virginal, wide-eyed glance around the room, such a polite, soft-spoken patient, who asks only to be cured, how can they not be taken in? She'll be irresistible in her short, blue silk robe. It matches her eyes perfectly. And just a touch of make up, but not enough to suggest a mask. On her feet, that ravishing pair of mules with white pom-poms I gave her last week. They'll be her good luck charm, guiding her steps through the labyrinth.
"And what will you do when you leave?"
"First of all I have to repaint my apartment. It really needs it, there was a flood in the kitchen."
"A moment of distraction?"
"Not on my part! (she'll laugh) No, it was the upstairs neighbor's fault."
All of this is true. I just had to organize a friendly little speech around the anecdotes she told me these two weeks. We're making progress. I found out how she got to this state. One day, her head filled up with dirt. Everything stopped. She was very sick. She stopped talking, stopped eating. And then one morning, when the earth was softened by her father's tears, a flower came up. It was a forget-me-not, and that forget-me-not took up all the space. Hokey, but sincere. She's focused and calm. Sometimes I almost think she's cured for good, but I know there's trouble just below the surface. To save her, we'll have to add more armour over that gaping wound through which her soul escapes. I asked her if she likes mirrors. She said she likes to tell them her private stories.
"What stories? And who do you tell them to?" I played the imbecile.
"To that other person looking back at me. Its me from before, my image floating on the waters of the past. You understand, don't you David?"
Not really, but I keep that to myself. She trusts me, she laughs, she cheats, she loses herself in the game.
"Really Chloe, sometimes you say the damnedest things! You know its just your reflection."
"So what? Forget-me-nots have reflections, too. Mine just doesn't look like me anymore. I'm a forget-me-not speaking to its former self."
"When you say 'forget-me-not' do you mean the flower, or memory?"
She laughs at me: "I don't remember!"
I like these jousts. If she fights back, she must be getting better. I was almost out the door when she called out:
"If you make me grow, I'll love you forever. Otherwise I know I'll die."
I felt like the Little Prince taking care of his rose. It helped me get ready for the next step: a visit to the Top Dog. I'd already checked with the head nurse so I knew he was in. He couldn't refuse to see me. I wanted his permission to attend Chloe's evaluation tomorrow. As the primary physician, its my right, but with these guys it's safer to observe protocol. He received me in the lair where he officiates, half buried under the journals piled up all over his desk. The shade on the room's only lamp was almost opaque with age. I saluted the Great One. He sniffed at me suspiciously. I made myself as small as a mouse, and that seemed to reassure him. He's around sixty; thick, pure white hair. In his 30 years as a neuro-psychiatrist, he's seen so many patients he can't keep them straight anymore. . . His blue-grey pupils gave me goose-bumps. Its a rare condition in mice, but that guy has the look of a real preditor. His reputation is impeccable just the same; dedicated liberal and all that.
"I'm sorry, what were you saying?"
"Lazarus, Chloe Lazarus. Room seven. She was readmitted just over two weeks ago."
"Yes, yes, of course . . . that imbecile Warner's little experiment. Do you believe in all that nonsense?"
I ventured a no. I think that he was alluding to that Marshall, whom I still don't know. A little smile hovered at the corner of his lips.
"She's very pretty. Are you in love with her?"
What was I going to say -- yes? I know you only lie to your parents, or to those you take as such, but honestly, I wasn't about to go into my life story. He is grandiose. A real war lord from the old school -- gentlemen, choose your camp. And choose well; this guy is dangerous. Quick and sly. If I tried my whole life, I'd still never be a match for that old wolf. Men like that don't bother with scruples. They know that nothing is tangible, neither truth nor reason, and they get by very well. And worst of all, he's handsome, too. It's so completely unfair. I'm sure the patients and nurses all worship him, and that he's perfectly capable of gentleness and compunction. I hate him. Nobody should be that perfect!
He looked me up and down with his professional inquisitor's eye. I didn't flinch.
"Do you take drugs?" he asked nonchalantly.
I almost choked. Red Alert. I battened the hatches and plunged the submarine down a few fathoms. I don't think I made a face, I just smiled like someone wondering if he's going to be put in the hole. A good light-year went by before I calmly answered,
"No, I don't think so."
"But you've tried them," he prodded.
I felt steel hooks slowly closing around my poor brain. It was suddenly very hot, and just when I was about to say something stupid, the Maestro said the magic words:
"Excuse me?" I asked in a toneless voice. He repeated: "Permission granted," then he burst out laughing like it was the world's funniest joke. I thanked him, said good-bye and got out of there. I've been warned, he's on guard. Tomorrow he'll be watching me, but I won't flinch. I won't even breathe. Chloe will talk to them and everything will go just fine because we crazy people are cleverer than they are.
Sometimes Fate does all she can to keep us on track. But it only takes is a little perseverance to find some other road to catastrophe. I had a couple more house calls before heading over to the hospital for Chloe's evaluation. I hopped on the freeway only to discover CalTrans finishing up repairs from last Summer's quake. All traffic funnelled into a massive jam on Bellevue. My fellow commuters take things every bit as badly as I do. Hands slam down on steering wheels. Open mouths honk explicatives. Then my motor decided to join the crowd and overheat, too. Can you believe it? On a cold December day! I don't know how the tow truck managed to get through that mess so fast, but I had just the time to cancel my appointments before I found myself standing on the sidewalk in front of the hospital with an eighty dollar AAA bill in my hand. The Bible doesn't mention whether the Good Samaritan got a bonus at the end of the month, but I'd say its about time to ask for one.
Pay, pay, pay. You have to pay for everything. One of these days I'm going to strike it rich, and then Basta! Yeah, like that's really going to happen.
I'm losing it.
On my way across the hospital grounds, the traveling shot continues, interspersed with fast cuts between close-ups of bars and watch towers at impossible angles. Two nurses strolling contentedly under the bare trees. The weather's beautiful, everyone is happy except me. I'm completely out of phase. Two more floors up to the guillotine. No one pays any attention to me, so far so good. The jingle from an old chewing gum commercial bounces inside my head as I climb the last steps. Its annoying, but it helps me calm down. The whole world has gone crazy. There's nothing left but products that talk, and people who do what they say. How much farther is it? There, straight ahead, that open door.
"Good morning, I'm Dr. David Levi, primary physician of the Lazarus girl." My saliva sticks in my throat. The head nurse, friendly as an ironing board, looks up at me over the gold rims of her glasses. She doesn't answer. She allows a vague movement of her chin to show that she's actually registered what I've said. Undaunted, I ask about today's program. She opens her heavy binder, the grimoire where All is written.
"Dr. Hamilton arrives at ten. You can wait here, but put this on before he comes." She hands me a lab coat, takes out her pass key and opens the door to the glass-walled aviary in which the high mass will unfold. The wolf pups romp while waiting for Alpha Dog. They barely notice me, which is just fine.
"What's on the agenda?"
"Fuentes, the paranoïd psychotic they brought in last night. There, see him down there on the left?" The intern points out a delicate young man backed into a corner. The other patients avoid him. The examination room overlooks the common "recreation facility". From that voyeur's paradise we observe any patient perfectly well, their little idiosyncrasies, their precarious habits.
According to his chart, Antonio Fuentes arrived in the United States three years ago after fleeing Peru. A bit of background provided by his wife reveals that his village had been a battle ground between the Shining Path and government forces.
Nine fifty-eight. Look out, he's coming! Coats are readjusted, case studies snap open.
"Gentlemen . . . Dr. Levi." He nods briefly in my direction. An uncomfortable moment, furtive glances ricochet subliminal messages about Father Wolf's mood. The head nurse is seconded by a younger female. They'll both take notes, and I will too, in ostentacious submission to Hamilton's greater authority. Today's lessons begin with the treatment of hallucinations.
"You all remember, of course, the exemplary case of Mrs. Farelli, who one day, in the midst of sexual orgasm, experienced a sudden revelation that she was the immaculate conception. For several months afterwards, she claimed to be possessed by God, was in direct daily communication with Him, and that she served as His mouthpiece. Today, leaving aside the diverse metaphysical questions that such a case might raise, I underline the fact that, upon her arrival here, she was completely incapable of functioning in society. All our therapeutic resources were put into play and, as Dr. Mitchell here will attest, shock treatment was immensely useful. I should add that we had immediately ordered psychotherapeutic support and a maintenance treatment of neuroleptics. After an amphobolic phase -- for the definition I refer you to the photocopies -- this hesitant personality distanced herself little by little from her delusions; to the point where she could stop them entirely and even laugh about them. Any questions?"
Dr. Mitchell nods in approval, pens jiggle across paper; you'd have to be mad to dare the slightest objection.
"No? Fine then. We shall examine the problem of treatment in greater detail after this morning's consultations. For the moment, if you would be so good as to have the first patient come in . . ."
He turns toward the head nurse, then suddenly fixes his gaze on one point in the assembly. All eyes converge.
"Well well, my dear young colleague, I see that we have a fondness for pointed shoes? I hope that you are not unaware of the significance of such preferences . . ."
Dead silence, like the first fifteen seconds after an earth quake. The blood drains from the incriminated intern's face and his eyes drop from Dr. Hamilton's gaze to his own black cowboy boots.
"No comment, young man?"
Everyone snickers; no one misses a trick here. I was the only one not to break up. Prudent just the same, I don the necessary smirk, because its not over yet -- the coup de grace is still to come. The Master breathes deeply; like an actor sizing up his audience, he smiles, he takes his time. The pack is all ears.
"No offence, of course, but I would like to point out that, aside from their contusive form, your, how shall I put it? your . . . shoes? are distinctly elevated at the heel. You wouldn't be living above your means by any chance?"
"I don't understand, sir."
"Frankly, I'd have been surprised if you had." Hamilton's carnivorous smile does nothing to soften the thinly disguised gloating. He hit the nail on the head, but this time no-one is laughing. Everyone is looking at their own feet, me included. I start to panic; with a joker like that, if Chloe screws up, I could have a new job modelling straight-jackets. Fortunately Antonio Fuentes has just entered the arena. I take advantage of this distraction to slip away from my neighbor who has been eyeing my graffiti a little too closely.
"Well then, what seems to be bothering this young man?"
"Delusions of persecution. He is convinced that the police are drugging his food and drink." The clinical chief renders the verdict.
"Thank you, Dr. Mitchell. Well, gentlemen, ladies, have you made your diagnosis?"
The group murmurs faint acquiescence. The patient stands in the middle of the room, distrustful but subdued. He is obviously uncomfortable with so many "important" people staring at him. He plays nervously with a buttons on his shirt. Hamilton begins the session.
"Good morning, Mr. Fuentes. May I call you Tony? Well, Tony, what can we do for you?"
"I wan to go home. I wan Stella. Where is Stella? Why she leave me here?"
"The patient's wife, sir. For those of you who haven't had time to familiarise yourselves with the case. . ." Dr. Mitchell offers information as if the patient were not actually in the room. It's the sort of well rehearsed routine which saves Chiefs everywhere the trouble of actually reading charts. Mitchell goes on to describe an event from the patient's formative adolescent years. One day, a bomb went off at the house across the street. Tony saw his neighbor blown off the porch and half-way across the yard. He ran to help the man, but there wasn't much he do against impending death. Tony cradled the victim in his arms, turning the man's head so that he wouldn't see his intestins spilling over the ground.
"Where is Stella?"
"We'll see about that later, Tony. Right now we'd just like you to tell us"
"WHERE IS STELLA?" Tony's voice raises in pitch and volume.
"Why don't you just sit down so we can help you," Hamilton's tone is more command than invitation. Tony remains standing, his face crumpled into a knot of fear and stress. Tears break through with his next words, "I didn't do nothing. I don't know nothing. Please don't hurt me."
"Who wants to hurt you, Tony?" a little too sharply.
"The police, they want to make me crazy. They putting things in my food, they watch me all the time, to make me crazy! Stella!" By the end of this speech, Tony's words are hardly disguishable from his whining sobs.
"Fine. That will be all Tony. Nurse, please take the patient back to his room."
But this prospect frightens the young man even more than the idea of staying in the presense of all these staring faces. Tony pulls away when the head nurse approaches, "NO! NO!"
Hamilton barks an order: "20 cc. Now!" - immediately acted upon by Mother Wolf. Tony collapses into the arms of an orderly who appears out of nowhere.
A ringing silence blankets the consultation room. I hold back clearing my throat in order to avoid any misinterpretation.
"Any observations, or suggestions for treatment?"
A young intern raises a tentative hand.
"Perhaps with the use of "de-shock" treatments like those used with the Vietnam Vets . . ."
"Miss, we aren't in film school here. That remark is in no way medical. What is your name?"
"Reinberg, sir. Esther Reinberg."
"Any relation to the jewelers?"
"No sir, not that I know of . . ."
"You don't know much. Come see me in my office later. Other questions?"
No more candidates for suicide. The atmosphere is heavy with fear as each of us ponders his own ineptitude. The Master savors the moment. I'm sure that deep down inside of him, there's another who pities the empty existence of these boot lickers. He looked disillusioned when he ordered Tony knocked out. I thought I saw . . . what? No, I must have been dreaming. What can he know about hopelessness?
Is he talking to me?
"Oh, you know. I'm not a specialist, but, seeing his slightly feminin side, I couldn't help thinking of the case of President Schreiber."
Better stay as vague as possible. I try to wriggle out by pretending to write -- miracle, it works! When I raise my eyes, we exchange a small smile of complicity; yes my boy, you're one of us. Grandpa Wolf is walking on air. He must be flattered by my assiduousness. Or worse, maybe he imagines that I understand him. I'm ashamed of myself. I'm acting just like the other pups, kow-towing to him. But now I feel responsible; it must be the Moses complex.
"Nurse, take note . . ." Hamilton condemns the young man to a trial period of drooling amnesia, then pre-emptorily turns the page:
Stroke of luck, its Chloe's turn. The room loses its fluorescent green tinge and warms to a golden glow. I levitate a couple of feet above my chair. No mistake, I'm in love. She calmly follows the big lug of a student nurse who's acting as her mentor. As arranged, she's wearing the baby-blue robe. Its going to work. Its got to work, otherwise I'll just have to get myself committed so I can be near her. My God, what splendor. Even the head nurse can feel it. Chloe stands next to her chair, for fifteen seconds, in a state of grace. Everyone else sits, mouths hanging open, captivated by her magic. That's how I like my schizophrenia: the timeless incandescense of a madonna's face, sheltered from all the ugliness of the world. But I'm not objective. My notes make that abundantly clear. Her aura is real, nonetheless. I can see it reflected in the faces of these dogs. They start thinking hard, searching desperately for a way to drag her down to the same muddy level of the rest of the world. The Master saves them the trouble with a simple:
"Don't let yourselves be fooled. Reread Bleuler and you will see that Miss Lazarus is currently in a productive phase. Without treatment her mental state will rapidly deteriorate. Its the irreversible schizophrenische Defekt in the terminal stages. Left on her own, you would soon see her walking around, arms raised to the heavens, staring straight up toward who knows what paraphrenic deity . . ."
He concludes, "It's inevitable."
I feel sick.
"Please have a seat, my dear."
Chloe settles into the little white chair in center stage. The assembly listens religiously. Telepathy or coincidence, just when I wish it, Chloe turns towards me. The shock is instantaneous, contact established. Our eyes lock together. I know everything she's thinking, she's knows I'm with her, in her. We're going to play a little game, sweetheart. Its very easy. You'll say the "open sesames" that unlock the prison gates: "I want to work. Please let me go back home." Now!
She remembers. I imagine that if Jesus came back today, he'd end up crucified on a bed and bloated with cortisone, but my little angel won't let them have their way. I may be damned, but I'll help her, and together we'll beat them. Go on, darling, say something.
She shuts me out abruptly and draws in on herself. Poor little snail. She's just had her horns jostled. She hates it when people intrude on her world like that, especially when the life currents are flowing toward someone she loves. But the sadist presses on:
"Miss Lazarus? . . . You may note, gentlemen, that the term, 'turning in on oneself' is not overstated. If we may not yet wish to speak of full blown schizophrenia, we might already raise the possibility of schizoid behavior."
The irrepressible Reinberg raises her hand. She's got nothing else to lose and pushes that advantage.
"Is it really useful to make a diagnosis when even the definitions aren't clear?"
"What do you mean?"
"Psychoanalysis is a . . ."
Cut! The unspeakable has just been said. Hamilton bristles.
"Miss Reinberg, may I remind you that Lacan's idolaters have more suicides than cures to their credit? We will continue this conversation later."
The trouble maker smiles fatalistically. She's brave, but out of her league. Ninety-nine-to-one, she's in analysis herself.
"Good. Let's take up where we left off . . . Miss Lazarus? Do you hear me?"
Chloe hasn't moved, she's frozen in the position where his first question surprised her. I'm having a tough time writing. I want to get up and shake her; we're losing precious time. In my mind, I call out to her with all my might. I wrap her in a protective bubble. I stroke her hair. I'm only ten feet away. She has to feel it. I want to believe it. I have to believe it. I believe it so strongly that it works. She raises her head and answers with assurance:
"You can call me Chloe, everyone does."
Hamilton studies her warily. Something is wrong but he's not sure what. He's dazed. Me, too.
"How do you feel?"
She glances furtively at me. I answer with a quick wink. We play our cards close to the chest.
"Just fine, but I want to go home?"
Hamilton jumps on the questioning lilt and asks her to repeat. Fifteen seconds of silence. She smiles sweetly. I bite my lip.
"I want to go back home." This time it came out clearly. The group lets out a sigh, because they, too, know the stakes. She's won them over. She knows it and plays on, but now is is the dangerous part. She's got to hold them.
"And what are your plans for when you get home?"
She thinks. The silence is absolute, no one even writes anymore. She's playing for her head, literally. Hamilton has already implied that if she loses, her consolation prize will be sismotherapy, as they so quaintly put it in the electroshock room.
"I'd really like to repaint the apartment before Christmas. And, if this goes on much longer, I'm going to lose my job."
Works every time.
She questions me with her eyes, "Is that right?" Yes, honey, you're doing fine, but don't look at me so much, just go ahead.
Somewhat at a loss, Hamilton asks to see her file. I pity the intern who wrote it.
"First hospitalisation one month ago; a premature release about which I shall make no comment; No, Miss Reinberg! Who's taking care of her now?"
A red-faced Mitchell stammers an explanation, a soft murmur spreads around the room, the head nurse intervenes:
"The new intern hadn't been named, and you weren't back from your va, I mean, your conference, sir."
"Ah yes, that was it."
He stares at me, suddenly suspicious.
"Have you been her primary physician for a long time?"
I decide upon the truth.
"No, the first time I saw her was when I sent her back to you. But I find her to be much improved."
"Please, no hasty conclusions! What do you think, Mitchell?"
Mitchell thinks about his future. He's worked like a dog for ten years to get this far and he's not taking any risks for some schizo.
"You're right, I think. Indeed, one mustn't jump to hasty conclusions after only one consultation."
"Indeed, you know how to use the word 'indeed'. You will go far, Mitchell." The Maestro's mood has soured. Something escapes him, his prey perhaps. He turns back to me. All eyes focus on my face, ready for the massacre.
"Are you familiar with her living conditions?"
"Decent, sir. She shares a small apartment with a young teacher. Its just a couple of minutes from my office. I'll be able to visit her every day."
He bares his canines: "No doubt you will! But this girl is psychotic, and don't forget the distance between the oral and the genital stages. Avoid any flirtations or you might be in for more than you bargained for."
"The distance between oral and genital . . . about arms' length, wouldn't you say, sir?" I couldn't resist. Everyone bursts out laughing. Chloe looks at me, disconcerted. She feels betrayed; I reassure her with a glance. One nano-second is enough. Its amazing, but from another point of view, it makes me nervous. How is such fusion possible? I must have come half way without even realising it. If I'm losing my marbles, I'll have to be extra careful so that no-one else notices.
"What do you think?"
Hamilton just smiles.
"I suggest we let the week-end go by. If the patient continues to improve, we'll release her Tuesday. I'm counting on you to follow up on the case. Don't let her wander around . . . All right, my dear, you may return to your room."
She leaves. I pray she won't turn around and my prayer is answered: a dignified exit, she was perfect right to the end.
"Gentlemen, getting back to the theme of hallucinations, we left off with the case of that woman . . ."
I continued to write for a while. To make a graceful escape, I got up, nodded - which Hamilton pretended not to notice. The head nurse opened the door, and I slipped noiselessly back into the corridor. I was extatic, but controlled myself until I reached the sidewalk. Then I let out the burst of crazy laughter that was pounding at my throat. I've got to be careful, though. They have ears everywhere.
I'm back at the Unexpected. Its a filthy dump, but I feel at home here. Over dinner, Lena and I had one of those fights where she dishes out venomous comments in her cold, measured voice. I never have any good come backs. The more I fume, the colder she gets. She says I'm arrogant and distant. That's so funny coming from my teutonic duchess. She's the one shutting me out. She says that if I find out home so unpleasant I can always find another. She admits it would be hard for Maggie (who was already in bed while this was going on - thank God for small favors!), but probably no worse than the confusion and pretense we have now. That's german efficiency for you - right for the jugular. Just like that, she'd take away my daughter! If she does, there's not a thing I can do about it. Judges always favor the mother. And on the off chance the judge was sympathetic to me, how could I ever take care of a little girl with my fifteen hour days?
So here I am drowning my sorrows, like all the other model citizens hunched over the bar. The cream of Venice society is here. Empress Monique wears her blond wig like a crown. Her husband scurries his remaining tufts of hair back and forth behind the bar. The whore-in-residence, is an exact clone of the one who gave us Kismet. She guzzles like a Cadillac, but maintains a certain dignity. I should follow her example. I 'm just kind of slumped over the table, in what I already consider "my corner". I have a nostalgic thought for what was his name? That nutty guy who wastes the time he steals. Ivan. I'll probably never see him again, so I lift my mug to his health, then set it down empty on the formica.
It's a struggle.
My life, of course. Its just one mirage after another: healing, integrity, freedom. All these words tinkling in my head like little Tibetan finger bells. Quit worrying, you only make it worse. Great advice, but I worry anyway.
If I screw up and Chloe has a relapse, I'll have them all on my back. Even if they don't break it, they'll push me right out of the medical profession and onto Skid Row. Opposition to psychiatry isn't in these days. No one would stand behind me.
I could always become a philosopher. From the depths of my own emptiness, I'd deconstruct this hollow world. Too bad its already been done. Too bad it doesn't pay! Oh well, I wasn't born with any great talent for it anyway. I'm just David, twenty-third Levi on page two hundred eighty-seven of the phone book. I'll just have to hang in there. Tomorrow I'll get her out of that hole and to Hell with all the rest!
Today all I did was cater to the masses, writing out the prescriptions that will keep them coming back. A blue pill for the nerves, a pink pill for appetite, a pill for the arteries, another for sex. As soon as they've tried my little cocktails, they're hooked for six months. All's fair in love and war. Other doctors pile on the pills - keeps both the pharmaceutical industry and the patients happy. And every time I've tried to lower the quota, its blown up in my face.
"Oh, Mrs. Smith, how are you today?"
"So-so, Mr. Jones, only so-so. I saw young Dr. Levi yesterday. He wouldn't give me anything for my condition. He claims it will clear up all by itself."
"Well, just between you and me, with Dr. Ives' treatment, I was back on my feet in three days. You should give him a try."
I'm starting to think that if there is one eternal truth, its that nobody wants the truth. So why play Don Quixote? I'll find my salvation elsewhere, with Chloe, for example, or with Mia. That Amazon called me again this morning for another confidential chat. It seems Nadir is turning taciturn. She'd better watch out.
At six twenty-five, just as I was starting to close shop, Mary Lou dropped in. Pure poetry. We know each other by sight, I've passed her spot on Sunset at least a thousand times. Contrary to what you might expect, her visit isn't motivated by an STD, its her feet. You can't even imagine what agony these girls go through. Mary Lou's toes are raw. When she took off her shoes, the skin came with. Tears followed right behind. She took advantage of the situation to hit me up for a vial of morphine.
Was I wrong to give it to her? If I had the guts to write the letter, I'd ask the Medical Board mummies. Mary Lou is incredibly sexy. A real blond with a touch of Texas twang. Very slim, and very young. I could hardly keep my eyes off her new silicone inserts - her surgeon did a really good job. If I hadn't known her before, I'd say they were real. The little hussy kept glancing up at me with this Clara Bow pout. She knew she was driving me crazy. The whole time, I fought this urge to fuck her right there on the desk. But you've got to be careful with hookers. They have a tendency to try to pay in kind, which doesn't keep you up on the rent. I swallowed hard and asked if she had health insurance. "What do you think?" she says with a smile.
I informed her, as if she didn't know, that most of her colleagues get theirs through massage parlours.
"Yeah? I'll think about it."
This could have gone on for a long time, but she closed up the chat with a hundred dollar bill. "Keep the whole thing, its for the 'medicine', too."
I thanked her. The bill was sticky. I thought about sweat, blood and sperm, but it didn't bother me. I knew I'd done her a good turn.
Mary Lou's silhouette drifted across the front window, and the bell rang again. It never misses, every time I make plans to go home early something happens. This time it was a stressed out junior executive. I almost sent him away, but he really insisted. He claimed that he was leaving for a skiing trip, that he had a bad sore throat and that he was afraid because he'd had scarlet fever as a child. Given the cost of malpractice suits, I gave in. A very elegant, soft-spoken guy. The kind who thinks up slogans for ads. I invite him to sit down and say "ahhhh". With the tongue depressor down his throat, I find two yellowish, purulent abscesses. Its not tonsillitis. I ask if he's allergic to antibiotics and before I've even finished the question he assures me that no, and by the way can I give him a skin ointment.
"Its kind of hard to say," he mumbles as he unbuttons his fly.
I sit down to listen.
"I have hemorroids and I think one's getting infected."
That turned out to be a slight understatement. Not one, but five big beautiful red cherries, ripe for the plucking. And worse, along with the hemorroids I found a very deep chancre, right in the middle of the anal cleft. I asked if he's gay. He swore he isn't. He's married but for his birthday he organized a party with some friends from the neighborhood and things got a little hot.
"Friends for hire?" I asked between my teeth. He blushed. I didn't push it. A case of syphilis like this doesn't pop up out of nowhere, especially when it shows as much in the throat as in the ass. Nine chances out of ten he's passed it on to his better half.
"Are you still having sexual relations?" I asked in my most paternal voice. He nodded, relieved to see I've understood the situation. It's going to take enormous tact to explain to the lady that her man has been whooping it up with a bunch of transvestites. Its not exactly the kind of news you send a singing telegram about.
So I took their home phone number. If I can keep this poor woman from winding up a raving, pustule covered lunatic, it'll buy me a few years less in Purgatory, at the very least. Meanwhile, I'll settle for another beer.
Today was the big day. I was ready for anything except what actually happened. I still wonder how we made it through in one piece. Everything went wrong from the word go. My friend Paul lent me his car. He's off to Cambodia for a humanitarian mission with Doctors Without Borders. The problem is that he left at five this morning so I had to go all the way out to LAX to pick it up. My own car won't be ready for another week, and, more good news, fixing it will cost almost what the damn thing's worth. I told the mechanic to go ahead with it, I'm already ruined anyway.
Of course my patients conspired to make me late. But the last one was worth it. Twenty-nine years old and already vice-president in charge of Northern Asia with First United Investment Bank. He had an unusual problem. And no beating around the bush - this guy had no time to lose. Productivity is the keyword, and competivity, and for a good three minutes he went on like that. I was sure he was going to ask for amphetamines, and since I myself was running late, I helped him out by guessing. But I was way off mark.
His problem is that there are hours on end where he just can't keep his mind on work. The worst is the meetings with female collegues. But sometimes he finds himself just staring through the glass partition while his secretary refills the paper tray on the copy machine.
"First United isn't paying me to sit around and wack off all day. The Europeans and the Japanese will do anything to beat us into Manchuria. Doctor, you've got to give me something."
What do I do? Do I tell him that the very impulses he wants to suppress are those which drive him to defend his territory and conquer new worlds? Or do I whip out the Androcur? It's active ingredient does wonders for rapists and pubescent girls prone to acne. Whether I give it to him or not, either way he's screwed.
In the end I decide to let the Manchurians take their chances with the Europeans and Japanese. I suppose my young VP raced to the nearest pharmacy on his way back to the bank.
Chloe's release was scheduled for noon, but it was two o'clock before I got into a cab and headed for the airport. I wondered why I was complicating my life with Paul's car, rather than just go straight to the hospital. Actually, I wanted a private carriage to whisk my princess away; a space with no witnesses where she'd be free if she needed to indulge in her delirious tendencies. Luckily I stuck with this plan because she jumped on the occasion.
Just setting foot in the psychiatric wing, I anticipated a bad scene: Chloe in tears, and me, tail between legs, presenting my excuses to the staff. The very thought made me want to slink back home. But when I got to her room, all my fears flew right out the window. She was waiting patiently, dressed in a long dark skirt and loose, sky blue sweater that really brings out the color of her eyes. An absolute angel with wings folded neatly beneath her long black curls. She smiled as she slipped on her coat and we made our escape. A cold wind pushed us across the parking lot to the car. I held her close to me, she didn't say a thing. I asked several times if they'd given her shock treatment. First she answered yes, then no, in a voice so sweet it pierced a hole right through my heart. We got in the car and half a mile down the road, just when I was finally starting to breathe again, it started pouring cats and dogs. Thick, black clouds cut the afternoon short, and it seemed that all of LA took this cue to catch us in a rush hour net of gridlock traffic. I started telling the other drivers exactly what I thought of them. Chloe looked at me, alarmed. She didn't know me anymore. Until then, I'd always been on my best behavior with her. The trouble is that real life is messy and when I need to let go, I let go. There was a bus ahead of us and OK, maybe I swore a little louder than usual, but that wasn't any reason to jump out of the car, right in the middle of Brooklyn Ave. Raving mad. I ran after her like a good little boy scout, leaving Paul's car right where it was. Very expensive: a hundred and fifty dollar ticket for obstructing traffic. Just the same, I caught her and calmed her down. With anyone else, I'd have exploded. With her, I smiled. Life became simple. We were both soaked like coffee-dunked donuts, but we were happy. I put on my creamiest doctor voice to ask her what had happened. I expected the worst; a sudden anxiety attack, or death wish, but no. Chloe looked at me wide-eyed and stammered:
"I was thinking of something else."
I broke out in a cold sweat at the thought that she could have pulled the same trick at sixty-five miles an hour on the freeway. My head was spinning but this time I remembered to flip the locks on all the doors.
"Where are we going?"
I hadn't really thought about it but I answered automatically, "To your house, why?" and watched my pristine angel turn into a sullen devil. I backtracked. We didn't have to go right away, we could just drive around for a while if that's what she wanted . . . She started yelling:
"I don't want to see them! I hate them!"
"All these people running around."
"What else do you want them to do? It's raining."
"I want to see waves. Waves and seagulls. Let's go to Malibu, come on, David, please!" She pleaded and pouted, like any other spoiled, pretty girl. Crazy as she is, she knows how to get her way. The only thing is that she overlooked a few key details: it was five thirty on a December evening. At dusk, with this rain, there'd be no gulls to see.
"I know," she murmured, "but that's not what counts."
I still had enough sense to see that my china doll just wanted to wrap herself up in a dream. We headed over to Sunset's curves, where she'd see more trees and less people. There'd be less traffic. But if there was less traffic, there was also less road. So I took a deep breath and told myself that with these sheets of rain coming down we would have been going nowhere fast in any case.
On the radio, they were playing one of my favorites; Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn singing Fault Lines. I love listening to this particular tune while looking out over the city at night. In his voice I hear the implacable tension between the geological plates and the foundations of our polished, perfect surface. Everything is slowly cracking up. At any time, one violent sneeze can bring the whole edifice crashing down. And yet, we all still go about our daily lives.
I glanced at Chloe; she was fast asleep. They must have shot her with a good dose of time-release tranq's, and for once I thanked them for it. All I had to do was turn around, and. . . Right. Bumper to bumper traffic going both ways. Even if I managed to squeeze into the tip of somebody's gated-off driveway, I'd never be able to break into the stream of cars heading back to town. No choice but to stick it out.
Just then, Paul's windshield wipers gave up the ghost. Damn! Chloe jumped, wide awake again. I pulled over and stepped out into an overflowing gutter. My next thought was that it must be a problem with the fuses, but it was too late to save my John Lobb's. Three hundred bucks down the drain. I was soaked and mad as hell. As I got back in the car, my coat made a noise like a sponge. Chloe burst out laughing and I hit the roof. I know I shouldn't have yelled at her, but it was out before I could stop myself. The hospital wasn't even two hours behind us and already I wanted to slap gaffers' tape over her mouth. "Just shut up!" I barked. And she did. Deep, deep inside herself. Not a peep. Just like the windshield wipers - absolutely still. Horrible. When her blue eyes fill with clouds and her lower lip starts to protrude, she bears a dangerous resemblance certain clinical descriptions. For three full minutes I begged her pardon. She wasn't interested. The wipers, either.
I can't say how long we were stuck there, with me looking all over for the fuse box and playing with wires, under the hood and under the dashboard. Chloe sat there stiffly the whole time, like an outraged saint. I tried the waves, calling out to her with all my might like during the consultation. She didn't budge. A fine mess, I thought. It echoed through my head in the voice of a chubby ten year old boy laughing with his gangly side-kick, Carlos. I suddenly felt like laughing, too. I looked up at Chloe and, miraculously, she started to giggle a quiet, nervous little laugh. I leaned toward her, her mouth tasted like strawberries. Obviously I couldn't resist. I kissed her, then pulled back saying,
"No, we can't."
How could I explain? I was freezing, she was too. We just sat and held each other. When I finally started up the car, the windshield was blurry with tears. I pretended everything was fine. She pointed out a sliver of white moon tearing through the black clouds and we got back on the road, without bitterness and without wipers.
* * *
I feel Lena's warm body against my side, but I'm not really here. I'm still in the car with Chloe. I know that right at this moment, she's thinking of me, too. I see her eyes in the night, floating above the bed. She whispers,
"remember in the car, remember the rain," and I groan. It's so dark I can't see what I'm writing, or where, until my pen runs off the page onto the sheet. But it will all stop if I turn on the light, and I don't want it to stop. I listen, flip flop, the wipers started working again - all by themselves. Headlights reflected off the broken yellow line disappearing under the hood. She said,
"Come on, David. We don't need them, we can do what we want. Look how ugly they are, making all that senseless noise, destroying everything. We'll just hide here in the grass. We'll open up our heads and fly away, snap, we're inside, snap, we're out. Like this, snap, inside out. I'm the flower and you're the tree."
Its slippery. I could get lost in her logic. She's right; everything is in everything and vice versa. But I can see she's losing it just the same. She talks in the third person, and she sees angels. Its called hebephrenia, but knowing it doesn't get me anywhere. Lena rolled toward me and flung her leg across one of mine. She snores lightly, but weighs at least several tons. She's only matter, dense and abnormal, but I know that I'm the one who's perception is skewed. Chloe's cracks are contagious. The worst thing is, though, that the more the infection spreads, the more I like it. The red numbers on the alarm clock say its six-o-five then transform into leering faces. I haven't slept a wink all night. The sun will be up soon. I hope it isn't as tired as I am.
I call out to my little forget-me-not. Right now I'd give anything to be like Mia Farrow in Alice, flying across the city and landing at your side. Instead I'm trapped in this carcass, sinking deeper and deeper into the mattress. You wanted to sleep in my arms. You were ready to give me everything, and I left you alone in the name of I don't know what therapeutic principle. What a joke. Do you remember?
When we got to your street, a police van was parked across from the gambling parlour, but the players hardly lifted their eyes from their cards. Michelle wasn't there. I wondered if she could be off with a lover, but the look you shot me said that I was way off base. The apartment was dark and silent. Then you flipped a switch and the Christmas tree lights twinkled in celebration. What a good idea that turned out to be! Another scene with you claiming that I didn't respect your privacy, that I wanted to destroy you. I swore that I only wanted your happiness. And in a sudden volte face, you believed me. I took you in my arms, you cried a little. Then you stretched out on your big bed, fully clothed, and fell asleep. I tiptoed out, foregoing a good-bye kiss and I really regret it now.
* * *
I'm out on the edge, completely lost. I always dreamed of being a cosmonaught, but my thing is inner space. Carlos and I used to drop acid, munch mushrooms, smoke opium and ingest through nose, mouth and lungs anything else we could get our hands on. Try anything once. But with Chloe the trip is one hundred percent natural. Every time I ask the roller coaster operator where the brakes are, he snickers,
"Brakes? There aren't any! You just live with it."`
And so I do.
This morning everything felt normal enough with my patients. I did my job competently and earned my pay honestly. Same as always. Except that the crowd in my head is getting bigger and noisier. I can hardly believe no-one else hears it!
I woke up at eight. Lena was up already. Ribbons of coffee scented vapour curled lazily in a sun beam. I thought about Christmas and noticed the tree that Lena bought. How long had that been there? Maggie was humming along with Sesame Street. Cradled in that cosy world, I should have gotten misty-eyed and thanked God for giving me so much. I should have, yes. I even tried. And then I started contemplating my slippers and got hung up on "reality" for the next ten minutes. I didn't snap out of it until Lena came back in the kitchen and asked if I was going on strike. I said I was and when she asked why I parried with:
"Because of the steel jaws of reality." Which is close enough to the truth but just cliché enough to reassure her.
I was late to work, by the regulation half hour. Six poor stiffs were shivering against the door. Delighted with today's clear weather, the mercury plunged to thirty-six degrees, and they all looked at me as if I'd arrived from a hunting party with Hitler. I slipped in; they swept into the waiting room. I stuck on the Brandenbourg concertos to cheer them up while I listened to the answering machine. The first message was from Mia, a sort of brief, ridiculous S.O.S.
"Hello, David? Yesterday was the full moon. We howled all night, I remind you that . . ."
Mysterious, but what else do you expect from a make-up artist? I fast forwarded. Three beeps later, I recognised the ethereal voice of my sweet forget-me-not. It sent shock waves rolling through my body. She said:
"I was with you all last night, I know that you want to leave me, I heard everything, all kinds of horrible, evil thoughts went through your mind, you're afraid, you want me to die, so does this machine, it wants me to die, its stealing my thoughts, I talk and I can't stop, I can't, hello, David, sir, Doctor, I can't . . ."
Ten minutes like that. I kept the tape, it'll make an interesting document for the case history. I'll have to take precautions thought, or she'll harass me day and night. Thank God she doesn't have my cell phone number. What an asshole I am! She says she loves me and all I can think is the inconvenience.
I saw old lady Simon and her mice again. The hamster is no longer with us and she sees this as a sign. This time I found her half buried under potato peelings. She wanted to surprise Kate by making fries for the family - on a propane camping stove right next to the bed! What an idea. Agile as she is, she'd be lucky to only douse herself in boiling oil, never mind the fire hazard.
I helped her clear away some of the mess, which, mixed with the smell of the mice, was getting to be quite something. She tells me she doesn't have much time left. Spirits came to tell her so, and to show her the inside of her belly, which they say is rotting. Its true that the x-rays do show some suspicious growths. Its a bit premature to speak about cancer, though.
"You don't believe me?"
"Yes, yes, of course I do, Mrs. Simon!"
She's a bit deaf, so I have to use one of those irritating, ridiculous stentorian voices I hear in hospitals. Moral of the story: don't judge too quickly.
"I know about these things, my mother was from Crimea, do you know where Crimea is, Doctor?"
"Yes, m'am, I do."
Forty-five minutes like this for the sheer fun of it. Then the usual trick of pretending to accept her money. What else can I do? She's going to die. And what about me? How long am I going to hold on?
On my way up Vine, I noticed a new girl. I slowed down to have a better look. She was well worth a detour. I started to pull over, but a sinister vision of glandular coupling brought me to my senses right away. I locked up lust in the little box where its lived since Maggie was born, and its a good thing I did. It seemed like divine inspiration because when I got home, Lena was decked out in a new dress, and wanted to go out and show it off. I'd have preferred a hot bath and quiet family evening with Maggie. The discussion lasted twenty seconds and, as usual, I gave in. I don't regret it though, its not every day you have a chance to meet your demons face to face.
The Audi is still in the shop, so we piled into Daddy's latest present - a black roadster, and dropped Mag's off at the sitter's. Then we headed up the hill to the Royal Phoenix. Lena wanted her night on the town and since I indulged her in a long time, I thought I'd better do it right. Under her cool facade, I think she's beginning to worry about my absences. Obviously she organised tonight's excursion to reach out and remind me that she needs love, too. Her efforts were truly touching. I felt like a real shit. I should get down on my knees and beg her forgiveness. Why do I only love her when she's suffering?
The restaurant is divided into small alcoves of three tables each set around an indoor garden. The decor provides both a sense of privacy and space. The alcoves on the South have a view of the city, the other sides look onto carefully tended flowerbeds. A perfect setting for our little reconciliation. The cast of characters, however, was another story. Either the crack inside my head just got wider, or I'd better start praying. When we arrived, everything seemed normal. I latch onto that word like a life-preserver because things got very strange afterwards. Just as I raised my glass in tribute to my wife's loveliness, these two guys sat down at the table next to ours. That was annoying enough, considering the place was nearly empty, but never mind. I should have minded.
Up to that point the facts are precise. I know this isn't a relapse of the Chloe syndrome. I'm not delirious! They were there, about two yards from our plates. I put up my mental shield and turned on the selective hearing. Lena has the same technique, but somehow these two jokers slipped under our guard. The individual sitting across from me had the right look for it: a stunning surfer dude, winking at me lasciviously from under his blond curls. To get a good look at the other guy I had to turn my head. I didn't want to but found myself doing it anyway. I had this flash of Rasputin at the age of fifty: wild eyed and wild hair, ruffled up like an eagle preening itself. From the moment he sat down, he was running a verbal marathon. He punctuated his anecdotes with huge gulps of food, as if trying to fill up all the empty space left behind by the words. His feast began with spring rolls. He inhaled five or six in a flash and, while his friend pecked at a squid salad, embarked on an extraordinarily baroque account of his travels. This served as a pretext for the strangest culinary comparisons. But kangaroo in mango sauce and moray eel with cocoa were only hors d'oeuvres to whet our curiousity. The demon orated in a deep, rumbling sort of voice, full of infinite irony that sharpened each word. I lent an ear, then two. Three minutes later, the trap snapped shut. Lena looked the old eagle straight in the eyes. Its rare that she loses at that game; but with him she didn't last one round. When she put down her chop sticks, I could see she was trembling. Another disturbing detail, in the fifteen minutes since those two clowns came in, we hadn't exchanged a single word. We were literally spellbound. And then a tiny phrase slipped out in the verbal diarrhea of our neighbor, three little words that struck us like lightening:
"Lena is sad."
I was sure I'd misunderstood, but when I looked at Lena I saw that she'd misunderstood, too. Time seemed frozen. Rasputin took a moment to reflect while he swirled his wine in his glass, then they went on along the same lines. I say "they", but in fact the surfer had nothing to say. He contented himself with nodding approval to his elder's every word. I had the distinct impression that he was laughing at me. Then the older one said:
"You remember Lena, the darling of the Beverly Hills High School boys. What a little prude!" He laughed very loudly and added, "I sized her up tonight, though, and she's ripe for the picking."
I took the blow right under the rib cage; Lena did go to Beverly Hills High. When I lifted my eyes, she was extremely pale.
Between two mouthfuls, I finally managed to whisper:
"Do you know them?"
She shook her head and then I really started to feel bad. I'm not completely nuts yet, I know what I'm doing. I just reread, and every line evokes a precise image. Those guys exist, I have a sketch to prove it. But I'm getting ahead of myself, if I don't stick to the chronology I'll mix everything up.
I glanced over at Rasputin and found myself instantly pulled in by his grey pupils. Their color was strange enough, but the effect they had on me was worse still. It was like I couldn't clearly make out any other features, just the mocking embers of his eyes. I tried to convince myself that he was only telepathic, but then he added, without ever losing eye contact,
"And look who we have here. Heir to St. Thomas with all his doubts. He'll be ours soon, but its really no fun if he does half the work for us." No way to even pretend he wasn't talking about me. He even went on in this playful tone about me losing my way in a mountain of mud. And in fact, just last night I dreamed of a rainstorm on a lifeless, rocky road following a high cliff. I was stumbling along in the mire, my feet in tatters. How could he know that?
I tried a diversion by starting up a conversation on the Magritte exhibition. The ball was in Lena's court and she sent it right back. We volleyed on like this for five valiant minutes until I made the mistake of rhapsodising on the charms of his trompe l'oeil universe. "He's certainly giving it a good shot," the old one remarked generously. Adonis snickered in reply. Lena looked at me with such an air of utter defeat that it stuck in my throat. That old goblin kept it right up. He pulled another two or three tricks out of his hat, but shut up long enough for me to ask for the bill. With an air of wrapping up he tossed out cavalierly,
"But to be perfectly fair to him, at this point, going on with her is just giving up on life." His pal nodded again while giving me a sardonic glance. A boiling, churning rage began to wrench me apart. I was about a half an inch from bashing their heads with our wine bottle. I can just see the headlines:
"Local doctor goes berzerk. Attacks innocent neighbor in restaurant." The cops swarm in and I have no explanation. So much for my reputation! Luckily the owner himself brought the bill at that very moment. He's Korean, a real Confucius type. He had another piece of paper in his hand, and turning his polite, calm mask to our neighbors, he bowed deeply.
"Good evening, sir, I am very honored by your presense in our humble establishment. Perhaps you will kindly indulge an old man and accept this clumsy tolkein . . . Sketching is sort of a hobby of mine . . . You excuse me, I hope. Would you like to look?"
Rasputin took the paper then burst out laughing. People seated across the restaurant turned our way. I got a glimpse of the work: it made me think of Van Gogh, or the efforts of a Parkinson's disease victim on acid. But within the jumble of moving lines there was a mouth, a nose, bushy hair. It was him alright, and yet it didn't look like any specific person.
"The challenge is that you change all the time, " explained our subtle host. He had hit upon the essence of the problem, but somehow, I remember exactly what that guy looked like. A long face with terrible teeth and a myriad of little laugh lines at the corners of his incandescent eyes. Was I dreaming? No way! Right now its eleven seventeen. I see my notebook, my hand, the alarm clock. I'm completely lucid. And I know Lena saw him, too.
I can write, therefore, without shame, that when I saw that sketch, my blood ran cold. I couldn't help thinking of the Beast of the Thousand Faces. Not possible you say. No modern mind, much less a scientific one, could ever begin to admit the possibility. The Devil doesn't exist! And yet . . . He took the drawing, contemplated it for a long time before saying,
"This is worth of a poem. Here," he turned back to me, "a souvenir of this lovely evening." I took it. Then I quickly paid the bill and we left. Now that little piece of paper is right here, between two pages of this journal. I don't ever want to see it again, but can't bring myself to throw it away. Does everything need an explanation? I don't know, but we stood in front of the restaurant for I don't know how long, just staring into the whites of each other's eyes. Finally Lena broke the spell, whispering the question I would have given anything to avoid:
"Do you really think that if we go on together. . .?
"Just kiss me." I didn't have to say anything more. We clung to one another like some Hollywood Final Kiss, then drove aimlessly around the hills. Neither of us wanted to be alone, just the two of us, side by side in bed. But the sitter was waiting. Finally, around two o'clock, I proposed a truce. Lena wiped away a tear. We smiled, and for some weird reason, I wished I were dead.
* * *
When I was young, until last night that is, I was terrified of being depressed. Chronic depressives made my skin crawl and except for a few troubled James Dean types, my favorite patients were the life of the party variety. But now its caught up with me. Last night surely played its part, but all day I've been carrying around a heartful of tight, black, painful knots. When I listened with my stethoscope, though, the cardiac rhythm was perfectly normal. As if there'd been room for any doubt! No, my problem lies somewhere else.
* * *
The only time I feel fairly OK is when I forget myself by taking care of others. But do I actually help them? Mia, for example, what does she want? Happiness?
That's what its all about. Each of us cultivating his own secret garden to forget the sticks and stones (and names!) of the day before. I'm just like everyone else, but in my garden I keep bumping up against God. If only I believed in him! But every time I try to think about it I feel like some sheep in the Savior's flock, or a walking zombie. Shovel loads of other insults keep me on my empiric course. Thirty-three years old; a pat, four word explanation. Its my turn for the crown of thorns, but so far I have only the nails to hold me up on my cross. No faith, no certainty. Only pain. Or emptiness. Only the modern, radical void.
"You'll go far, my son. You'll go far, but you'll have to stay the course . . ." The absurdity of George Bush's words in my Jewish commy father's voice almost made me choke the first time I heard them. Papa, where are you now when I need you? Absorbed by the void, but you still live on, shuffling along somewhere behind my eyes, between my ears. I used to try to talk to you about the futility, about the despair. Your voice would go all white and I could hear the snows and the barbed wire of Treblinka catching at your throat. Then I'd feel so ashamed of my stupid head-trips. You were the one who really had it rough. And, if you fought your way through all that horror and into a new life in America, it wasn't so that your son could wallow in self-pity and silk sheets.
To escape his past, my father rescued the machines that slice time into sections. He repaired clocks. Its as good a way as any to live Here and Now. I might have kept the shop, and let life calmly tic-toc past in red numbered increments. The wicked flame inside me might have eventually burned itself out. Perhaps, but . . . There's always a but. The misfortune of cattle who watch trains go by is that once they know that those trains go straight to the slaughter house, they can never look at them quite the same way again. If I think about it too much, my brain simply shuts down.
I love the Chinese Theatre. Whether I'm watching it from here in my Arab friends' hole in the wall, or just driving past, I always keep an eye on how its doing. Its kind of a mental barometer for me. When I'm happy, the whole effect is round and jolly. The points on the red pagoda sparkle like New Year's firecrackers. When I'm down, that same pagoda becomes a blood drenched dragon's mouth raised to the sky, howling for more victims. Today the edifice is slightly skewed. I must be really tired.
Last night I didn't go home, but I wasn't with Chloe. Things are happening too fast. I spent the night with Diana. Beautiful Diana, the huntress, who strode into my life only yesterday. Satan's personal emissary, no doubt. She's too sexy not to be. When I found her in my waiting room, all I could see were her enormous, overly brilliant eyes. She said, "Doctor, you have to help me". I caught on immediately. She was, to use that quaint expression, "in the family way", but it was equally obvious that a family would cramp her style. Ten weeks along by her calculations. I should have just sent her straight to the nearest clinic, but the way she asked me to check to be sure, I couldn't resist. And why should I? All those sumptuous curves reclining on the examining table. Every glance I stole while snapping on the lubricated latex gloves offered up new perspectives of stunning beauty and sensuality. I was almost shaking when I touched her. She began to moan and for a second I was sure we'd end up screwing then and there. But, saved by the bell; Kate on the the line saying she'd just found Mrs. Simon unconscious and could I meet them at County Hospital?
I confirmed the beautiful ingenue's pregnancy and asked her to get dressed. I couldn't take my eyes off her. I was totally ensnared. She knew she was making me white hot. Our eyes met a little too long, and just when I was thinking "careful, David, she's a pro", I heard myself making a date for that very evening. She rewarded me with a cannibal's smile and the most economical answer:
"La Maison," I said without even thinking. She agreed and I spent the rest of the day wrapped in cotton candy. After checking on Mrs. Simon's stroke, I went by to see how Chloe is doing. Its a good thing, too. She was waiting for me, sipping rhumless eggnog in front of the Christmas tree, so far removed from my heavy, fleshy appetites that I almost felt ashamed. But the Angel blew her trumpet and the Beast slinked away. For that hour I simply forgot my sins. Chloe has big plans. She's going to be cured and in the meantime has really started repainting the apartment.
"Come on, David, I'll show you." She jumps up, grabbing my hand. As she trots down the hall, he feet catch in her too-big overalls. I can see she's really into her work; there's as much paint on the fingers clasped in mine as on the walls. She says she feels the vibrations of the colors better when she paints with her hands. That may well be, but the results are violent. If you squint, you can see tortured shapes emerging from the primal soup. Its running in all directions and the carpet is beyond repair.
"Its Winter now, so I'm painting Winter. All greens and blues with pure white at the core. See? Just there."
I see that her long hair bears traces of Winter as well. She has a white strand stuck to one cheek, and tiny glints of green and blue where her curls have brushed against the wall.
"Uhmm. And what does Michelle think?"
Chloe's big eyes register surprise. Who cares what Michelle thinks? My opinion is the only one that counts, I'm the only one in the world capable of understanding her. I believe it and that's what worries me. To hide my anxiety I ask if she's going to paint each wall a different season. The ploy doesn't work. She hears the fear in my thoughts as if I'd spoken it aloud. She looks at me, brows contracted:
"Everything I do, I do for you; but if you don't understand, there's no point. You might as well take me back to the hospital right now."
"You want them to give you shock treatment?"
"Shock treatment, schmock treatment. So what! I don't care if they give me shock treatment." She repeated the words several times over in a chanting sort of way. It made me squirm to hear her. Her eyes were glazing over. I tried to snap her out of it by asking her to stop and WHAM! One kick sent a can of paint flying. I can still see that arc of blue as it rose up and across the ceiling before ricocheting gracefully down, splattering the bed and a wide swath of still virgin carpet. I barely had time to get out of the way. Then she shot me a contemptuous "you think you know everything" before running to lock herself in the bathroom. I decided to make a quick exit before things got worse, especially since I was going to be late meeting Diana. Just as I was climbing into my car I saw Chloe watching me from the bathroom window. She was sobbing, but a crying schizo is better off than a vegetable schizo. I gave her a little wave and drove off. While I waited for the light at the end of the block, I looked in the rear-view mirror to make sure she didn't jump. Nothing happened, and by the time I hit Rodeo Drive, I'd patched things up with her and hung up the cell phone. She was sincerely sorry for behaving so badly and understands that I have a life.
"Sometimes I just want to forget it, though. David, please forgive me". Of course I forgive her, but I couldn't help imagining the bar at La Maison where my new conquest must have been drumming impatient fingers.
I remember reading in some religious tract that the Devil sometimes sends temptresses to catch cretins like me. They're called "succubi", but if Diana is one of them, I'm all for being damned. Hell, I'm already damned! I burned up two days income in shellfish and fine wines. I'm stealing from my family, and I'm enjoying it. The evening unfolded like the plot of some soft porn flick: we chatted aimiably during appetisers, warmly during the main course and very amorously during dessert. On the way out to the car, I asked if she wanted to make love. She played the fluttering eye-lash game to avoid a verbal answer.
From that moment on, I only have fast-forward memories. First kiss in the parking lot. Oral sex in the elevator, and then every item in the Kama Sutra on her carpet. I see it again, I make notes, and I remember that it all happened so fast that we had to start over several times to make any sense of it. Amazing. I have to add that as soon as we got to her apartment, she offered me a little red pill. "Ecstasy," she purred. I said yes, but the pill was already on its way down my throat. For what happened next, there are no words. From passionata to cresendi, the dance went on till dawn. A violent tango that left the taste of blood in my mouth. She bit me, I yelled. It felt like the room was vibrating, and a jumpy video played behind my eyelids. From time to time, realistic, ice-cube shaped thoughts tumbled around my brain; epidemiological considerations on the risks of catching AIDS, but I still didn't use a condom. We screwed like Nature intended -- skin, blood, sperm, saliva, all mixed up. Too bad if it kills me.
I didn't even think to call Lena. She must have worried. Tonight when I got home I saw she'd been crying. Why did I do it? To kill off what ever might have been left of the good husband and father?
My succuba is a school teacher, like Michelle. But the resemblance stops there. She talks about her life; she's unhappy. She swears she's never seen "Looking for Mr. Goodbar", but that's exactly what she's doing. Serious during the day and sowing wild oats by night. She took out personal ads, then tried sex on the web and all those other dubious circuits designed by plugged in pimps. She spent two years getting laid for free until the day when some prince charming asked how she'd like to be filmed. Since then, she's raised her standard of living considerably. I made a face but she swore that with me its different. Since she didn't ask for any money, I guess I can believe her.
Its over between Lena and me and I'm not even sorry. Tonight, for the first time, I'll sleep on the sofa. I'm not taking a shower; I like smelling Diana's scent on me. I have a feeling that things may go on for a long time with her. God help me.
This morning the IRS called. They want four hundred bucks in interest and penalties! Its racketeering and everyone knows it, but we all just shut up and pay.
"What am I supposed to do in case of emergency?"
"Sir, if you are unable to pay the full amount, you can apply for deferment with forms . . . ", and my bank statement from the last six months to prove my income and "legitamite expenditures"! The usual bureaucratic bullshit for the privilege of financing lazer cannons and landmine loaded teddy bears. I'll pay, of course, they were going to block my account. Merry Christmas!
I want to die. I didn't go see Chloe.
Bombs dropping left, right and center.
Friday afternoon, another call from the tax guys; this time for social security. Another racket, 'cause I'll never see a dime of it when I retire. They used the usual threat of freezing my assets. I told them to go ahead because their colleagues beat them to it. I think about Beny and have the strangest impulses. I have a terrible urge to set fire to this place, with me inside, but I don't have the guts. It would take too long, and hurt too much, to die that way. But the patients are coming in droves. The thicker I lay it on, the better they like it. I count my money. I count again. I make them nervous and I cash in. "How are you today? You don't look so well . . ." "and how long have you had that nasty cough?" Devious little questions, lucrative ones. What else can I do? My succuba has expensive tastes. She eats up in one evening what I earn in two days. When I let myself think about it, I hear a little voice saying its time to get rid of the nice David.
Three pills a day with refills for ever. They keep coming back. I'm working for death and its killing me. Since I lost God's phone number, I keep wondering how I'll make it through to the next minute. But that seems normal enough - its hard knowing you're all alone. Nothing before, nothing after. Just the fleeting illusion of existence. Are we having fun yet? I just have to hang on long enough to save Chloe. I have to at least see that through to the end.
Last night Lena and I had a huge fight. She called me a pig, "nothing but a filthy, horny pig!" That's not her style at all. She must really be at the end of her rope to talk like that. She slammed the bedroom door in my face. Maggie was crying. Me, too, but I don't understand anything anymore. When I began to study medicine, I wanted to learn the body's secrets. I imagined there were maps of the brain and the world of emotions. All I found were unfeeling scalpels and trite tautologies: "Thought is the result of the activity of cortical neurons." Yeah? And so? What causes this neurological activity? And why am I so sad all the time? Well, at least there I have a clue. Diana came by the office; I fucked her standing up, very fast and very rough. In a perverted way, I wanted to avenge Lena, and break off this unhealthy affair before it drags me all the way into the abyss. It didn't work; she loved it. I can't believe what masochists women can be. But maybe that's one of Nature's precautions; the secret that lets them give birth in so much pain.
Lena, Chloe, Diana. MacBeth's three witches dancing round the bonfire, and me in the cauldron waiting for the water to boil. They pull me in different directions, and laugh madly while I spin. Even the cat wants to get in on the fun. Yesterday he shredded the notebook where I'd written all my impressions from this week. Its probably just another of the Devil's tricks.
Pride and sulphuric lucidity. My life is in flames. I burn. I want to be God, I want to be Satan - to believe if I want, disbelieve if it suits me. I will be the author of my own destiny and no one will stop me. Just yesterday afternoon I went to play angels again with Chloe. When she came to the door, she was naked under her loosely belted bathrobe. She pushed back a tangle of curls from her face and looked up at me. Her voice matched the dark purple shadows under her eyes, tired and sad:
"What are you doing here? Why are you trying to hurt me?"
I swore I only wanted what was best for her and that I loved her with all my heart, but I couldn't make her believe me. She's getting that frightened rabbit look again, punctuated by flashes of uncontrolled grimaces. Maybe I should stay away from her. I think I'm only making things worse. Her mother is in town this week and has called every day to do her impression of a broken record: Chloe should be sent back to the hospital. Have I seen the way she lives? Who the hell do I think I am . . . But how do I know what's right for somebody else. On who's authority do I condemn my forget-me-not to life as a vegetable?
In any case, her room looks like it ought to be declared a national disaster zone. The splash of blue paint from our last visit has glued blankets and sheets to the mattress. Apparently, she's slept curled up in one corner of the bed since that night. The carpet looks like a frozen over pond, but Spring is bursting out on its wall. I mentioned that Christmas is still a couple of days off, and that Spring, therefore, is still quite a ways beyond that. She shut me up with the arguement that the days get longer following the Winter solstice, once again showing that madness can be reasonable. Since our fight, she's been having terrifying nightmares. She doesn't eat anymore because food isn't made for flowers. And anyway, there was this shadow: "I was in the garden, small, very small, and the shadow crushed me."
I know what she means; it must have been the gardener's shoe, and, it just so happens that her father is a gardener. Chloe puts her head on her angel's shoulder. He is brave, sweet, insipid and he makes everything better. She pours out her other dreams, the ones she sees when she paints the walls. There's one about the flames dancing on the snow, another about the clear water that plays with the light, and still not quite so poetic. While she talks, she rubs herself between the legs. I know its not an invitation, but it does have a strange effect, just the same. She confides: "I'm really a man, too, but my dick is inside. When it finishes growing, I'll be able to have children all by myself."
I continue my role of detached observer, "yes, uhum, yes" in a soothing tone. Then she adds in an offhand way that she'll soon be leaving for Thenania.
"Thenania. Where's that?"
She laughs at my ignorance, and points to a spot on the wall. "Right there, silly."
I think she's going a bit too far and tell her so. Her hallucinating eye searches my soul and she smiles as only the mad know how to smile. I look at my watch. That's our little signal that the visit is over. When she took my hand and put it on her belly, I went along with it. It felt so good, too good. Fortunately, the angel was still there to keep me from making a big mistake.
* * *
All that seems as far away as Thenania by now. After leaving Chloe, I just wandered around her neighborhood for a while. I felt at ease, one dark-skinned man among other dark-skinned men. I was finally beginning to relax when I bumped into Ivan Daniels in front of the corner bar. He invited me for a drink and I didn't refuse. It seems he's a prince in this neighborhood; the card sharks in Chloe's building give him the glad eye. If he's a con artist, they must take me for a pigeon. I caught my reflection on the glass door on the way in. I looked like an out-of-breath salesman. My head was spinning. I felt all used up, completely out of it. Maybe its all those black clouds beating down on my head.
Elbows on the bar, Ivan told me the story of his life, or perhaps just the novel. Our beer glasses had a scary way of refilling every time I had my eyes turned. Ivan started right in after the first gulp; a machine-gun monologue into which I couldn't get a word if I'd wanted to. When I first met him, he might have just stepped out of some Astair-Rogers film. Today though, Bogart's ghost had grabbed hold of Ivan's crooner gentility. Somehow, though, I found it relaxing.
"Son of a good family, you know: hard-ass father, saintly mother, brothers, sisters, the family's in armaments, factory down in Santa Ana. Its not the same if you see what I mean. By the time I was twenty, I'd had it up to here - the real crisis. Ripped off my old man's gun, a .38, special police permit for services rendered during the elections, Republican Party, of course -- because in the law and order department, Dad thinks the bigger the better, patriot missiles rather than tear gas to keep the riff-raff in line, know what I mean? Sometimes I just couldn't stand it, so anyway, one day I go down, just like that, to the biggest bank in town, we lived in Newport Beach, a pretty swinging place until seven thirty at night, as soon as I got through the door, I yell, "Hands up! This is a stick up!" just for laughs. And you know what they did? Gave me all the money, just as fast as you give yours to the IRS. Crazy! I didn't need that money, I just wanted to get the hell out of that shit hole. Well, it worked. Three year vacation in San Quentin -- would have been longer but Dad went all out to get me first class defence; an international attorney, if you please! I didn't ask him for anything, he just did it to prove one more time that I'm nothing without him. Know what its like to be nothing, zero, a little nobody asshole who thinks too much? No, of course you don't, you're a doctor, you've got it together. Next week, I'm going to be thirty-three . . ."
I assured him I understood, I just turned thirty-three myself. "When you're searching, you're always thirty-three," he mused, then tapped his pockets looking for his notebook. "Have to write that one down."
With that, we got completely wasted and I came as close as I've ever been to stretching out under the bar. I got home late, still staggering drunk. Lena had left me two slices of cold roast beef and some chocolate cake. There was a note under my fork: You're drunk, but if you weren't at least a little tipsy I'd love you less. Good night, your wife who is waiting for you.
I broke down. I practically ran to the bedroom. Lena didn't say a word, just opened her arms. We kissed and made love like we hadn't for such a long time. As I was drifting off to sleep I felt her shaking against me. I pulled her closer, and in the same instant realised it wasn't coming from her at all. The quake was over before we could even say the word. It was a small one, but the tinkling of Lena's perfume bottles echoed back to the horror of 1990 and forward to the One we all expect to split the state in two. It didn't really seem like a good omen for our marriage either.
I really screwed up this time. Last Wednesday, this guy comes into the office all out of breath and begs to be taken right away. The three others patiently waiting their turns make long faces and look at their watches. I wave him in. He collapses into the chair, pulling at his collar.
"Quick, you've got to take my blood pressure, I know its going right through the roof."
"Don't worry, we'll stop it at the second floor," I joke briskly. He doesn't laugh, but sticks out a tan, muscular arm. The guy's name is Mike, family name O'Hare. He's dressed in a flannel shirt, jeans, has sandy blond hair and a thick mustache. Construction worker type, pretty rough but big-hearted. Also looks like the type to fly off the handle pretty easily. I ask what he does for a living and am informed that he works in construction. I act like I know something about it, power tools and so on. And Mr. O'Hare gets mad. I head him off at the pass remarking that I had him pegged and that if he wants to see the other side of forty, he'd better learn to cool it. While I wrap the cuff around his arm he lightens up, he just gets so sick of these know-it-all handy-men -- he worked his ass off for fifteen years to get somewhere in his trade. Restores old mansions, only the finest craftsmanship.
I appreciate the nuance, craftsmanship, and pumping the bulb I remember that my electronic pressure taker has been waiting for me to pick it up for the past two weeks. I pump, I pump and the needle keeps jiggling around. I stop at 230, release pressure, and the fatal boom, boom washes against my eardrums starting at 220. I sigh. Mike says, "So?" I motion for him to be quiet. At 110, there's nothing more to hear. 220 over 110. With a score like that, your days are numbered.
"Its a stroke of luck you still have good arteries." But the pun on "stroke" didn't go over any better than the joke about the second floor. So I assume my serious air and prescribe the classic: complete check-up combined with a temporary prescription for a light sedative. They're never as mild as the guys in marketing would have you believe, but in general they do the trick. I quickly gave up trying to understand what triggered the attack since Mr. O'Hare insisted that "it happens all the time" and anyway I still had all the others in the waiting room. I might have told him that it was psychosomatic, but what's the use?
I recommended that he take it easy, and that if he felt like it to go ahead and have a little drink now and then. He shouldn't worry if his mouth felt dry, and all the rest of it. Today, he came back with his arm in a sling, his face red and swollen and eyes full of reproach.
"What was that shit you gave me?" He throws his insurance forms on the desk. "I almost killed myself because of you."
Stunned, I ask him courteously for a minimum of explanation. Right away he gets up on his high horse:
"What do I mean?! How dare you even ask me! You told me to go ahead and drink if I felt like it, if I'm not mistaken. With lunch I had a couple of beers, and two or three more during the afternoon, nothing I can't handle. Well, just imagine this, sir, at half past three, I get all light headed and catch my sleeve in the turner. Luckily it ripped before it pulled my arm in, too."
My blood ran cold when I heard him call me sir, and sweat started dripping down my temples. There's no excuse for a slip up like that - mixing alcohol and tranquillisers! And to think I told him to do it. You might as well give Valium to a fighter pilot, or aspirin to a hemophiliac. Where the hell was my head? I guess its not just an impression anymore, I really am going down hill. But what else can I do? I should volunteer to work in a combat zone, at least if the soldiers fall asleep in their tanks the civilian population can rest easier.
On the subject of useless filth, I ran into Tania, the black widow over in Venice. Stoned as ever, she hit me up for twenty bucks without even recognizing me. I thought about that episode with the cops and our stupid fight. All that for nothing. I would have done better to just give her her dose. Either that or finish her off. A little battery acid mixed with the morphine and, bingo, just one hit and she makes the big leap.
I must be completely nuts!
And getting worse. The other morning I was on a house call. Mrs. Davies suffers from obesity and is confined to bed. There was an open Swiss Army knife next to a plate of salami on the night stand. I started the examination and suddenly had this vivid flash of myself skinning the poor woman alive! Opening her up like an over-ripe melon and making her a gut necklace. The impulse was so strong, so tempting. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Then I calmly nestled the stethoscope between her breast and another roll of fat and said,
"Would you be so kind as to put that away?" She thought I meant the salami, what with me being Jewish and all. Frankly, its just as well she didn't really understand. I know I sure didn't. Nothing to get worked up about. I must not be getting enough love. Diana's recuperating from her abortion. I went to see her, she's absolutely radiant. So much the better for her, but I still can't get my mind off her beautiful ass and have hardly any more control over my hands. Strange law of checks and balances: to really care about my patients, I have to screw in sin. Otherwise Mr. Hyde gets the upper hand.
Its all Chloe's fault. Her madness dissolves my will, wrapping around me like a downy comforter. Leaving her place last Tuesday, I smelled a strong cadaverous odor wafting up into my nostrils. I looked around to see where it was coming from, and it was me, my own body rotting away. It was so real I asked this black guy in the stairs what he thought. He looked at me like I'd called him a turnip.
"You shouldn't make fun, sir, its not my fault I have to be a trash collector. I lost everything in Haiti. I want to start over again here, and someday finish my degree. I need the money."
I asked what he studied. He took out his student card and handed it to me. "University of Port-au-Prince. Psychology Department." A supernatural terror flooded my brain cells. I must have stood there a good minute just staring at the cars parked across the street. Inside my head, street noises took up all the space, and my thoughts couldn't find their way in that terrible din. Isn't that a sign of schizophrenia?
The garbage collector brought me round with his calm low voice.
"Do you know where you're coming from?"
I answered that I wasn't too sure I did.
"If you don't know where you're coming from, how can you know where you're going?" He had a heavy accent, but I wasn't fooled by his wetback naive air. That guy wasn't there by accident. Someone, or something, bigger put him there, right there in my path. Thinking about what he said, I saw myself as I am; a Jew with no god who doesn't even know enough to come in out of the rain. A fly speck in the vastness between Heaven and earth. I started to pray. I called into the void and suddenly, for the first time in my life, Israel appeared as an answer. The only possible answer. What a funny twist of fate, I needed a good samaritan from Haiti to help me see the light. Who knows, maybe I just felt like a vacation. Go figure; when pleasure is at stake, the psyche is ever so crafty.
A trip to Eilat. Lena will be thrilled. She'll love the wind surfing, its her passion. She slips over the water the way life slides over her. When we first met, I took her magnificent superficiality for the mark of secret depths. I'd gaze into those emerald eyes and marvel that at the age of twenty she already understood the power of silence. I loved her for that, her green eyes, her long blond hair and her breeziness. Now, I know it hides a flaw: she stopped thinking the day Daddy bought her first walkman.
You jerk. You and Lena are ancient history, but you go over it again and again, replaying it like an old newsreel. I tell myself, "Stop it. All that's finished now. Just think of Maggie," and as soon as I do, I'm afraid for her future. All around me, I see resigned faces, averted eyes, stooped shoulders. I know these people. I spend my days listening to them. I make my living on their misery. Rich or poor, its all same. A cage, whether golden or tin, is still a cage. Just looking at them, I see the price they pay in mute suffering for all they give up to be respectable citizens. "They're already dead but mum's the word". That's the refrain I hear while I examine them.
Saturday, four A.M.
I can't sleep. There's blood all over the sheets. Diana is asleep, and very pale. I fucked her as hard as I could, her eyes drilling holes in my brain the whole time. Nothing tender, only vilent, brutal gestures. I play the scene back again. Diana's mouth, her eyes, her doe's eyelashes and her dark gaze when she comes. With her I'm young and happy as a clam. Are clams happy? I guess it depends on their age. For Diana, life is simple. She's happy in her little apartment where she conducts all kinds of experiments. She has her job, reads a lot, goes to the gym, and picks up men. I'm sure she sleeps around, but since she doesn't make any demands or ask any questions, I don't either. Right now she's smiling in her sleep, as if she were reading my thoughts. She must be dreaming that I still want to screw her. She's right, but if I do it again, I'll get depressed. Only thinking of himself again, the fool.
She loves when I call her my party girl. As for making plans, I suggested we let destiny take its course. She believes in fate; she's sure we'll meet every day and so far she's been right. She says she believes in love. For the moment, I think our arrangement suits her.
Tuesday, December 24th.
Several times now I've had the impression of being connected to Chloe telepathically, but always before the exchange went directly from one to the other - no interface. Right now, the message passes via my hand, then pen. The ink forms letters, then words, bridging the gap from her consciousness to mine. A dragon dissolves in a swirl of color before the brush emerges from the water bucket. Drip. Drip.
On the wall next to Winter, Spring is taking its sweet time. Blossoming ever so slowly, one painty petal at a time. David, where are you? David, I'm waiting. Come. Come. My siren calls while my bridled conscience bleats anxiously, "love madness and it will love you right back." I've tried putting on sweaters and turning up the heat, but I'm still cold. Its no use because Chloe's cold, too. Her paintings take on life. Sleigh bells ring out from her Winter garden, icy, just like me. I have the distinct impression things are getting worse. But what can I do? The Trojan Horse is already inside. Quick! Push it back out then slam! One door, another, then yet another, lock and double lock. I close my brain. I'm normal, damn it! The colors fade, the dragon melts away to nothing, leaving the solid certainties of my world.
Such a fragile balance.
My finances show signs of improvement, though. Reaping the gains from some pact with the Devil? I wish I knew. What I do know, however, is that today I had my first patient in a Rolls. An old Silver Shadow, with chauffeur, if you please. The bell rang and when I looked out from my office I found myself face to face with a maharaja. A real one, all turban and Saville Row.
"Help me, please," he gasped in a perfect Oxford accent. I invited him in. He was panting, ghostly pale, ready to keel over. He collapsed into the nearest chair and choked out his story bit by bit. His heart, his poor old heart was giving out. He had a heart condition and had just received some very bad news.
"What news?" I asked pointedly. He was too rich, too well turned out. Deep down I was pleased to see someone like him step in shit, too.
"My family! I've just lost my whole family," he stammered, restraining a sob. "Wife raped, throat slit, house burned to the ground with everyone inside. All gone. Nothing left." He's from the Punjab.
I put down the stethoscope. His heart was beating pretty regularly, but at one-eighty. Enough chit-chat. I prescribed the requisite pills to calm the palpitations. I guess its true after all that money can't buy everything. My walking anxiety attack pulled himself together, ever the gentleman. He left a five hundred dollar bill on the desk and I escorted him back to his carriage. Before he got in, he shook my hand and wished me "a very Merry Christmas". I don't know if he was trying to be brave or what, but it made me feel rotten.
"Merry Christmas!" I gave Chloe a call. She'll be alone tonight. Michelle is going to party with some friends. And I'm condemned to play the clown with my in-laws. I'm not up to it. I know I'm going to wreck everything. But how can I tell Lena that I'd rather spend Christmas Eve on the streets with winos and junkies? I'll just take a little pill and relax. Things'll be just fine. Maggie needs me. She's too little to lose Santa Clause.
Christmas Eve, five to midnight.
What a disaster. I told them all, in no uncertain terms, what I think of them. I couldn't help it. We were barely into cocktails when old Herr Von Strudel started in on me. When we got to the oysters, I was still grumpy, so he tried to get me into the Christmas spirit by telling a few jokes. And he told one too many; a Jewish joke, of course. Not too nasty, but they don't have the right. Surrounded by evergreen boughs, red bows and bells, I got a sudden urge to call my cousin Simon, the one who really knew my parents. I got up from the table and asked for the car keys. Lena stared back in disbelief and Maggie started to cry. I just backed into the entry way, put on my coat and hat and turned to face them one last time. They all looked at me as if I were crazy.
"You're sick! You'll never change!" Lena screamed as I opened the door. She's right, I'll never be able to lie down for that treatment.
Midnight, Church of the Sacred Bleeding Heart. I'm squeezed into a pew between a Guatamalan grandmother and two punks decked out in green and red. The place is packed and I'm alone. My heart felt like stone when I left Lena's family. Now remorse drills in like the roots of a thorn tree. Here's a new crack for Diana's blood, a fissure for Lena's sadness. A little chink for Maggie and a crevice for Chloe's tears. And a Grand Canyon sized gorge for all the rest of it: the wars and murders, the screams of the maimed, the suffering of the sick, the whole damned world going nuts. I would like to be happy, to not feel it all so much. Just be like everybody else, laughing about everything and nothing, talking about sports and TV shows. How do they do it? Why can't I get rid of all those horrible pictures that stick in my brain? I listen to the priest's ecumenical drivel, the congregation is moved. Merry Christmas! Everyone is overflowing with love. Jesus loves you! Honk if you love Jesus!
A blond Rasta is hums and sways vaguely next to the holy water. All around me bikers and businessmen kneel in prayer. Among the faithful I even recognize a few of my transvestite buddies. And all of these people believe. They dream along in their stained-glass paradise. It helps them hang on. I wish I had a crutch like that. Request denied. I feel so guilty for leaving Maggie, tonight of all nights. While my thoughts run along these lines, my eyes wander around church before settling on a small, crowned dove in the center of a window. If He won't listen, can anyone ever forgive my faults?
David's journal -
Thursday, December 26.
There are some truths so obvious that you hesitate to even mention them. Everyone knows, for example, that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I ought to know it better than anyone. Unfortunately when Mia called, I thought about it but didn't say it. Result: Santa Claus left me with a whole sack full of guilt. Yesterday I spent the whole day alone in the house. Lena stayed with her parents and kept Maggie with her, to make me pay for my desertion. I'd been drinking a bit, and slowly sinking into my airchair, fantasizing about some glorious destiny. I'd be tall, dark and handsome (instead of just dark), and probably a jerk, too. Maybe I'd be the mayor of LA, with bunches of groupies hanging around all the time. I know, its kitsch. All of a sudden the phone rang. I jumped up and looked at my watch: one o'clock in the morning. It couldn't be Lena. I hesitated. In case of an emergency, I knew I wasn't clear headed enough to even put on a tourniquet correctly. But the ringing persisted, and I wondered who'd turned off the answering machine. I picked up the phone and managed a dull, "yeah". An overexcited Mia didn't even give me the time to say hello.
"David! I'm so relieved you're there! My God, if you only knew what's going on over here!"
"What?" I said without thinking.
She needed no further invitation to dump her problems in my lap. But I guess I asked for it.
"Nadir wants to kill me! He tried to shoot me, I swear he's gone completely crazy! He has a gun . . ."
"Wait a second, calm down. How's the baby?"
"He's OK, but I'm afraid."
We started out like that, with a question and answer session, edgy but to the point. Nadir was in the living room, she had locked herself in the bedroom. A tricky situation, but not life-threatening. I asked what had happened.
"I was with John, we were in bed . . . and Nadir came in."
"He's a friend, well . . . a little more than a friend. I've been seeing him for a month. But I told Nadir not to come back! Its not my fault he came back anyway!"
"He has the keys?"
A pause on the other end. I repeat, "hello? hello?" but only hear nervous breathing, and then suddenly in a choked voice she admits: "He wouldn't give them back. I'm scared. David, you have to call the police."
That was when I should have hit her with the good intentions speech. I should have told her to call them herself, and everything would have been just fine. Instead, I jumped right in the middle. I assumed my professorial tone and asked if Nadir still had the gun.
"No," she affirmed loudly, "John managed to get it away from him and throw it out the window."
Great. Now there's a pistol lying in the bushes below their window where any little kid can find it. I wanted to slap her but the telephone didn't really allow for it.
"And where is John now?"
"Gone. He said he didn't want to get involved."
I said, "hats off" and then grilled her to find out if Nadir was hurt. He was, but according to Mia it wasn't that serious. Just a broken tooth, "but it had a big cavity in it anyway," she added to reassure me. I can't believe the practicality of some women.
"Are you sure the revolver was real?"
"I think so."
"That's not good enough. Maybe it was only a toy, or a starter's gun. . ."
"No way, I know Nadir. This is no joke! I tell you, David, he really wanted to kill me!"
"OK, let me talk to him."
At that point, too, I could have extricated myself from the whole thing. All I had to do was call the cops and let them take things from there. Nothing doing. I was too caught up in playing God All Mighty.
I waited. In the background I heared muffled shouting, and crashing dishes. The line started crackling, then came a hoarse groan, that gave me chills.
"Nadir, is that you?"
"Yeah, doc, its me. What do you want?"
"Are you OK? I think we need to talk."
More silence. Finally, he started to tell me what happened. I tried to play the good buddy, but did it badly. Now I tell myself I should have been firm. But now it's too late. Nadir finished his story, then swore he couldn't take it anymore.
"We've all had enough," I murmured, "so now what?"
"I don't have any choice. I don't have my green card. My visa's up at the end of the month and I couldn't even get my name on my kid's birth certificate. We were supposed to take care of it when we got back from Pakistan, but then she contested the paternity. See what kind of bitch she is?"
"I'm nothing here. If I don't get married, they're going to kick me out. You have to tell her."
"I'll tell her. But I thought you had a government grant."
"They took it away. They say I was involved with the Taliban."
It wasn't the Taliban, but close enough. We had talked about it several times, but up to now he hasn't planted any bombs.
"And are you still in touch with your old friends?"
He moaned: "If only I could be."
"You don't mean that."
He went on as if he hadn't heard,
"Even if I wanted to, I couldn't anymore, I drink liquor, I've been eating pork for the last two years, and all because of her! She did it on purpose, the whore! Turn that off!", he yelled.
I heard Christmas music blasting in the background. Retrospectively, I think Mia only wanted to let me know she was still there, or maybe to get the neighbors to call the police, but at the time I found it tactless.
"Hello? Nadir? Listen to me. . . Hello?" A good three minutes must have gone by like that before he made up his mind to answer. I was completely at his mercy. No way I could hang up now.
"Do you hear that? The bitch turned the stereo way up! She did it on purpose to wake the whole building up. Listen, now the kid is screaming."
Nadir was shouting, too. So I had to yell myself, just to make myself heard:
"Cool down, man. Put Mia back on the line."
It was the right thing to do. Nothing unreparable had happened up to that point. I could have saved the day, but things turned bad. Mia refused to talk to me again, she must have thought I'd picked sides. I saw red and barked into the phone:
"You tell her that its me, David Levi, who orders her to turn down the music."
Nadir passed on the message, adding to it, which of course, only made things worse. Another hugh crash of plates. I was fighting the temptation to just let them go to hell, when, all of a sudden, the world went silent. When Nadir picked up the receiver again, his breathing and voice sounded more or less normal, just a little sad,
"I can't take this anymore. I'm going to shoot myself."
All the little lights on my legal alarm system began to flash. For a doctor, not coming to the aid of someone in mortal danger amounts to ripping up your own medical license. Don't let him get off the phone. That's the basic objective I set for myself as I encouraged Nadir to ramble on. Going on the principle that political assassination is an excellent substitute for suicide, my first reflex was to use the dialectic argument. I took a deep breath and said:
"Hey man, you've got the wrong target. You wish you were dead. You want to kick your girl friend's ass. But as we speak, you've got corrupt bastards raking in the dough while your country tears itself to shreads. Kids with nothing to eat. Families with no potable water. No electricity. An army to keep them in line. And all you can think of is filling Mia full of holes!"
In short, I was doing Death's work. Nadir quibbled for the sake of it, but deep down, I knew that he agreed with me. In the end, he seemed to be calmer, and thinking straight. He went through it all once more; how he'd lost everything, how she had stolen their child, how life had no meaning since he had lost God. I said I understood -- which was the truth -- we did understand each other. I told him about my last amorous adventure, and we shared a good laugh. We concluded that western women would never match Orientals. Then he asked if I wanted to speak to Mia again. I said no. It was around two AM, I was dead tired. We wished each other good night and I went to bed feeling I'd done a good job. And then the telephone woke me up around seven o'clock. An unknown voice asked if I was Dr. David Levi. I said yes. The voice belonged to Mia's sister. She summed up the inalterable facts:
"Nadir is in the hospital. He killed Mia and Kamal, he strangled them both, then he jumped out the window. He's not dead, though. He just broke both his legs. I called you because Mia had spoken about you a couple of times. . ."
My throat was so tight I could barely squeeze any life into the words, "I'm so sorry." But in moments like this, even those words, even in a whisper, don't seem right. From the phone came a sob followed by an unwavering dial tone. I sat there holding onto the phone for I don't know how long, absolutely shell-shocked, picturing Nadir's hands around his baby's neck. I try to chase that image out of my head, but it just slips back in from some other side. I'm still tormented by the same question: which one? Which one did he kill first? Its so horrible, how can I ever come to accept that this has happened? Accept my part in the whole thing? I have to get out of this business.
Three days without sleep. I didn't tell Lena what happened. She didn't know Mia. Even if she had known her, what good would it do to tell her that awful story? The worst is the wheel of "should haves" driving back and forth over my heart. I should have taken it more seriously, I should have called the cops, I should have talked to Mia, or even gone over there - after all they only lived at the bottom of the hill. But no. I just sat there playing dial-a-shrink.
And now things are getting even more complicated. Mia's friend, Taylor, asked me to be a witness. She knows that Mia talked to me before she died. And I'm the idiot who told her! I just had to talk to someone. Now Taylor claims that I'm the main witness in the case. She says that Nadir admitted to me that he was planning to kill Mia. How can she prove it? I guess in a round-about way its true, but if I talk to the cops, I'll also have to tell them that Mia slept with Nadir's brother. That'll go on the record, and Nadir will find out during the trial. The jury will consider it an extenuating circumstance. They'll talk about crimes of passion and the sentence will be reduced; only fifteen years for the wound to fester, if he's lucky. And what will dear Nadir do first thing when he gets out of prison? Dash right over to his brother's place to slit his throat. A perfectly normal reaction.
No. I'm not going to have another death on my hands. No more getting mixed up in other people's problems. Taylor is threatening to tell the cops everything. I don't give a shit, I'm protected by doctor-patient confidentiality. All bases covered, except for my conscience nagging away at me. Nights are hell, but that's my problem and mine alone.
Thank God there's Chloe. When I'm with her I can breathe again. She's so far removed from all the whole Mia catastrophe. She's doing much better, and making progress with Spring. Foliage is bursting out over her bed; thousands of little brush strokes uncurl in different nuances of green. She asked me how many leaves trees have. I threw out the first figure that came to mind, "fourteen thousand five hundred and seventeen." She took that as gospel and has been counting ever since. It must be exhausting.
Last night we got rain, and then the temperature dropped. The streets were covered in ice this morning. I don't think I've ever seen that happen here, and to judge by the other drivers, they hadn't either. Between the ice and my state of fatigue, its lucky I made it through my house calls in one piece. And lucky my patients will make it through my presriptions. I checked over the doubles afterwards, just to be sure. I have to because God knows I'm on auto-pilot today. I just keep telling myself to hang on just a little while longer, it will all be over soon, my vacation is coming up. In the meantime, I take dictation from my guardian angel: "Digitalis, 15 drops every night before bed", "Anafranil, one pill with each meal" and so on. The old lady sitting on the other side of my desk imagines I'm concentrating on her cough. She's happy and pays up. Business is booming these days. The cold and drizzle give free reign to all kinds of nasty conditions. I cash in on low resistance. I'm so tired. For once I'd even be happy to see good old Lucas and his blow. I really need a jump start.
Life goes on, life goes by. The more it goes, the more I appreciate this time of deep Winter when the days are the shortest, and decay has really set in. I look outside and think, "That's it. What's done is done. This is the time of deep changes," and then I start thinking about my vacation again. God, I'm babbling, this is all completely absurd; a circus of sound and fury as Ben used to say. There's never any way of knowing where you're at. There's nothing but Chaos, and how can I face it day after day? Who will give me back the necessary innocence?
I know. Its very simple, really. A little spiritual housecleaning is in order. Wash away this muddy science which darkens my faith. In Israel I'll see things more clearly. I'll find that eye up there, the eye of Cain in the burning sky, and the red desert dust, and me, the zero, me, the louse, I'll fall to my knees, lost in all that vastness. Thirty-three years old - its Golgotha time. Tough shit for the IRS, I'm getting the tickets tonight. Shalom, Israel!
Ran into Diana at the doughnut shop. I invited her to Petrova's, that charming Russian restaurant near the Wilshire Country Club. As usual, in one night I spent half my week's earnings. We drank like Cosaques, then back at her place, we screwed like madmen. I told her I loved her, and at that moment I meant it. She jammed her teeth against mine so hard that I lost a piece of lip in the process. A delicious, bloody kiss. I'm developing a taste for this. Miller is right, under the Tropic of Cancer, love is cannibalistic.
Kismet died yesterday - a bizarre fluke. I was excited, I'd just picked up the tickets and that imbecile jumped up on my desk and started playing with them. I chased him away. He tried to jump out an open window, but right at that moment, the window came crashing down. It broke his neck and he died instantly. Thank God for small favors. Maggie was devastated, but Lena didn't seem to care too much. She seems to have other things on her mind. Since I waved the tickets under her nose, she's been cuddly, to say the least. She's so happy. We're talking again; she even took advantage of our new closeness to ask me to make sure I have safe sex. If this goes on, I'll be wearing rubbers to make love to her. How depressing.
In any case, Mag's appreciates the change of atmosphere. Normal, what kid wouldn't prefer a teddy bear dad to a grizzly bear dad? The news of our trip even consoled her a little for the death of her pet. It'll do us all a world of good to get away. The only down point is Chloe. I have to tell her tonight. Two weeks will seem like forever to her. But what else can I do? I called her mother. Mrs. Lazarus has become decidedly friendly toward me. I wonder why? She's looking for another apartment for her fragile darling who's wilting away amongst all the hoodlums. She's right about the neighborhood, but is she insinuating anything else? I can just see it, Chloe dreams up some nice stories for mommy, and I end up behind bars for rape. Come on, David, get a grip on your paranoïa! The important thing is that she promised to come to town to take care of her daughter. She's even asked for unpaid leave from work. Maybe its love. If so, there's at least one thing I won't have screwed up completely.
This is it. We're in the plane. Maggie got a window seat for her first flight. I'm jealous. Lena's between the two of us and I'm on the aisle. Actually its better that way, I can't stand being cooped up. We had a stop over in Paris. I picked up some foie gras and champagne at the airport, a little something to celebrate our arrival in the Holy Land. I love foie gras, and to tell the truth I haven't stopped thinking about it since we took off. Must be some defense mechanism against my fear of flying. My fears feel more justified than usual since we're flying to the Middle East. I jump every time a dark-skinned guy with a mustache gets up, and about half the men on the plane fit that description! The emergency exits are blocked by a group of religious fanatics with ringlets who pray for the salvation of our souls every fifteen minutes. Add to that a few fat New York Jews. Shake the whole thing up, and bang! Perfect recipe for a hijacking. The service is dreadful. Just after take-off, I saw one of the stewardesses banging a block of ice against a counter. A big chunk flew off and slid across the floor. She scooped it up and put it right back in the bag without a second thought. Never again will I take an American airline. And what if we really are hijacked? Every terrorist probably has his own style, but I admit that I'd be less worried with Palestinians than with Iranians. I'd tell them that as a member of the diaspora, I'm with them. Right! I'd be just like everybody else, crumpled down in my seat and whimpering as soon as I had to go to the bathroom.
We're flying into the most beautiful sunrise. I'm having trouble holding the pen. Lena is watching me write. I can see her getting happier by the minute. Just now, she even took me by surprise with an aphorism she must have picked up from some TV drama. It did me good to hear it from her anyway: "There is no widsom without a grain of madness." Halleluja to that!
Still, I put on my tough voice, "Are you talking to me?" to discourage her from being nice. I don't want to be coddled by her. But she wouldn't let off. She went right for the softest part of my heart:
"You know, David, these last few days I've been thinking a lot. I have too much time on my hands, especially at night. You don't have any idea, but, at night, I lie in bed thinking about you. I talk to you."
"And then you don't say anything when we're together," I grumbled, continuing to play the brat.
She started to laugh. Then she started to yell: "When what?! When we're together? When is that? You're never home!" Her voice carried over the sound of the Duty Free video. Luckily, worried looks from across the aisle nipped that fight in the bud. We each took a deep breath, and when I looked back at her Lena held out her hand to me. I took it. We looked at each other and I saw someone I hadn't seen in a long time: my beautiful, healthy and incredibly desirable wife. She read it in my eyes, and I think that's the best thing that could happen to us.
Tel Aviv (Friday 1/3).
The Hill of Spring looks just like a postcard. I read in a brochure that the city was founded in 1909, so there won't be too much to see in the way of antiquities. Just as well, for the next couple of days I'd rather steep myself in the sea than in History. There will be plenty of chances for that when we get to Jerusalem. Its about sixty-five degrees - sweltering after LA's cold spell. Maggie hasn't adjusted to it yet; it makes her cranky. Through the shuttle's smoked windows, the landscape looks scorched. The buildings on the sea front are about as attractive as those on the Costa Brava -- oh great! The kid threw up and Lena doesn't have anything handy. I have to help her.
The difference between here and Spain is that everything is written in Hebrew and English. I understand everything I read but I still feel like a foreigner, much more than in any other country I've visited. Disappointing. Going through customs I greeted the young officials with, "Shalom, I'm coming home"; they didn't bat an eye. I guess its their collective paranoia. They're all geared up for war, uniforms everywhere, plainclothesmen too, cops, guns and metal detectors. Then still more soldiers, looking every bit as friendly as they do when you see them beating up some Arab on the news at home. To them, I'm just a tourist, but I might have some problems if I don't get over my fixation with the radar installations. What the hell, we came for the beach.
The guy across the aisle is a French Jew. At least he's here for a concrete purpose. He buys flowers, tons of them, for a perfume factory near Nice. All his talk about flowers made me think of Chloe's Spring wall. The mind is a marvelous thing; I saw her street, her building. I felt so light, I started floating up the stairs and then right through her door in a slow cinematic dissolve. Chloe was sitting on a can of lavender latex next to the Christmas tree. There were pine needles all over the rug, embedded in splatters of paint, in her hair. She was counting on her fingers, or maybe just counting them, I couldn't tell which. I called her name, but she couldn't hear me. She's falling apart and its my fault. She thinks I deserted her, but I'm only her doctor. And I have to take care of myself, too, or how can I take care of anyone else? Anyway, I'm not responsible for all the pain in the world.
If only I could really believe that.
As I was jotting that down, I noticed a tourist brochure on the seat next to me. Welcome to Jerusalem under the photo of a little boy with a big smile. I took it as a sign, a reminder of the meaning of this adventure. The screen-play says I'm here to find my roots, the primative magma whence will spring the meaning of my existence. More prosaically, I came for some r & r, and then I can work on a few philosophical puzzles. Like, first of all, why can't I just accept myself? Then there's also my conclusion that all things being equal, nothing is important. Obviously that theory is false. But if the inverse is true, how do you survive the hurricane unleashed by the butterfly's wings? I have to just let it go. I can't go on questioning everything forever, but just one last little querie: who's in charge, Man or God?
I pick Man, that big, naked cretin, crazy and lonely enough to believe in Heaven. So if God has any messages for me, he should send them soon; this is the ideal breeding ground for conversion enzymes.
BUT WHEN I THINK ABOUT GOD, I THINK ABOUT MIA.
About Nadir, too, lying there in his prison hospital. He must be praying to Allah for the death sentence, praying, too, that our monotheist visions of the afterlife aren't true. How much better for him the Kiss of Death then eternal forgetfulness.
On the way in to Tel Aviv we saw a beautiful orange grove tended by Arab day workers. Some of them wore the obligatory white badge that's caused such a stir. But they didn't seem any unhappier than our latino farm workers. Here, though, everything tends to take on tragic overtones. I have to avoid that trap at all costs. The driver announces Mikweh-Israel, the first Israeli agriculture school. It was founded in 1870. He's proud of it, and rightly so. I might be too, if I didn't feel so foreign.
Last stop, the Bethlehem Hotel. We're here - everybody out. I gently shake my dozing wife and pick up our completely zonked daughter. Its only a little hotter here than it should be in LA, but I'm still sweating profusely. I've probably already lost five pounds. Except for that, everything is just fine. The hotel sits at the end of a shaded alley. Our room looks over a garden smelling of jasmin and citronella. I caught a glimpse of an arbor and a good copy of an antique fountain. The sound of birds chirping and splashing in the water washes over my ears. This will be perfect for Nadine. What more could any of us ask for? The welcome was warm, and the prices even match those announced in the brochure.
Just one cloud on the horizon; they gave us room thirteen. I couldn't care less, but I can tell Lena doesn't like it. Funny, I never knew she was supersticious. She says she loves this country for the third time, almost like she's trying to convince herself. Must be her Teutonic conscience acting up. In any case, Cupid's aim has improved remarkably, which just proves that opportunity makes the thief. We just needed one day together, away from my problems, to get back in sync. All the same, I can't help thinking that she could be just as happy with someone else.
* * *
I've lost track of time. I must be beginning to relax. We've gone to the beach every day, but yesterday afternoon we strolled around Tel Aviv. I really don't get this country. Its such an incredible mix. They speak Hebrew, Arabic, English, French. Ethiopian rastas take tea with fashion conscious Lebanese. Timeless rabbis debate under the benevolent gaze of girls bearing ouzis. And I'm here, like I could be anywhere else on the face of the planet; lost, and more Jewish than ever.
"Did you taste this passion fruit sorbet? Its better than anything from Ben and Jerry's. They must have a secret." Lena loves secrets. Maggie is still sleeping and we're on the balcony, just the two of us. Its finally dropped to a comfortable temperature. The sun is going down. I'm writing and eating my ice cream. The light is sublime, and Lena more beautiful than ever. She tans a golden brown and her hair is sun-bleached to near white. Right now she's smiling seeing the way I look at her - just like a bashful, lovestruck school boy.
I could devour her, just like that night when I told her that the secrets of love were in sex. She smiled her lopsided smile that drives me crazy and rolled onto her side. "And the love of sex is in its secrets," she whispered, leaning forward to kiss me. I didn't really get it at the time. I was too distracted by the demonstration of her point. My internal clock is running fast; I've got Spring Fever and its only the eighth of January. Its not really surprising though; the mimosa's in full bloom. Like Spring in Southern California, just what they promised in the guide book. The light reminds me of LA. The balmy air would, too, if it weren't so full of stones, bullets and bombs. Last night's news was also full of those hard things. They must be crazy. I feel Palestinian, a Palestinian Jew that is, and it tears me apart. But try explaining that to the border guards.
"What have you decided about tomorrow? What time do we leave?"
I don't know. Lena interrupted me without a thought. She has no respect for my writing. As far as she's concerned, its just notes like I take at the office. But I don't set her straight. Why scare her with my search for a beacon in my night?
"And what about a hotel?"
"We'll find one when we get there. You know that I hate planning everything out in advance."
"Maggie has to have a roof over her head. And why Hebron? Why can't we just stay on the coast? We could find another place with good beaches."
That's Lena for you. Nothing interests her except her body. I don't even try to explain my deepest reasons. When her family left Germany, they turned their backs on history. How can she ever understand what it means to be part of a people with 5000 years of it? I tell her that I want to go to Hebron because I like the name and I want to see some Palestinians. Little does she even imagine that I'm one of the Palestinians I want to find.
"You, a Jew, you come to Israel to see Palestinians. Right." she jabbed predictably. I parried:
"We Jews are all Palestinians, if you think about it. Everything depends upon what historical name you attach to this place. In any case we all, Arabs and Jews, descend from Abraham through his sons Ishmail and Isaac."
She shrugged her shoulders and said no more. I've been watching her for ten minutes but thinking about Diana. It makes me feel better. Things are getting too heavy. Luckily Maggie's here to make me relax. This afternoon, she tugged on a rabbi's beard and asked what happened to his red suit. He didn't get it at all, but joined in when we started to laugh. My God, she's adorable! When she kisses me and wraps her cute, chubby arms around my neck, its so sweet I can barely hold back the tears. She steals my heart time and time again. The sun suits her, too. Against her brown skin, her eyes turn to a cyan blue, the exact shade of her grandfather's. Right now she's humming along with the latest Israeli hit. To be so easy again! Why do we get so hardened with time? With every soldier I see, I think of the child that once lived behind those eyes. I think about the mother who suffered, and the countless miracles which allowed that body to flourish. I also think about the nano-second it would take to snuff out that life. And here, its not just a passing thought; people are killed every day. Then I yawn. Its awful, but each of those thought has already been thought a million times, to no avail. I should just stop thinking.
Lena points to the sea on the horizon, that misty line between two high rises under construction. There are swallows on the telephone wires, the mauve sky stretches up to the embrace the on coming night. January will be clement, so they said at the reception desk. But on the other side of the hills, in southern Lebanon, they announced six deaths today.
Road to Hebron (Thursday 1/9).
The road zips by and ochre dust settles on our arms and faces. Lena's been driving in the wake of a military convoy for the past hour, and khaki is starting to give me a rash.
We pass a row of cypress trees, an olive grove. At the entrance to a kibbutz young civilians tote machine guns, and shoot the breeze. The whole country is on edge, waiting. We're nearing the border crossing on Route 35. The convoy slows down. We follow suit, but at this time of day the line is in the other direction - day workers coming over to work in the fields.
An Israeli soldier leans in the car window to get a good look at each of us. He asks for our passports. Everything's in order. He waves us through with a sharp flip of the wrist, but the arsenal worn by each of his cohorts is hardly reassuring.
We have now entered the Occupied Territories.
Hebron - January 10.
A city held hostage. The Israeli pull-out has been postponed, again. Last time the negociators met, no one could agree on the shape of the table for the next time. No wonder the natives get restless. After all, its hardly like they all snuck in here one night and set up shop under cover of darkness. They thought they were at home here; their houses, their streets, their fields. But you see settlers driving through, on their way to claim their piece of Greater Israel. All this for the greater glory of God and the Stock Market.
You see it in the faces of these proud pioneers, the unthinkable question: "How do we get rid of them?" I tell myself that the sons of Judea will surely stop short of the Final Solution. But since I was a boy, more than all I saw of Viet Nam, scenes of Sabra and Chatila haunt me. I don't know why. I still imagine the Lebanese dogs slitting the throats of Palestine's lambs while their Tsahal masters turn a deaf ear to the din of the slaughter. Just like Warsaw never happened!
The night of the massacre I was jolted awake by a devastatingly precise vision of a child catapulted into the air by a burst of gun fire. I saw him fall, and fall again in the midst of the rubble, his hands a futile barrier in front of his face. Years later, when I learned that Warner Fassbinder's suicide was the day after the massacre, I had this unshakable feeling that he'd seen the same thing as me and simply couldn't bear it.
But that's just sentimental B.S. The essence is elsewhere; in the Eternity sweating out of Ancient Stones, or the tranquil smiles of the elders, or in the technicolor sky. At least that's what I tell myself so I can forget all the horror. Hebron is Biblical, and History is bigger than us all, but these here parts still reminds me of a western. I half expect people to start drawing their Colts at any moment. In the country side, my Israeli brothers are perfectly organised; tractors, irrigation, Land Rovers and Ray Bans. They go around in small groups in the middle of all these Arabs who, comparatively, seem to live in slow motion. You don't need to be a sociologist to see who are the haves.
Lena's on edge. She wonders what we're doing here and says she's afraid every five minutes. She wants to go to the beach. I understand, but the Mediterranean is clear across the country and the Dead Sea isn't exactly down the street either. I lift nose out of my notes and grumble: "There's got to be a pool somewhere in this town!"
I can't believe her, she never even thought of that. It turns out there's an indoor pool right around the corner and its superb. Not too crowded; admission is too high for most of the locals. My ladies are happy and I'll be back for them at five. Then we'll go see the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where Abraham and Isaac are supposed to be buried. It'll do me good to see a spot where Jews and Arabs come together to pray, even if they regularly beat each other to a pulp right afterwards. If God is just standing around up there, waiting to see the outcome, then damn him.
The sun is beating down hard. The light is harsh, cutting. The paper this morning said it was pouring in LA. From what I hear, it should be raining here, too, but I guess someone screwed up and sent the West Bank's share to Southern California. Funny, now matter what topic comes to mind, there's always something to bring me back to my main obsession: Death. In LA its raining water, here its raining bullets. Bang, you're dead. Then he's dead, she's dead, they're dead. I think about it all the time. I'm afraid, too. In one of the little alleys that lead to the Great Tower of Ramla, there's a little shop selling beautiful glassware. Just in front, a rabbi with a machine gun slung over his back was talking with some young men in camoflage suits. They looked grave, purposeful. They got in a van and all of a sudden, one, two, ten stones came flying out of nowhere, striking the metal carapace. One of the guys pointed his gun toward the street and the van sped off in a squeal of rubber.
No one screamed. No one said anything at all, the tension just went up a notch. Actually, I don't know if anyone screamed because I'd taken Lena's Walkman in case I got bored. The stones seemed to fly through the air in slow motion before landing, almost in rhythm with Prince's screeching, "That's why, Until the end of time I'll be there for you . . . Truly Adore you". It was like watching MTV, from the inside.
The Arabs stare at me coldly. My tourist-on-a-spree look doesn't soften them. I'm the enemy, too, and there's nothing I can do about it. I feel it so much it gives me chills, despite the mid-afternoon heat. I walk away without looking back. An empty Dorito bag tumbles down the middle of the dusty street. A rusty Coca-Cola sign in Arabic squeaks back and forth above a pastry shop. Pastry, good idea. Eating always helps when I'm in a tight spot.
I wandered around the old town for a couple more hours, headphones screwed into my ears, listening to the same tape over and over again. Prince's cries and chants burn like this evil labyrinth I'm lost in. I finally found this public bench where I could sit in peace and write, but I feel like throwing up. Maybe its all the pastry I scarfed, but when I look at the time-worn masonery, the Eternity I feel is one of Hate, and of all the blood spilled over the centuries. To keep in the spirit of things, my feet are killing me. Damn, it's already five o'clock! I have to hurry or Lena will be worried sick. A taxi would be my best bet. They're all pretty run down, but at least you always find one when you need it. Jackpot, a fairly new Peugeot driven by a Bedouin in traditional garb. He speaks English and asks if I'm American. I say yes. He persists, "Jewish?" "Palestinian Jew," I answer lightly. Usually that's a pretty good ice breaker, but this time I almost wind up wearing the windshield as a necklace. My Bedouin is none to sparing with the brakes and my joke does not amuse him. I have to remember that in this country, the Verb has the power of life and death. I stick the earphones back in and look out the window at my private TV show. It's weird how even the slightest screen makes life seem kind of unreal; so empty and cheap. Now I understand how cameramen get killed so easily.
I'm so happy to see my little family again. They laugh while they tell me what a wonderful afternoon they spent. Maggie describes exotic banana cocktails and a very tall man who taught her how to swim. I glance at Lena, assuming that she's allowed herself to be flirted with. I don't ask any questions, after all, I deserve it. I could have stayed with them and seen the old town this evening, or even tomorrow morning. But no, I had to torture myself with all this insanity. When I look at the map of Israel and Jordan, I see a pussy; two thick lips open around the Dead Sea. Lena chose the pleasure of water, I chose the wound. I can't help it, I've always been like that. Israel, the sex of the world, the land from which will spring Truth or Apocalypse. The Holy Land repells me and attracts me as if her Venerable Old God were really just some vindictive teenager playing yo-yo with my soul. But I'm not some puppet, I'm a god too, and if the old man up there wants my respect, he'd better stop all the killing!
When we got to the foot of Herod's Wall, I lifted my eyes to Him, my thoughts wound up in one rebellious scream: "Hey, you, Mister All Powerful, are you listening? We don't need you anymore. No more! You've done enough harm as it is. You're fired! I piss on your beard!" He didn't bother to reply.
I know it sounds stupid, but it felt great at the moment. Right now, the sun is going down. On the horizon, olive trees stand out against the violet sky, and loneliness wraps her icy arms around my heart. Still, I'd rather go naked than live like some slave wrapped in religion's rotten finery. Its my choice. I feel Maggie's warm, confident hand in mine. She is life. She is hope. I don't need any other beliefs. We enter the sanctuary. Halt! No children allowed in the sacred sites. What - they aren't pure enough?
Oh well, Lena and Maggie will have to wait for me outside. I go into the grotto with a Jewish group. A rabbi is chanting somewhere in the distance. So this is the final resting place of Abraham and Isaac. A few so-called sacred square feet for which humanity could go up in flames. It's too ridiculous for words. No photos allowed, but with a pencil you can pirate beautiful souvenirs.
* * *
When we came out a large group of Palestinians had assembled, barring our path. A nightmare scenario come true. I couldn't see Lena and Maggie, but figured they had to be waiting for me on the other side. Of course push came to shove with the more rabid members of each side exhanging insults, then blows. I held back, hoping to contour the group and get my girls out of there, but when I reached the other side, they weren't there either. I started to panic, running up and down the sidewalk, calling their names. At this point, the riot squads moved in, with tear gas and billyclubs. The crowd broke up fast, I was swept down a side street. I don't know how, but a few minutes later I found myself back at the hotel, and miraculously, there was Lena waiting for me with Maggie in her arms. While we had dinner in the hotel's dining room, curfew was announced. On the news they said three Israeli soldiers were killed in an ambush on the other side of town while our riot was going on.
Mu'askar el Arub
This morning there was a roadblock on the main highway out of Hebron, and rather than wait we decided to take the secondary road. And, of course, about twenty minutes out of town, the car started to over-heat. We just made it to the outskirts of this tiny village before it gave up the ghost under the one tree in the school yard. Children poured out of the school and clustered around the car. Maggie didn't even wake up when we stopped. Lena clung onto the steering wheel for dear life. Almost as if she thought the car would magically leave without her if she let go. She looked over at me, almost pleading with her eyes, "David, do something." The only thing I could see to do was get out and find someone to ask for help. A bemused looking young woman standing at the school door was the only candidate for the moment. I broke through the ring of children and approached her. As luck would have it she spoke perfect English.
"Yes, your car. I see you have a problem. Garage here? Oh no, there's nothing here. The closest mechanic is in town, fifteen kilometers that way."
And the one telephone in the village hasn't worked in the past two weeks. The young woman's name was Yasmina. It turned out that she had a cousin, Ahmed, and that Ahmed had a moped. It took some persuasion but he agreed to make the trip into town and have them send a tow truck. At best it would be a couple of hours before it would come. By the time I got back to the car, Maggie was awake, sitting in Lena's lap. I took her in my arms and the three of us walked a little ways past the school, just to get a look around. The building was situated at one end of a plateau overlooking a valley, perhaps two or three miles across. The view was not what I expected. On the slope, just below the village an entire olive grove, lay uprooted on its side. It couldn't have happened more than two weeks ago, and a few precoscious blossums still clung to the branches. While I puzzled over this sight Yasmina joined us.
"Sad, isn't it? My family planted them three centuries ago, and tended them lovingly ever since. Last week Israelis came through with their bulldozers. They said they had to clear the land to make a new road to that settlement they're building over there. They did the same thing in the other two villages in this valley. Its quite significant that they should knock down olive trees while supposedly negotiating peace."
I didn't know what to say. What was I thinking when I decided to come here? I felt so ashamed of America's always turning a blind eye to Israeli violations, while being so quick to denounce the Arabs for fighting back. I thought Israel would be just the place to do a little soul searching, but now here I am, carrying the weight of U.S. foreign policy in the region. And yet, when I looked in Yasmina's eyes, I knew that somehow she didn't blame me.
In town, though, its another story. You can see the resentment simmering just under the surface. You hear it in the way they tell you your car can't be fixed, Speedy-Rent-A-Car will have to send another one, and unfortunately that will take two days. I guess they must be taking their nap. So we're stuck here, about half way between Hebron and Jerusalem. We've missed the last bus going either way, so we'll just have to spend the night here, rent another car in Jerusalem and come back for the luggage. Lena's worried about taking a bus, and I have to admit I'm not too comfortable with the idea either. We've seen too many suspiciously fresh shaved young men with disproportionate beer-bellies waiting at the bus stops. In any case, it doesn't look like we have too much choice. And right now, we have to go and try to find some dinner. Apparently our "hotel's" cook has been arrested, so there's no food to be had here.
Sunday, January 12.
Today we were sitting in a café on the East side of the Christian quarter. The warm spicy coffee brought back long ago mornings in my mother's kitchen. A splendid young Sabra walked through my reverie and sat down with her granny. From the profile she was stunning. She turned to call a waiter. That's how I saw the angry red scar ran from her temple down over her crushed left jaw. Our waiter noticed my just-off-the- boat look of shock. My God! What happened to her? She went to the market. This is what happens in Jerusalem when you are just minding your own business, doing your shopping, or simply walking down the street.
"They're like mad dogs - no regard for sanctity of innocence!" he added, slamming down cups on his tray. The girl's granny shook her head sadly,
"The bullet that killed Rabin, unleashed new hords of demons on our poor country."
Demons . . .
And as we speak, on the sidewalk opposite the café, a Palestinian family struggles to bundle up its belongings. A poster on the building proclaims their guilt to all the world: one of their sons is a convicted terrorist. The sentence of homelessness will fall upon their heads when the demolition crew arrives in a half hour.
Greetings from Jerusalem.
Monday, January 13.
I'll never understand this place. The harder I look, the farther I feel from my roots, or mystic revelation, or whatever it was I came here to find. Everything is so crazy. I try to get away from nightmares of Mia, and I find a girl with a blown up face. And yet some people get such a charge out of this place that they never come down. What is it with all those Moses', Abrahams and Jesuses filling up the asylums? Maybe they feel it too much, but how come can't I feel it at all?
Maybe the vibrations are stronger under ground. In any case, today I'm going down into the tunnel. Will I find my roots in that dark, humid place? I'm lucky I got here before they turned it into a shopping mall - I might still have half a chance after all!
Two angel faced guards at the steel plated doors send the visitors through metal detectors, "Excuse me, Sir, but children aren't allowed." Lena rolls her eyes. "Don't worry, David, I'll meet you at the exit." She and Maggie wave. I head for the stairs, taking their smiles where they themselves can't go.
The staircase seems interminable. I'm starting to envy Lena and Maggie out there in the fresh air. Every landing, the temperature rises. It feels like I'm descending into Hell. This writing mania is getting ridiculous. Ever tried taking notes while descending a spiral staircase?
I caught up with the group here in front this ancient pool. The guide says that it was mentioned in writings from the times of Joseph Flavius. I have an irresistable urge to dive in. Maybe my roots just need water.
Wishful thinking. I walk down the middle of this stone vagina, from here I can reach out and touch both sterile sides. There's nothing here at all! Just a blind worm crawling through this crack. No Secrets. No Revelation. And nothing inside me. Just up ahead, a black hat and curls murmurs his psalms. For what? To whom? Maybe he's praying for peace. Maybe he, too, is afraid of the Apocalypse. But when it comes, I'm afraid that all our prayers will fall on no ears at all. There's only chaos, and beyond that, the void. God is dead and Nietzsche had syphillis.
* * *
This is no nightmare, I know its not, but I'd give anything - anything at all - to make it one. The sun is gray, its heat gives me chills. I can't remember the last time I had anything to eat. I don't know anything, anymore. I write, I walk, and write some more, desperately hanging on to my little paper lifeline.
This can't be happening. Any minute it's going to stop; there will be another big tremor and everything will fall back into place. The light bouncing off the city's domes will be golden again, and I'll find myself in some sidewalk café eating ice cream with my girls, yes, or else Maggie will traipse into the room wanting a drink of water before bed. That's it, Maggie will come into the room. . . what room?
I look around me just to be sure. I am in Jerusalem, but I can't seem to remember where our hotel is. I guess our luggage must be there. We brought it from Hebron, I think. The last thing I remember clearly is the tunnel. That was real. I'm sure of it; I can still feel the solidity of the rock. If this were a nightmare, my hands would have gone right through those walls. And here we go again, stuck in the same grooves. Everything is so confused after that. I can't build any coherent sequence from what I think happened next. I spit on God and when I came out of the tunnel, a crowd was gathering on the Via Dolorosa. Some young Palestinians were shouting at these settlers they accused of taking advantage of Arab expulsions from that part of the city. The lady next to me said in English,
"And now they're going to fight. Why do they always have to do this?" I still see her perfectly; a little round Michelin woman with sun glasses. I know I'm not delirious. Everyone was jammering on, I looked around for Lena. People suddenly started running in every direction and things shifted into fast forward. An Arab woman screamed, I saw blood on the ground. Then I heard a burst on automatic gunfire, a sort of dry, dull noise. Much less spectacular than in the movies. I thought, "Somebody shot Lena," but then I saw her, running with the others, holding Maggie in her arms. I began to run, too. I had almost caught up with them when all of a sudden the anti-riot trucks charged around a corner straight into the crowd. The five khaki monsters encased in metal bars were followed by a run-down jeep zig-zagging all over the road. At that precise moment I saw the Palestinian level his M16 and spray the street with another round. I still can't quite believe it. I try pinching myself in an effort to wake up. But instead I get this never-ending instant replay. Sharp and clean, the sound of jaws clacking shut. Death's claws rip through my mind. The words won't come. I scream and she falls. Lena falls. I see her propelled forward with Maggie in her arms, very slowly, right in front of the jeep. The screech of tires burns my ears, then crack. A soft, dirty sound as her skull, her tiny skull, disappears under the bumper. Why do you call it bumper? It doesn't bump at all, it hits very hard. What difference does it make anyway? I have to wake up.
Why does it keep coming back? Since I'm dreaming, it should stop all by itself. Morning should come so I can wake up. What worries me though, is that usually in dreams, when they go in loops like this, small details always change. This one remains relentlessly the same. I have a fever, I feel my forehead dripping with sweat. I've got the chills, I'm shaking. How is it I can even go on writing? Maybe I'm not writing. Maybe that's just another part of the dream. And back on the street, the dust settles. I'm still running. I smell this strange metallic odor, a mix of gun powder and blood. I see them stretched out on the white ceiling of this room. Lena, eyes wide open, a big hole in her side. Maggie, eyes closed, a red ooze trickling from her nose and the corner of her mouth. Lena's green eyes, so green, and the red, too red, and the white ambulance that takes them away. I remember everything, even the little ray of sunlight splashing against the transfusion bag. Hey, I've already seen this movie! But when?
They screamed, "quick, get in!" "But where are we going?" I wondered as I got in next to the driver. The ambulance careened through the streets, but when we got to the hospital, I didn't see anything. I think I heard someone say, "too late." For who? Maggie? Me? Too late for what?
Any moment now I'm going to wake up in my bed, in our house on the hill, dominating all of LA. But when I look out the window there's a street sign saying Shoni Halachot. Why would I dream in Hebrew? Hey, I don't even know Hebrew - but this is written in roman letters. Oh yeah, like they do in Jerusalem. They do it for the tourists. Like us?
Somebody behind me just screamed her name. I turn around. There's no-one there. I have to write, 'there wasn't anyone there'. I'm all alone in this room. My love, they killed my child and my wife. They killed them and what am I going to do now?
Everything is all mixed up. I go out. I see my feet on the sidewalk. I lift my hands in this dream and my shadow trembles on brown walls. Over there, below that huge dome, some Jews say their prayers. That must be the Wailing Wall. I still don't feel a damned thing - that's the weirdest part of it all! I've been sitting here, watching them forever, my body has turned to stone. I'm nothing more than an eye in the middle of all the ruins. I'm the eye of God looking at these men who turn their backs on me to pray. But I'm the one they should ask for forgiveness, only me!
Silence. Wondrous silence.
I have to get my passport back. I think the soldiers took it. I double check; no, it's not in my wallet. That doesn't prove anything, though. I've already had some nasty dreams where I lost my identity. In the one I'm having now, I hear this voice that says, "Oh my God, forgive me my overbearing pride. I beg of you, stop this hell!", and another voice answers the first: "No, let him go fuck himself!" Which is the right one?
The light explodes off the five golden cupolas of the Orthodox chuch facing the mosque. Between the two there is a Wall - just the way Berlin used to be. I still have the Walkman glued to my ears. Prince drones on, "Sign . . . Sign . . ." Soon will come the end of time. Everyone will have forgotten, even me. We spend our whole lives forgetting. I've already forgotten what dream I'm sleeping in, but I act like everything is normal.
Where did they go?
They wrapped them in gold metalic sheets, the doctor didn't even stop to look. In the emergency room a little boy was screaming, "Imma, Imma," 'mommy' in Arab. He'd lost half his arm in the tumult. I felt like killing myself. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, save me! I beg you! Am I going mad? Start again from the beginning, try to piece it all together. First of all, how did I get here?
Lena drove us back to Hebron so we could pick up the luggage. I navigated and took notes. It was the new car we got in Jerusalem. The Speedy agency there was still closed, so I had to fork over more cash for a second rental. Cash. Do I still have any? Check. My wallet is still here, right in my pocket where it belongs. And there's money inside. But how on earth did I manage to hang onto this notebook? What day is it?
We got here Sunday. The tunnel was Monday? Was that yesterday? The day before? Yesterday. I'm tired, so tired.
I have to try to get some sleep.
* * *
Real or not, the bus slowly rattles and bounces along. We've had to stop three times already and wait while heavily guarded construction crews struggle to clear away impromptu barricades. I look around at the other passengers; shepherds, farmers, their kids. They're all Arab. I'm the only Jew. I wonder why I can't hate them. I should wish them blown clean off the face of the Earth. Hell, I should wish to push the button! But what does that mean? Even less now than it did in LA. In that horrible dream the other night, an Arab murdered Lena, but the jeep that killed Maggie was Israeli. So Arab, Jew, its all the same. And anyway, it was only a dream.
But if they're not dead, where are they?
A stop light. Burning red, like the blood pouring out of her side. Am I delirious? If Maggie and Lena stayed in LA, why do I have three return tickets in my pocket? Its written right there, Lod/LAX, and our names. First Lena, then Mggie - they forgot the "a", then mine. None of this makes sense. Is some spiteful God getting back at me for refusing to believe? Come on, David, get a grip. Just relax, breathe . . . Everything is fine.
To my left, a venerable old grandfather fingers his prayer beads. He smiles and nods benevolently at the olive trees parading past the window - like he's greeting personal friends. On the other side of the bus, a young man in Palestinian head-dress keeps turning around to scowl in my direction. He doesn't hate me in particular, he just sees the world from the lofty vantage point of his outraged innocence. In these parts, some guys younger than him have already spilled blood.
When I close my eyes, the scent of spicy lamb mingles with a sharp orange aroma. I try to hold on to it and take notes without looking, but the reflex is too strong.
A long tunnel of dark emptiness. At the end I handed a piece of paper to a taxi driver, then suddenly an army official looms into view, offering sincerest condoleances. What am I supposed to do with those? ". . . just an accident . . . we are so profoundly grieved . . ." He goes over it so many times that in the end I can hardly keep it straight, "just . . . so very grieved . . . profound . . . accident." What's this accident he keeps talking about?
Some papers land on the desk in front of me. I sign. I sign everything. He's saying something about bodies, but I'm too busy signing to really follow. I have to get back to my patients, especially Chloe before her mother runs out of leave time. And Lena must wonder where I am. When I get back to normal life in LA, everything will settle down. I have to take care of people, its my reason for living. When I reread that last line, I can't believe I even wrote it. My reason for living? What crap! I should just erase it all.
* * *
I walked East for a long time on the road out of Jerusalem. A cold wind blew eddies of pink grit into my eyes and hair. Some of it got into my nose before I pulled my scarf closer over my face. I don't know how far I might have gone on, maybe all the way to Jerico, but a truck stopped. I got in. The driver spoke good English but with a thick French accent. He said he grew up near Marseilles. He asked where I was going and I pointed to the hills in front of us.
"I'm just looking for a little peace. Where can you find that around here?"
He shook his head and laughed. If I'd come to the Holy Land looking for peace, I'd picked the wrong spot. He doubted they'd ever have peace this side of Eternity.
"You should ask your Brooklyn financiers about it when you get home. Its looks to me like they're the ones holding the cards. We're just hostages for deals made and services rendered."
We rode along in silence, until we reached his turn off at the edge of a village marketplace. I jumped down from the cab, and there, all around, on people's faces, in the air itself; Serenity, a miraculous calm outside of time. Both Arabs and Jews wore it like luminous, divine garments. I sat down on a large flat rock and watched dust dancing around the feet of an ass. A black veiled woman balanced a bundle on her head. I thought about Mary and Jesus. A bubble of rage and blasphemy swelled to bursting in my heart, but a profound lassitude broke my cries as they rose to my lips. The sobs remained, but no tears, it seems I've used those all up. It felt good all the same, and finally I understood.
My pride has left nothing but ruins all around me, and now its too late. I stood up and started walking again, past the village and into the wilderness. Then it hit me. This was the same mountain road as in my dream. The devil in the restaurant spoke of death and that dream. Now I'm right in the middle of both. The only way out is to go straight through. I take off my shoes and follow a shepherd's trail off to the right. I want my feet to bleed on this ground, to mix my blood and this earth before I turn back to solitude and night.
On my way out of Jerusalem, I passed the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. I thought about Lena. I tried calling home from the next phone I found but there was no answer. I'm starting to think its no use. She'll never answer again. If that's true, how will I ever drive away the despair? I wonder if I can get morphine here with my AMA member's card? No, I'll call again tonight. Maybe she just went out. But what about those tickets?
When I got back to the hotel, my feet were so torn up that the receptionist immediately called a doctor. I must have walked ten miles on that little path before it hooked up with the main road again. Mission accomplished. I left a bloody trail through the hills of Samaria, as if it mattered. It won't change a thing and when I get back to LA, the house will be empty. They're dead. Its written in black and white on this damned paper they made me sign. It says they'll be buried in the Christian cemetary here in Jerusalem, but when I signed I didn't realise I was giving my consent. They tricked me. So? Now what? What good would it do to take them back to the States? Its weird, I still can't bring myself to believe its real. There's a stabbing pain in my gut, but my heart is empty. My feet are killing me, but there's one more thing I have to do; find a black suit.
Its over. Israel has taken what I held dearest. The image is branded into my memory with red-hot irons. Two holes under a tall cypress. Two rectangles, side by side, like an equal sign. A fair exchange; I abandon God, God abandons me. That's how I read it at the time, but I know that's stupid. There's nothing out there, nothing but my poor mind trying to impose some order on Chaos. Nothing but a tear - only one! My life is ashes scattered around the charred shell of a tree stump. I've put too much energy into death and disease and they've eaten away my soul.
The bell boy at the hotel knows this guy who can help with my memory problems - at least temporarily. A bit of opium should knock it right out until I get back to LA. I've been waiting in this café for hours, scribbling notes, sipping expressos and cognacs. I called Chloe, she answered. She's waiting for me. She says that if I save her, she'll save me too. But is there anything left of me to save?
* * *
If only I could cry. The brilliant sea unfurls lazy waves beneath the wing of the plane; an immense blue screen onto which I project images of my sadness. I see my daughter, my wife, and all the others, dying like the wavering flames of a thousand tiny candles. I 've got to warn to the other passengers, shout at them if I have to, to make them listen. But its already too late even for them. Hopelessness is boring. So you just have to keep going, with no regrets, no conscience. No one wants to hear about it. I swallowed a little black ball just before take-off. Its starting to take effect; the sorrow crumbles away and living becomes almost bearable. I feel a little queazy, with this vague sense of nostalgia for I don't know what, but the beautiful lapis ripples smooth my worries away. They roll along with the seeming regularity of a metronome, but each one is unique.
The guy I got the opium from is a former army pilot. He dropped bombs on Beirut, but doesn't lose any sleep over it. He said that in the final analysis he probably killed less Arabs than they have themselves. His English was perfect, but I could barely get out one coherent sentence. We understood each other, though. Peace and Love. Now Sammy's against the war. He ties his poneytail with a rainbow striped bandana and sells drugs to tourists. He thinks he's building a whole new world.
I want a glass of milk. The flight attendant brings it. She doesn't seem to notice anything, but I'm making an effort to be perfectly normal. My hand seems very weak though, far away and languid. I write like a machine, just to keep in touch with myself. When I reread this in LA, I hope I'll be able to make sense of it. For now, though, I just see my fingers tracing long strands of black spaghetti across white emptiness.
I'm doing just fine.
Which won't stop me from killing the bastard who opened fire into the crowd.
Its no use. Every time I close my eyes a grotesque nightmare world swirls around my brain. I can't make it stop. The flight attendant handed out some newspapers which all talk about the attack. When I opened my eyes, I saw a photo of Lena and Maggie on the front page of an Israeli daily. The LA Times speaks of extremist commandos, "provocateurs" according to the Palestinian Authority. But what good are these nuances to me? I just want to forget, to bury the words in that damned tunnel and seal it up for all time. So why keep scrawling word after inept word? They tell cruel stories that scratch deep gashes into my heart. Their sad shapes sting my eyes. I read over these last lines. My scribbling is almost illegible. I must have fallen asleep several times while writing them. I guess the opium is doing its job, after a fashion. You can even spot the points where I start to nod off: all of a sudden, mid-sentence, the letters fade away into lines determined to go their own way. I'm reading someone else's story, this guy called David Levi, a real basket case sleeping off his poppy juice. He says he's gonna get all the kiddy-killers, but who appointed him avengeing angel?
I must have slept a long time. We're about to land. One last quarter turn puts us almost in line with the sun who hangs on the horizon to watch our perfect three point landing. I sigh. For a second there I thought we might crash and I could finish with this pain. Well that's one more hope down the drain. I guess I'll have to find some way to keep living. Garlands of lights glow along the runway, a festive show to welcome me home. How nice.
I made it through. Standing in line at customs I suddenly remembered I have nearly two hundred grams of opium in my pockets, and a ten year sentence hanging over my head. I was so out of it that I just smiled tiredly as I passed under "nothing to declare". Good bloodhounds that they are, they waved me right through and stopped the hippy behind me. I headed straight to the nearest bar and without thinking, ordered two vodkas: one for Lena and one for me. Her spirit looked at me with wide eyes and said, "This is not the moment to get shit-faced." Strange. Lena never used to swear. I guess she picked it up from some celestial hoodlum. Its OK, I'm not jealous. I took her advice and didn't drink the second vodka. Better not make a spectacle of myself before I can get this dope into a safe place. If they took it from me, I think I'd die. Why is it illegal? It should be available on prescription. Morphine is. Just the same, I'd better play it cool, or I'll wind up like my junkie spider friend.
* * *
I made a quick trip into the liquor store on Sunset. Anything to avoid my the house, but the destination was badly chosen. I went there out of habit. Unfortunately, it's the one kept by Lebanese. They never seemed threatening before. Before what?
Don't think about it!
They hate me. I could see it in their eyes. They think I'm a drunk, a poor no-account Jew. They're wrong. I'll show them. I'll make them pay.
Listen to this idiot ranting about revenge! What would I do with revenge if I could have it? Would it bring back my wife and daughter? God, I'm so tired. I went by Selma Ave. There was no light in her window. I went up anyway. Chloe was in bed but she wasn't sleeping. She's an insomniac, hallucinations keep her awake. Funny, she never seems to lack sleep.
She let me in. By her attitude, I could tell that Michelle wasn't there. I put my arms around her and kissed her like a little sister. She let me, but didn't return my kiss. That's when I realised that she's my only family now. We didn't exchange a single word. I pointed at the futon in the living room. Who's is it? Chloe's or that bitch Michelle's? Doesn't really matter. Chloe nodded and went back to her own bed. I think she wants to make me sorry that I abandoned her. If she had any idea how sorry I am!
This morning when I finally woke up she was sitting near my feet watching over me. We sat on the futon, drinking coffee in silence. Then she tugged on my hand and said, "Come on, I want to show you." The Spring wall is almost finished, and it's superb. A pastel rainbow weaving pinks and yellows over a sky streaked with fire. Chloe has talent, her colors speak for her. I couldn't help but see it, although this morning nausea has gotten the better of my aesthetic appreciations. Must be the opium, but I guess I'll get used to it.
I've decided not to kill myself. I'll just construct a new life, here in my little bubble, where no-one can get at me. And I'll keep up appearances so I won't have the cops and shrinks beating down my door. Still no tears in sight. I'm dry-eyed and empty hearted. Life is beautiful. Chloe is sitting on her bed. I look at her. She looks at me. We watch each other like that for a good twenty minutes. I have the disturbing feeling that she's listening to me and she understands. No need to wear out your vocal cords to make yourself heard, right Chloe? She smiles, I smile back. Then I panic. I'm terrified of winding up like her. I try to remember whether Lena said she'd wait lunch for me, then I hear a rumbling like the world's splitting apart and I see Jerusalem again. The riot on the Via Dolorosa. The equal sign under the cypress tree.
I go to the window. I look at the people on the street below, and the dirty stucco walls of the corner bar. Even this early in the day, guys hang out down there, trying to cheat boredom with cards. Last night I found one just outside; the Queen of Hearts. Of course. Fate doesn't even bother going behind my back to laugh anymore.
The bar has a funny name: The White Crow. Wonder where they got that? The sudden sight of a brown face stirs up a cloud of hate. Another Arab! I never noticed there were so many before. When did they all sneak in here? The beast has awakened. I've got a taste for blood. I know its a primary feeling, but those people owe me for my wife and daughter. Eye for an eye. Isn't that their law?
Bastards! Fucking fanatic bastards! Its all their fault! I hate them! And to think that not so long ago, I sympathised with their cause. But sympathy is a luxury only effete utopian idealists can afford. Today, no matter how hard I look, I see only their intolerance. It makes me puke! I know we're just the same, but at least in the camps we paid our dues in advance, and the Torah never preached holy war.
I don't dare reread. That has got to be the most vile, unjust shit that ever passed my mind. I need to get it out, but thank God no-one will ever read this.
A soft murmur breaks through my rumination. It's Chloe to the rescue with soothing, calming words. Smooth, warm fingers wipe the sweat from my brow. Then she takes my face between her two hands and peers intently into my eyes. Her lazer blue probe works its charm, and when she has my undivided attention, she draws me into her world,
"Tomorrow I'm starting Summer. Just for you, for us. Why did it take you so long to come back? I thought I was going to die, I was all dried up, I didn't drink anymore, its a good thing Michelle was here. She slept next to me and made me bouillon, do you hear how strange the words sound? When I say bouillon, I hear boiling and everything boils over, its because of you, there's a storm boiling inside of you, your throughts shriek, its hurts me, don't you understand? You believe me, don't you? It doesn't matter, you're my doctor, you can't ever die, ever, you've got to help me."
Her voice starts to shimmer, like her eyes, as her soliloqui runs on. I ride the same wavelength even though I know its risky. I don't want to end up sitting on a bed counting my fingers.
At noon we nibbled at a couple of cookies and shared a cup of tea. Chloe was in excellent spirits; it was the first meal we'd shared. She told me her mother had come but couldn't stay. Mrs. Lazarus left a letter for me, thanking me for helping her daughter but emphasizing that Chloe showed no sign of real recovery. But who's talking about a cure? At this point I'd be happy just to give back what Chloe gives me: comfort in my suffering.
Around five PM I noticed that I hadn't once thought of taking opium. When I'm with my little forget-me-not life flows on, somewhere else, somewhere very far away. I guess that's the perverse privilege of madness. It'll be hard not to give into that temptation. I got up and left. Chloe didn't try to stop me. Now she's the stronger of us two, and she knows I'll be back.
* * *
Of course the house was empty. And of course their things were all over the place. The size two red coat. A stuffed monkey. A pair of high heeled boots. A bathroom full of lotions and creams. An endless list of objects ganging up to pound me over the head with brutal memories. I turn on the radio, and stop the reflex to turn it off again. Prince, of course, but I'd better get used to it. I check the thermostat. The heat is way up, so I pull the blanket tighter around me and shuffle back to the bedroom for another pair of socks. I remind myself that its perfectly normal to be cold, I haven't eaten anything in two days, and despair never kept anyone warm. So I'll just finish this pipe of opium. Then I'll go back to Tel Aviv and meet up with my girls on the beach. Maggie will frolic with the dolphins in the aquarium. We'll laugh, and they'll carry me out to sea. I want to be a fish, too - its so much easier. I take another big hit, and whosh, I'm floating! I bounce along on the sea-foam. The divine dolphins laugh to see me so happy, and Maggie splashes in her mother's arms. I see them both near the shore, waving to me. They love me, they're alive, and this is no less real than anything else. The more I think about it, I'm sure the buddhists are right: Death is only an illusion - just like everything else. They call that Maya. I'm warm now, romping around in the water while my family dance to tragic riffs: "Time . . . Time". Why did I open my eyes?
Because I don't really want to get lost on the way. I don't want to end up with a permanent lease on a room at the Maxwell Institute. Tomorrow morning I'll go back to the office, like nothing ever happened. I won't say a thing to anyone - they don't need to know. I'll squeez in more patients and raise my rates. I want money - and lots of it - so Diana and I can throw fist-fulls of hundred dollar bills into this gaping crevise at our feet. Diana or Lyne or . . . I'll toast the devil in every bar in LA. Why wait for the Big One to swallow me up? So much for feelings, so much for dreams. Heart of ice and cock of steel; a new motto for a new me.
But all kidding aside, I've got to find some way to cope with this emptiness.
It's no use making plans, life just does what it wants anyway. I got to the office at precisely eight am. Three minutes later the phone rang. An easy house call for lunch time - piece of cake. I turned on the computor and concentrated on organizing my notes. Thanks to an early morning toke, my head was screwed on more or less straight and the pain was just about bearable. Then, at 8:17, the untimely arrival of Mrs. Franklin, an old biddy who spends her days inventing new illnesses. Its true she's painfully thin, but sometimes she over does it. This time, she's having trouble swallowing her saliva - but only during meals. And since she was out walking Harry (an overweight doxin) and she noticed I was in early, she thought she'd take advantage of the occasion. I invited her and Harry to have a seat since consultations don't usually start until eight-thirty. That's when I noticed her dabbing at her eyes with a certain ostentation. I paused, and then she really started in, sniffling and staring at me mournfully.
"Are you alright?" I asked politely.
"Oh, Doctor, I should be asking you the same thing!"
I stiffened. I can't stand it when patients reverse the roles. "And why may that be?" I squeezed out through clenched teeth. She held up a week-old newspaper clipping, and without even looking at it, I understood. I suddenly had trouble swallowing my saliva, too. I'm not sure how much my grimace resembled the sad smiles we paste on in such circumstances, but I still managed to mumble,
"We all have our crosses to bear, Mrs. Franklin, but we have to get on with life. I sincerely appreciate your concern, but please, let's not speak about it anymore."
That bitch drank it all in. She was delighted to be the first to wallow in my grief. I put on my steeliest face. I'm sure, though, that by noon all the other grannies in the neighborhood will have had a blow-by-blow account. I felt like I'd been flayed alive, but then again, lets not exaggerate.
"Of course, dear Doctor Levi, I won't mention it again. But if you need anything . . ."
I thanked her then let her stew a good half hour in the waiting room. Meanwhile, I had a big glass of water and a couple of benzo-whatevers for my nerves. Usually I stay away from those things, they make me depressed. But this morning, I was so far down they could only bring me back up.
By twenty after nine, the biddy brigade was there in force, tossing live gossip grenades back and forth in low whispers. When I opened the door to see Mrs. Franklin out, they all turned toward me with a single movement. Mrs. Franklin flounced past them with a triumphant, "Ladies." then was gone. I stared them down, one after the other, just daring them to ask questions. Not one did. Each of them has good health coverage and a reimbursable pretext for the visit. I took advantage of their bad faith by charging for special consultations at twice the normal rate. Just before the last one, I took an extra pink pill and things are going much better now. I go back to my notes and start giggling mindlessly. Pull yourself together, David, old buddy, you'll see, we're going to get through this mess.
This time I've had it!
At eleven fifteen Jamal Ali came in gripping his right arm. We share an appreciation for Hamed's falafal and pastries. I guess that's what gave him the idea of coming here rather than going straight to Emergency - which, given his state, should have been the obvious choice. Despite the makeshift tourniquet, the red drops he left on my carpet would have been a surefire replacement for Hansel and Gretle's breadcrumbs. A nice addition to the collection I started when the jerk with the spaniel came in. That visit cost me an industrial cleaning job and even that didn't get everything out.
Anyway, Jamal works on a construction sight a couple blocks down towards Beverly Hills. Apparently a two hundred pound beam had it in for his hand. I surveyed the damage. A talented surgeon should be able to save enough of it to keep him in manual labor, but he'd never play the piano again. I shared my observations in a clinical tone of voice and he replied, every bit as seriously, that he didn't play the piano anyway. I thought this might denote a sense of humor, but no, he was just on the verge of fainting. By now he looked like he'd been swimming in tomato soup, so I stretched him out in front of the desk and called an ambulance. He didn't move a muscle. His face was turning a lovely shade of olive green and I felt the Nazi in me swelling up contentedly. I had an Arab lying on my floor in a pool of blood, like some mangy dog, and I felt gleeful. All kinds of sick fantasies started springing up from I don't know what cess-pool in my mind. It was edifying. I could just see myself taking a scalpel to his balls. Me, a doctor and a pacifist besides! So here's your proof that Civilisation is nothing more than a very thin veneer. How cliché.
I guess the important thing is that I didn't do it. What's more, I didn't waste nearly as much time calling 911 as I might have.
The conditional past is still a big problem. Should have, would have, could have. When I let myself go, I'm back in Israel with Lena. I see myself as I was, irritable, unfair, indifferent to everything, even Maggie, my little princess who asked nothing more of life than to go on living it. A whole flock of "why didn't you's" flaps around my head, but I still can't cry. Nobody can understand; you just can't live another's pain.
Five minutes can make such a difference.
If I had known that it was our last day, I would have been more tender, more affectionate, more available. But then again, if I'd known, none of this would have happened. This is the kind of syllogism wandering through my mind. I take note, just for form's sake. Then I think back to last Christmas Eve when I abandoned them to go hang out with a bunch of strangers at Sacred Bleeding Heart. I'm such a shit. No good as a husband, and even worse as a father. I just caught myself looking around the office for fixtures strong enough to support my weight. But I won't give in, because as bad as I am, God is infinitely worse! If He knows everything, controls everything - then he knows already how it will all come out. So what is the point of putting us through all this hell?
That's exactly what I asked the old man who came in this afternoon. He knew all about what happened. He'd seen the photos in the papers, like everyone else. He said that for those who love, death is always unfair.
"For everybody else, too!" I shot back, playing the tough guy. And while none of that really means anything, it warmed my heart. For the first time since that day in Jerusalem, I felt like I was back among the living.
The old man is a great painter. Everybody around here knows him. They call him Paul. I know his last name, but go along with everyone else. Paul is rich. In the fifties a bunch of his famous artist pals gave him the beginnings of one of LA's finest private collections. His own paintings never sold well, although he was no less talented than the others. He just devoted too much time to the ladies and not enough to his career. He's the one who told me so. And then one day, he met Georgina. She was only supposed to replace his regular model for one day, but then she wound up staying for everything else. They were inseparable until that morning last winter when Georgina didn't wake up.
"She was really incredible, doc."
I nod sympathetically, and he goes on and on. I forget about my own life, about time, about money.
I wonder what that means.
A few months Paul came in to see me about his cholesterol and I barely listened to him. Maybe I'm making progress, but then again, maybe its only some machiavelic plot by my subconscious to wrangle a bit of sympathy out of others. Who knows.
Man is nothing more than an ambulent stomach. All day I've been stuffing myself. I can't help it. I started in this morning with a chocolate bar between each consultation. For lunch I made a pilgrimage to the Royal Phoenix. I replayed the clip of our last moments, but that didn't come between me and my bowl of fish soup, or the stuffed chicken wings and sticky rice that followed. That's life. I guess I needed the calories. Tonight I brought a pizza back to the house. I finished off the last cold slice while writing. I have too much time on my hands now.
Late Wednesday night.
After work, I went over to Chloe's. I stayed at least three hours, but at ten thirty found myself alone on the street with no other goal than to complain about my fate. However, as Lena's father said on more than one occasion: the best revenge is to live well. I decided that a good restaurant would do for a start. My appetite is completely out of control, and when I see all the other appetites roaming the streets it seems amazing we don't eat each other up. Is this an early symptom of psychosis? We'll see soon enough. Chloe feels all this latent violence, and speaks to me about it often. It's the main reason she wants to become a child-care worker. She thinks that young children are exempt from all wickedness, and I don't set her straight. If she gets her certificate, she'll be able to spend her days raising tender blossoms in a local nursery school. Much better than being stuck in some institution.
Man, I'm starving! But aren't oral fixations a sign of regression?
I found a great restaurant. I stuffed myself, and washed down the meal with a terrific bottle of burgundy the waiter had hidden away. That really uncorked my head, and sometime around midnight found me knocking at Diana's door. Ten points to the devil for a job well done: I heard music, she was at home. She was listening to Hotel California, a fetish album we put on every time we make love. For a second I was afraid she wasn't alone. Then she opened the door, naked under her tee-shirt. One glance at her ass as she turned to lead the way, and I was hers. A burning delirium left me dizzy and shaking. When I woke up, we were still intertwined. I gently pulled away to go have another toke. I always have it with me now. I don't want to come crashing down in the middle of some crucial moment. But sometimes the pain is so exquisite that I could drive into on-coming traffic without even meaning to. Then I say to myself, "Don't kid yourself, David. Suicide is never more than an extreme way of doing yourself good by doing yourself harm." And then I reread and think, "Sounds like bad Sylvia Plath".
Wisps of smoke revolve slowly in the faint glow of the lamp by the bed. Hovering near the ceiling, I wipe at three dry tears with the tip of my wing. Below me the dusky curves of the sleeping woman, skin becomes sand and I find myself back in the hills of Samaria. I soar above time; such a pleasant sensation. This really ought to be covered by health plans.
I see blood. Are those my footprints? Reality sucks me back down - I'm looking at ruby traces of our frantic coupling. I've got to get out of here.
I washed up in a monochrome tableau of a beach. Moon beams bouncing off anthracite waves. Pearly grains of sand dust my courdoroy trousers. And Mia's shade circles round reproachfully. I laugh very loud, but my voice drowns in the song of the sea. Lena, Maggie and myriad other sirens beckon from the depths. I look back to the safety of the hills, but they pitch and roll in stiff seismic parody of the water dance below. Funny, the ground beneath me feels stable. I decide not to worry about it. Fleeting shadows burst forth from sparks of memory; words unfurl over my palimpsest mind, summoned by Sacred Opium, to make me feel like Baudelaire. Not bad given the price per gram in Israel. I light another toke. Its all I have on me. I guess its time to go home.
* * *
A morning like any other. From the parking lot I can see them, already lined up at the door. Among the four shivering silhouettes, I recognize that celestial bum, Ivan Daniels. Next to him, the syphilitic ad exec, coming in for his bi-weekly visit. I hope he listened to me and told his wife; I haven't gotten up the courage to do it yet.
I have to stop, just five minutes. I'm going over the edge. Ivan demanded to go first. He already considers himself a friend, Maybe he's right.
Anyway. I have him come in and we say hello politely. Nothing more. At nine AM Ivan is still sober and he's another man. Actually, its the first time he's come to see me. I asked what brought him. He didn't answer right away, and I steeled myself for one of those whining binges people go on with through their whole appointment. Not at all. Ivan searched my face before abruptly dropping a dark, mysterious, "You."
"Me, what?" I ask, scratching my head. With all these worries my hair is falling out faster than ever, and now I have dandruff.
"You," he persisted. "I had to see you. Last time I saw you I told you a pile of shit: the hold up and all that. All just lies."
"I suspected as much," I said without flinching. To tell the truth I'd been completely taken in. I noted his blotchy complexion and made a diagnosis. He's still stable, but his liver is badly in need of a vacation.
"And so? You came by just to tell me that?"
He hesitates, lowers his eyes. Smelling a dirty secret in the works, I tap my pen three times on the desk. Sober and hard headed, I repeat:
And he's off like a rocket: "Its about your wife and daughter. I saw it in the papers . . ."
I tried to shut him up, but he was quicker and louder than I was. He ran through his speech without so much as taking a single breath. Which took mine away, too. He said that he's been following Arab circles for a long time. I asked which circles. He claims he can identify the group responsable for the attack. "Not the man, the group," he specified. At that point its up to me, but he knows I'd give anything to get the bastard who fired that shot.
So why this should be any more true than the hold up?
He moves his pawns quickly into place:
"I know you are a doctor, your name is Levi and you're pretty well off. You, on the other hand know next to nothing about me. I'm not a drunk just because I happen to get drunk now and again. Don't judge to quickly, Doctor. I know a lot of people, a lot of people's business. Remember, Daddy's in arms. That part was true. In the family business, you hear a lot about who needs what and when. How do you think I pay for my rent and my liquor? Not to mention my shoes . . ."
I glance down. Indeed, excellent leather and workmanship, brand-new. No faking that. I shot back off-handedly: "And what good would it do me to find out?" He laughed. "Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, my friend!" These words resonated like reveille through my soul, I was hooked. Sign me up for Daddy's latest gadget. God, now I understand why Ivan drinks so much!
I asked what he wanted in exchange. He replied coldly:
"A little cash."
"How much?" I asked, just to see. The answer was convincing: "Two thousand plus expenses. Five hundred now, the rest on delivery."
"I only have two hundred on me."
"OK. That'll keep my analyst happy until next week's session."
He repeated softly: "Its for my analyst. I want to stop drinking. How much would it cost if you took care of it?"
I pretended to think about it: "Let's see . . . the going rates are about a hundred bucks per half hour . . ."
He laughed and set the bills back down on the desk. "So this should get us four sessions, to try things out and see how we like them?"
I assumed listening mode, and waited. Right when things were building up to a turning point, Gilbert got up and pocketed the money. "I wanted to see if you were a con-artist." I let him go. I'm sure he'll be back.
The rest of the morning I was all smiles on the outside, and churning magma on the inside. The ad exec hadn't said a word to his wife, but he managed to slip some anti-biotics into her yogurt. I found the solution ingenious and remembered Mia. I won't be playing The Good Knight again, I've done enough damage already.
The next patient was an Arab - the second since I've been back. This good old Moroccan, bloated with sugar and fat didn't trigger the least homicidal impulse. On the other hand a radio report about Palestinian victims of the latest bombing spree pleased me to no end. Hate is a strange sensation. It turns everything upside-down. I'm overjoyed at the suffering of others. I didn't used to be like that, but now it seems I can't help it. To earn points towards redemption, I stuffed fat old Saïd with pills and good advice.
A toke or two between patients, a couple of caffeine pills to even things out, and I'm all set. A young woman sits across the desk from me, speaking, showing me x-rays and test results. I make notes, and look up to answer, but right then I see a huge crack in the wall behind her. It wasn't there when she came in, so it must be the opium. Either that or my sense of the world is deserting me. The chasm is gaining ground. Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, that crack will cross the floor to my desk and I'll pitch headlong into the void with nothing for company but the rumbling ghosts of words.
* * *
Grating, scratchy noises.
Some infernal machine gouges my soul, I have to sleep. Where can I find peace and quiet? Chloe's? Its only six o'clock but I'm closing up shop. Too bad for late-comers.
Waves crash and sea-gulls screech in the Walkman headphones. No motors, no horns. Just close your eyes, and you're back in that painting. The tape is called "Solitude", which seems appropriate.
Chloe is hard at work. Even at this early stage, the Summer wall shows signs of flamboyance. Her overalls, too. She says she's burning up, so she's painting with her body now, too. Mid-stroke, she turns to me and asks me to stop making scratchy noises with my head. I plug "Solitude" into her ears. She hasn't used a Walkman in a long, long time. Now she discovers a whole new world; the cranium as an echo chamber. There's more than one door to Nirvana. With her it swings wide open at the slightest touch. Her face lights up at the diapason of magnetic waves. The seagulls fascinate her. She follows as they skim across the wall. I let her fly while I jot down these notes.
Catastrophe. She began to scream when I tried to take back the headphones. The voices were rushing to fill in the sudden quiet in her head. I believe her. Its hot in here. She takes off her clothes, and I don't budge.
Dazzling, perfect, sculpted flesh. I couldn't stop myself from showering her with kisses, like I would do with Maggie. But this is no little girl. Her body is ripe, and overwhelms us both. I have to get away. I carry her to the bed while she hits at me and calls me an asshole several times. That's a good sign, its just as well she shut herself off with a bit of anal compulsion. Working on those impulses, I convince her that we shouldn't go any farther, then run out, leaving her the Walkman in exchange. It doesn't really matter, I still have Maggie's. Her's is florescent green, but it works. Memories and more memories still. I head home.
More traffic, this time without the sea.
Speaking of the sea, Chloe's mom wrote to say that she's found a small apartment for her daughter in Manhattan Beach. She just moved over there herself, to a beautiful house on the shore, and found work in a clinic nearby. There's even a day care center around the corner from the apartment, and they say an assistant's job could open up with the year. Can it be that something I've done has turned out right? Lets not count our chickens before they're hatched. Chloe could still commit suicide in her cozy apartment. I'll just do what needs to be done, nothing more.
Wednesday, January 23rd.
Every time I go by a church or synagogue I spit. They'll never get me with their halleluias or praise-the-Lords. You can bounce back from everything but Death, or so I read recently. That was the caption under a photo of a soldier in Beirut, bazooka on shoulder, smack in the middle of the ruins. And I think back on Ivan's poison apple words. If he comes up with a reliable trail, I might just follow it. My hands twitch to snuff out one of Allah's little soldiers. So there's your proof: you can even bounce back from pacifism, too.
Lucas came by the office. Still a wreck, still in a hurry. He gave me the once over with an expert, and amused, eye:
"Isn't it a bit early for partying? Come on, Doc, no use denying it."
He knows drugs, and saw through me right away. But I'm nothing like the dregs he's thinking of. I take care of myself. Just look at me: always clean and proper, close shaved and impeccably dressed down to the tie and polished shoes. I didn't bat an eyelash, just scrutinised him in return. He's putting on some weight; claims he's off the coke. Maybe, but it won't last. I know him.
"Morphine?" he persisted. Too predictable; its a classic for doctors. He didn't get the answer he expected. He didn't get any answer. I just shook my head and tapped on the desk.
"Hurry up, there are people waiting. What do you want?"
"Come on, David, I just came by because I like you and wanted to see how you're doing after . . . Is there anything I can do for you? Remember the little gift package I left last time?"
I didn't like his allusions, either to my family, or to his little "gift". An undercurrent of real menace lurked behind his phoney sollicitude. You have to be careful with guys like him, they'll do anything. Lucas wouldn't lose any sleep over turning me in.
"So, nothing. Actually, I came to tell you that I'm going to send you some people so that you can help then get off the stuff. You're good at it."
I know flattery when I see it and wasn't taken in. I asked, "what stuff?" He told me about these friends who got hooked in Bangkok. "Its not really their fault, you know. Its just too damned easy down there."
Always the same old song.
I agreed just to be on the safe side. Anyway, I figure that by getting people of drugs, I'll be less at risk of getting on them myself. I'm probably kidding myself there, but Lucas left happy. He promised to come by often. I hope he forgets.
Thursday, the 30th.
A week went by without my noticing. I work, I write and every day I visit Chloe. I eat a little, a taco here, some sushi there. The poppies cut my appetite. I've lost weight, but if I could just get rid of this spare tire around my hips I'd look a hell of a lot better. I haven't seen Diana lately. Maybe the Devil is keeping us apart. Every time I go by there, her windows are dark. I was just getting used to living only in the present, but this morning Ivan came by and shook everything up again. He says he's on the trail of some unificationists. I know he runs towards stereotypes, but these guys were from Kosovo, it seems, Yugoslavian Muslims recruited by the Syrians. In the beginning, I obviously didn't believe a word. Then Ivan pulled out a sheaf of troubling official documents. Numbered photocopies. Papers stamped Confidential in red. Just like some spy novel. Everything is there, names, places, dates. Even the type of explosives used by the group. One of the reports says these guys have liquidated a good dozen people around the world.
I handed him back the file saying that anybody could have faked this stuff. There's nothing easier than a do-it-yourself Confidential stamp when you've got a big eraser and a sharp knife. He took it well. We spoke again about his case, about booze and analysis. He asked for another couple hundred and I don't know why but I forked it over. In exchange he left the files sitting on my desk. He shouldn't have.
I still have trouble with Arabs. I'm afraid of a big slip-up, like thirty drops instead of three. With digitalis there's a huge difference. Its awful, since I got back it seems that all the Arabs in town swarm over to my office. That's all I see these days. Its awful. Their skin irritates me, their smell disgusts me sick. I'm getting to be a racist. I make myself sick, but hate gets its claws in so quickly, so deep. Now its what holds me together and keeps me from breaking down. In any case, I'm sure of one thing, the man in white rising above his passions is a myth. If one day I should stumble across a Nazi writhing in moral agony at the side of the road, in the best case scenario I'd finish him off. In the worst, I'd enjoy the show.
So the last mask has come off and there you have the true face of Dr. Levi.
Now that Ivan's got his hooks in me, he's not letting go. Daddy must keep a pretty tight grip on the purse strings, and sonny boy can't meet expenses. He was back this morning with his irony and perverse inuendos. He now claims to know the exact identy of the guy who blew my life away. One Hamid S. I gave him the rest of the money. Once again he played the same trick with the bills; taking them, then asking for an appointment. When I stuck my hand out, he withdrew his, saying: "The problem with coming to you for help is that I'm not sure which one of us will be psychoanalysing the other."
I didn't appreciate that remark. I'm running out of ready cash. If all my patients lay into the way he does. . . although I guess I can't really call him a patient. I almost threw him out manu militari. I had the revolver all ready, but when Ivan saw it, he just laughed - for a long time. Finally, I gave in. For good measure, he added this bit of advice: "Watch out, David. Stupid accidents can happen when you're barely hanging on by your pipe stem."
Now I'm sure he's a cop or an informer. He's clever, nobody takes a daddy's boy seriously. When you meet him in incongruous places, you just figure he's got a score to settle with the old man. You buy him a drink and you chat. Just like I did that first time we met at the Unexpected. Maybe that meeting wasn't so accidental after all. But why would he be so interested in a little Jewish doctor with cross-dressing patients?
And while were on the subject, I asked how he guessed about the opium. He explained that he had spent three months with the Mongs about five years ago. I pretended to swallow his story. Then I moved on to the ritual question: "Would you prefer to sit, or to lie on the couch?"
"If I'm paying, its to lie down," he replied. I refrained from reminding him that he was paying with my money. It amused me to let him take me for a ride and I wanted to see how far he'd go.
It proved to be an interesting trip for both of us. I say "both" because I traveled just as far as he did, although not for the same reasons. I used Maggie's walkman to record the conversation. I'll listen to it later tonight. I still don't know whether this guy is a cop or an informer, but one thing is sure: Ivan Daniels has problems with his mother.
Last night, around one AM I couldn't sleep so I took a run by Diana's. From a block away I heard sirens and screams, and the closer I got, the more night seemed like day. It looked as though number 52, her building, had been picked for the latest ad for Hell. I pulled up just in time to see a pale form hurtling from the top floor then landing with the dull thud of bursting flesh. Another bout of delirium? No, I'm sure I saw those fire trucks, and all kinds of people in the street. This morning, though, I went by there again, just for good measure. There's nothing left but embers.
Diana's apartment faces the street, and when her ceiling caved in, a long white hot flame shot out into the sky. The firemen pushed us back and some people started yelling that it was murder, pure and simple. I asked why, and one of the second floor escapees informed me that some of the tenants had been complaining of gas smell since the quake last month, and that nobody had been around to check it out. I imagined my beautiful Diana all shriveled up in her silk negligee and I started to laugh. Once you're up to your neck in shit, a bucketful more is nothing.
Around noon she called to say she's safe and sound, but she's lost everything. She was out - with a girlfriend she assures me. It doesn't matter. I'll never see her again. She'll have to move and there won't be any more chance meetings at the donut shop. Destiny says we're through, and I think the Devil arranged the fire to wipe out all traces of our love. I hung up saying, "Bye-bye, lovely succuba." She didn't see to get it.
When I read this over, nothing seems real. But I'm just recording events as they happen from day to day. Is it me, or has the whole world gone insane? Maybe both.
There was a note in my mailbox from Ivan. Late breaking news: my man is on a buying trip to Sunny California. He'll only be here two more days, so I don't have much time to figure out what I want to do.
I went over to Santa Ana and my brain is spinning. It hurts so much that I ran for my stash as soon as I got back to the house. Double dose, and if that doesn't do the trick, I'm in real trouble. To begin with I'd planned a therapeutic evening with my little flower. Had to change my mind though; she attacked me as I came through the door. I had just enough time to relieve her of the scissors she wanted to plant in my gut. She's incredibly strong for her size. Hamilton isn't altogether wrong: there's a wide gap between her perceptions and mine, but that's no reason why my little schizo can't fall in love.
She's really into red, right now. Summer is starting to swelter. I feel so guilty. When I'm with her, I always feel like I don't give enough. But then, since I've been back, nothing is the same. I've lost all emotion. Sand on the inside, smiles on the outside, but David is somewhere else. Where? In a Santa Ana starlit night.
I waited for hours in front of the house where Ivan says Hamid is staying. I took Lena's car, and just like the house, it was full of emotional booby-traps waiting to be sprung. A barrette on the dashboard, a stuffed koala and a pair of gloves on the back seat. I managed to shed a tear or two, but not enough to wash away the pain. I swallowed another black ball. My stomach protested for a few minutes, but after that I felt warm, and my hate kept me awake.
I passed the hours with fantasies of ropes and knives, then finally, at five AM, an old sedan pulled up. A bunch of guys got out and disappeared into the house. They all looked like they belonged on wanted posters, but you can't judge a book by its cover. Or at least that's what I told myself as I drove home. I don't know how this all will end. Probably not well.
Total solitude. The sun's been hiding for three days, leaving the sky the color of concrete. I leave the windows open. I need cold and pain. All morning I hesitated over Ivan's offer of the means of getting rid of my enemy. In the end I opted for independence, and found a store that deals in contraband of all kinds seized by customs.
Highs and lows. I want to die, but I'm afraid of being sent to Hell for some never-ending version of my roller coaster ride life now. At night, opium and downers put me to sleep. In the morning I gas up on benzedrine. My old pal Mary Lou needed some quick cash, so I took an old supply off her hands. Funny, she seemed almost disappointed when I bought it from her. As if she thought her little doctor was pure as the driven snow. Speaking of which, I'd should give old Lucas a call before I run out of pills.
Wednesday, February 5th.
Lucas screwed me again. This morning I opened the waiting room door a little too quickly and surprised Spider Tania in the middle of a frantic search under the chairs. She mustered her last dregs of arrogance as she turned to face me. I asked what she was up to. She smirked: "A little present from Lucas," then she told me where I could go. She waved the little baggie at me and I understood that my waiting room had become a drop. The customers paid for their coke outside, then picked it up right here. Pathetic. I just couldn't stand it; I grabbed her by the neck and shook her like a plum tree until she dropped the packet. She started to scream and call me all the names her poor rotten brain could summon. The fool. I almost felt sorry for her. She swore she'd have my skin, even if she lost her own the the process. She can always try. It doesn't matter, neither of us can get any lower.
Fucking pride! How could I fall into such a stupid trap? My life is in shambles, and to celebrate I tried my first injection. Dirty. I hated it, but everybody says it never works the first time.
* * *
I made up my mind to take care of Hamid before he slipped back out of the country. I wanted to see if I could do it, anyway. I took the revolver, the commando knife, a mask, put everything in a bag and started for Santa Ana. To think that anybody can get their hands on these kinds of toys, with almost no effort. All for less than three hundred bucks. Its cheaper to kill and maim than to cure. I drove across town thinking about the streets of Jerusalem all the way.
Chloe had a fit when I told her I couldn't come by tonight. She's settling into a routine, so I guess its normal. I kept seeing equal signs everywhere, and I guess in a way that's normal too. Eye for an eye. The law of standard exchange, as old as humanity itself. Two graves under a cypress paid back with the life of a bastard shot down in cold blood in a borrowed living room. I can't say why, but I was sure it was him, Hamid, the man in the file. Last night I staked out the house again using the Ford I borrowed from Paul.
Every five minutes I tell myself to just let it go. Stop it. Should I stop? No, its the only justice they recognize. My stomach hurts, my hand is shaking, but I've got to go on.
On my way out of Hollywood I went past Chloe's street. People from all up and down the street were flocking around her building. Spinning red lights bounced off the different faces, two cop cars and an ambulance. Right away I knew it was her, and for a second I thought she'd hurt herself. But she was on her own two feet when she came out, escorted by two cops. She was only wearing her blue silk robe and little blue mules, and when she saw the crowd she pulled back. One of the mules came off and when the cop tried to pick it up for her, she tried to bite him. "Chloe, don't do that!" I yelled, but she didn't hear me. Michelle watched the whole scene from their window, lips compressed into a tight smile. A nurse lifted the hatch of the ambulance and Chloe got in without a struggle. It was over very quickly. After the crowd broke up, I saw red marks on the ground. I figured that was the end of Summer - and its February now.
I looked up at Michelle's empty window. The card games picked up where they left off. Nobody paid any attention to me as I got back in my car. But I knew I was going to do something really stupid. I drove off, very fast, skidding around corners, dodging other cars. I finished the Spider's coke at the first stop light. I felt invincible driving around in the middle of this life-size arcade game. I had everything under control. Everything except the guy who didn't yield on a dark cross street. A quarter second; a shadow in the dazzle of head lights, a metalic crunch. I slammed on the brakes, and looking in the rear view mirror saw the motorcycle wheel spinning stupidly in the void. The stars came out full force for the show and found it hilariously funny. Me too. I backed up a few feet, but I didn't really need to see: God had just pulled another dirty trick. The guy laid out on the asphault wasn't moving and given the state of his head, he probably won't, ever again. And it just so happened he had dark skin, and a Palestinian scarf. I noted the worn jeans and groceries spilled all around. Smashed tomatoes near a smashed head. The equal sign flashed once before my eyes, and my last hope of redemption went out with it. A window lit up, then another, so I thought it best to disappear. They wouldn't have understood. I felt too muddled to explain. The words just seemed too old.
Tomorrow I'll go by the Unexpected and leave this journal in a corner. If someone finds it, it will be my confession. If not, I won't go turn myself in; I'm too curious to know if Nietch is really right about God.
End of journal
That's how David trapped me. I closed the last notebook swearing I would never plead another case. Why beat my head against the wall trying to make things better? In the name of what? Justice? There's no point . . .
But yesterday, it rained. The the gray sky pressed down on me, and the liquid ropes looked like bars. I resisted for about an hour, then gave in, of course. Knowing what I know, how could I do otherwise?
At first David refused my visit. He didn't want to see anyone, muchless a relic from his distant, sunny past. I don't know what made him change his mind, but when I walked in the cell, he greeted me with:
"If you've come to offer your services, Maria, don't bother, I'm dead."
His voice was as dull as his eyes. After what I'd read, I shouldn't have been surprised, but I just couldn't make the image of the laughing, happy boy I'd known mesh with the sagging, defeated man seated on the bed. From the moment I came in, he avoided my gaze. Finally I knelt down so as to meet his line of vision,
"David, I have your journal. I read it."
It took a second or two for this revelation to sink in.
"You??" he said incredulously, while 'how?' and 'when?' hovered in his eyes.
"Think about it. If you change your mind about wanting help, here's my card."
He stared at it for a while before taking it between the tips of his fingers.
"Why would you get involved in this?"
Without a moment's thought I blurted, "Just because."
And in his eyes I saw a tiny spark of relief and hope kindle then grow. Maybe, afterall, the void can also bring forth the best.