IRIS BEGGED ME TO KISS HER. It was first grade and I was not yet attracted to girls, so I refused. But Iris was persistent. She pestered, danced, and winked, her dazzling sapphire eyes already ringed with darkness. One day she threatened to kill herself if I didn’t comply. Scared, I agreed, making her promise to keep it a secret. And so I kissed her, the driest of pecks on her chapped, six-year-old lips. Three seconds under the Language Arts table while our classmates crayoned storybooks above. When Iris surfaced across from me, she screamed, “BYRON KISSED ME! BYRON KISSED ME!”
That kiss, it turned out, was just the beginning. Iris strung me along, demanding a yearly kiss, always on the last day of school.
By junior high, however, my years of dread had morphed into an exquisite longing. Iris had cultivated a gothic glamour with her black skirts, black tights, and lacy white tops. Around her throat she wore a garter belt-like choker which I thought was incredibly sophisticated, something damsely and French. Flowers accented her dirty-blonde hair, which was braided into pigtails. She painted her lips black-red, a stylized geisha look mocked by the other girls who glossed with peachy Bonne Bell.
In the woods behind school on the last day of ninth grade, we silently traded puffs of her Winston. When the butt was crushed beneath her heel, she announced that this would be our last kiss. “So remember it,” she said, blowing smoke out of the corner of her mouth.
“I will,” I said. “But why don’t you want to kiss anymore?”
“I’m going away.”
I didn’t realize what she meant. I thought it some romantic allusion to one of the poetry books she always carried.
Since it was our last kiss, I decided to make it memorable, as if all the previous years had been a rehearsal. Iris closed her eyes and threw back her head, her pale face dappled with sunlight. She smelled like licorice, sweat, and aspirin, and, as we kissed, she clicked the toes of her red suede boots together which made me think of that line in The Wizard of Oz, “There’s no place like home.”
When the lubricious, exploratory kiss was over, she wiped her eyes. “Thank you,” she said in that husky, breathless voice of hers. “Thank you for being so kind to me.” She tucked the bottoms of her jeans into her boots and plucked the daisy out of her hair. “Goodbye,” she said and pressed the crushed flower into my hands.
As she walked into the woods, she turned and shot me a final glance. It was an expression I’ve seen only a few times in my life: tender, sexy, vulnerable, lost.
Three weeks later, after an extensive, fruitless manhunt, a hitchhiker, camping in a cloverleaf of I95, found her body under a purple azalea. She’d OD’d on sleeping pills, just like her mother had.
I WAS SEVENTEEN, SHE WAS THIRTY-NINE. After high school graduation, I’d bicycled cross country and was staying at the youth hostel in San Francisco. It was the last afternoon of my year-long odyssey, and, after perusing the used bookstores of the Mission, I’d repaired to a café to begin reading Céline’s Death on the Installment Plan. Two days later, after a flight back to D.C., my mother would drive me to Massachusetts for my first semester of college.
I was sitting at a small table, surrounded by walls of Breugelesque landscapes, when I heard applause and saw a short, skinny woman with spiky blonde hair stroll up to a podium in the back. You Make Me Melt was the name of the first chapbook she read from, and the moment I heard the opening of “Schlemertopf of Love”—You caramelize my onions, you braise my loins—I felt my skin tingle.
Loving Margaret was like loving a rock star, only with wine instead of booze. It was a romance of fast cars, drunken meals, peacocky clothes, candle-lit baths, and hours of raunchy, frustrating sex on her waterbed. Margaret’s expressions of love were like shotgun blasts; they hit you all over and there was always lots of cleaning up. But I was young then, cosmically inclined, and very eager. I’d already decided that I was going to dedicate my life to art, no matter how much my mother wanted me to be a brain surgeon.
Though just five-foot-three in thick-heeled boots, Margaret seemed bigger than me—I’m six feet tall. She had things to say and said them with an odd, droll accent which seemed affected at first, but later I concluded that this was the result of having grown up in Vienna and Houston with a Scotch nanny. Margaret was the first living person I considered a genius. Almost everything she said was brilliant and subversive, unless she was really drunk, then she was just condescending and mean. She hated the mundane; ideas were the only thing that interested her. She read ferociously and widely—Stein, Proust, Musil, Derrida. On her bookshelf was a complete set of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, which she’d devoured in grad school, an accomplishment she liked to lord over anyone with literary pretensions.
When we first met, she’d just finished her dissertation (Transvestitism and Poetry in the McCarthy Era). I had long curly hair then and was tan and rail thin, my muscles ropy and veined—“perfect for heroin,” she joked. At first she called me Davido (after Michelangelo’s David), then Davy, then just Boy. The professor and the bike messenger, people called us.
For a year and a half, I flowered under her love. Then my mother came to San Francisco, ostensibly to attend a conference on the diaspora of Russian Jewry, a topic she’d never shown much interest in until my father died. (My father, like my mother, was born in St. Petersburg; both families had fled Russia, my father’s because of Bolshevism, my mother’s thanks to Hitler.) After a semester and a half at Williams, a time during which Margaret and I phoned each other every day, I had abandoned my studies and hitchhiked west to live in her apartment above a women’s shelter in the Mission. I hadn’t given my mother much explanation for my quitting school, only that I was determined to live life not read about it.
As luck would have it, there was a fire in the lobby of my mother’s hotel her first night, and, after an evacuation and a confrontation with management, she ended up on the sofabed in Margaret’s study.
The cattiness began immediately. My mother was not impressed by Margaret’s eccentric intelligence. She found her style tasteless, from the curly red wig to the violet angora sweater to the black leather pants she wore sans underwear. The next evening, after a lousy Moroccan dinner, as Margaret puffed on a hookah, my mother said, “So, just what did your father do during the war?” After some obfuscation, Margaret revealed that her father had been an S.S. officer. “But he was just a bureaucrat,” she explained. “Never killed anybody.” My mother didn’t believe her.
Later, in our bedroom, while Margaret attempted to arouse me—conflict always made her horny—I asked why she’d never told me about her father’s Nazi past. “What difference does it make?” she said. “That was then. That was my father. I had very little to do with him.”
The next morning my mother strode into the kitchen where Margaret and I were drinking coffee. In her outstretched hands were a whip and Margaret’s Little Red Riding Hood costume.
“What the hell is this for?” she asked.
“None of your business,” Margaret replied.
My mother slapped her, to which Margaret only laughed. On and on she laughed, mockingly, contemptuously. “You’re a cunt!” my mother shouted, then told me how sorry she was that she hadn’t aborted me. Three minutes later she was out the door, suitcase in hand.
Margaret relished her victory. “You’re free,” she said. “No longer enslaved to that depressive bitch. So explore. Make art. Be yourself.” Though her cruel cockiness frightened me, I was thrilled by this operatic turn in my life.
One evening, a week later, Margaret returned from a day of teaching with passes to a Fassbinder film festival at the Castro Theatre. I’d never heard of the German director, so Margaret procured a stack of required reading before the opening double feature, Querelle and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. That Friday, she broiled steaks, baked potatoes and uncorked a pricey Cabernet. After dessert (glasses of hash smoke), she locked herself in the bathroom.
When she finally came out, she stood before me, arms akimbo, a black wig on her head, plum-colored lipstick on her lips, her narrow, angular face vampy with white makeup. “So, how do I look?” she said with a demonic grin, a Jewish star, framed by an unbuttoned floral blouse, glinting between her small breasts. The clothes my mother had forgotten in her hasty departure hung loosely on Margaret, giving her a ridiculous, campy disco look. Before I could answer, she burst into laughter and thrust her face in my crotch.
THE FASSBINDER FILMS, it turned out, were a portent of what was to come. For the next few weeks, all she wore was my mother’s outfit. She wanted me to bind and whip her, an act I couldn’t perform to her satisfaction. She neglected her hygiene, stopped preparing for lectures. One day she tried to kiss one of her students, a tattooed blonde who’d come for help during office hours. Though Margaret had been a well-respected adjunct, the school fired her. She retreated to pills—Thorazine and speed mostly—and began hanging out with a group of biker dykes who carved symbols and names of the beloved into their flesh. Like the morning fog on Guerrero Street where we lived, I floated through this period, observing everything yet doing nothing.
A few weeks later, I woke to a sharp, freezing sensation. When I opened my eyes, Margaret was above me, a bloody razorblade gripped in her fingers. “Good morning,” she said and pressed her forearm against mine. “Blood to blood!” she chanted. “Blood to blood!”
The scene ended with the cops taking her out in a straightjacket. Three months in the psych ward, then her mother, a piece of work herself, brought her down to Texas, where to the best of my knowledge she still lives in the bedroom next to her mother’s. Though I’ve had many opportunities, I can’t bring myself to watch another Fassbinder film.
LYNN WAS A HEROIN ADDICT—something I didn’t figure out initially because she was so charming and wealthy. She had a handsome, boyish face, long caramel-brown hair, and dressed like a slumming WASP, in ripped lambswool sweaters over pink oxfords, a pair of tight black jeans tucked into riding boots. After Harvard (B.A. Art History) and an internship at the Corcoran, her Beacon Hill daddy set her up in SoHo. Twentieth Century Cabot was the name of her 5,000-square-foot gallery on Mercer Street. She drove a dented blue Saab, a parking ticket always flapping against its windshield. At traffic lights, she’d lean over and kiss me hard. “I think I could love you,” she’d sometimes say, and that breathy utterance was enough to win my loyalty, for, like Auden wrote, “if equal affection cannot be, then let the more loving one be me.”
Lynn’s biggest battle was managing her moods, which were often dark and paranoid. She knew how to manipulate me with tantrums, groveling, humiliation, sex. When she was low, the only thing that rescued her was seeing my concern when she threatened to OD. As the queen of the downtown heroin crowd, she was intimate with the Lower East Side drag and AIDS scene. She was one of the first to display graffiti art, staged photographs romanticizing domestic abuse, and multichannel transgender orgy video—Beautiful Ugly, she called it. I envied her pluck, her cultivated appearance of genius intuition and trend-setting taste.
The thing that hurt me most was that, though we were lovers for five years, she never offered me a show. While I wasn’t what you’d call experimental, I was subversive in a classical way. I painted dark grayish portraits of political figures. Think Stewart Gilbert’s George Washington, but 10x16 feet and with an ironic, communist gloss. Nixon, McNamara, Reagan, Brezhnev, Bush Senior. Exhibiting my work would have been so easy; it would have raised my prices and thrust me into the big leagues. Each time I brought it up, she’d say, “Just wait… You’re like a special bottle of wine.” When I “got uppity,” she’d berate me and go off on a shoot-up jag, run out of cash, then open a window in her loft and threaten to jump. Strangely, this was when she was most beautiful to me, her strife and pain reminding me of my mother. “Oh, why can’t I get what I need?” my mother used to say and I can still see Lynn uttering those exact words as she lay on the bed, arms around shins, crying herself to sleep.
I debated leaving in her darkest hour, as she was desperately seeking a needle to plunge into her caterpillar vein. It seemed to me that this was the kind of tough love she was asking for, and only when I coldly ignored her would she wake up. The ironic thing was that when I finally announced I was through, she insisted she was dumping me. “No one ever leaves me!” she screamed and that’s what she told everyone.
Bored with “bullshit New York,” she moved to Miami, where for a few seasons she mounted sensational, sell-out shows that propelled three artists to later retrospectives at MOMA and the Tate. Then came a triumphant return to New York. She hired a young art historian to direct the gallery, and within months they’d assumed the glittery personae of lipstick lovers.
They killed each other on Halloween. Razorblades to the wrists. I was in San Miguel de Allende, at a bar full of expats, when CNN displayed her face on the screen. My name was all over her journal, her assistant told me on the phone the next day. “The only love of my life,” she’d written. And “such a fucking coward!”
MY RUSSIAN SNOW WHITE. Tall, pallid, with long black hair and bony shoulders, Renata had perfect luminous skin, except for the bags under her eyes from the worst case of insomnia I’d ever seen. Three hours a night was all she slept, in half-hour increments when she wasn’t reading Wallace Stevens or early Nabokov. By day she subsisted on salads and coffee, smoking joints to mellow the jitters. She was clever and witty, and moved with a languor that drove me wild. If you met her at a party, you wouldn’t glean she was tormented because she was modest and kind, nonjudgmental, very idealistic. Though poor, she dabbled in the arts like a trust-fund girl—publishing, painting, cabaret singing. Her biggest regret was that she lacked ambition, freely admitting that her advanced degrees in poetry and architecture had gone to waste.
Of all the women I loved, Renata bit me the deepest. Our minds and bodies fit so nicely together. You name it, she could discourse on it—string theory, surrealism, beekeeping, Buddhism. She was a gifted listener. You knew she understood you—and wanted to. She connected the dots, could riff beyond your imagination. I wanted to make babies with her, not just because I thought we’d make beautiful babies, but because of how beautiful a mother I knew she’d be, the bright flush of joy on her face, the grace. But she couldn’t leave behind children who would endure her fate. Her parents were barely fifty when they died, her father of some horrible, degenerative brain disease (“worse than Creutzfeldt-Jakob”), her mother of uterine and lung cancer a half year later. It was the future she feared, the genetic fate of wasting away, the spirit and vigor sullied, the wisdom never known. Not surprisingly, she was restless. So we took long trips—Peru, Japan, Egypt, India; our last, a trek in the Himalayas, to experience the world from the perch of the gods.
One day, like a sick cat, she disappeared. Nothing was missing. Not a journal, not a pair of underwear, no books, no music. On the second day of her absence, a rainy Sunday in November, after frantically phoning friends and her brother, a guitarist who panhandled in San Francisco, I called the police, something she would have abhorred. Of course they were of little help since no foul-play was evident. After I hung up, I wept and fell into a deep sleep. When I woke up, I realized that her flight was the final mystery she’d wanted me to solve. If I really understood her, if I really knew her, I’d figure out where she was and defuse her sadness before her time-bomb’s last tick. But I never solved the mystery. She’d outsmarted everyone, vanished like a comet, her body never found. Like a devoted widower, I couldn’t date for years.
WHEN I THINK OF HER NOW, I’m reminded of Gina Rowlands during the early Cassavetes years, though my mother was darker, bipolar, and self-deprecating. She had elegant features: a proud, sharp nose, small slate-grey eyes, raven-black hair that smelled of lavender and never seemed to need washing. On her bony white feet she wore zip-up leather boots in winey colors. She was always in a hurry, whether to shop or meet a Georgetown professor for a game of tennis and an hour of unsatisfying love. I did not realize she was unhappy until much later. I assumed all women were like her: tender, distracted, joyless. I admired her, thought she was clever and tasteful. Until that last kiss with Iris, I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world.
CRITICS SEEM TO PROMOTE THEMES of holocaust and rebirth in my work. A book of essays was published recently, Reluctant Romantic: B.F. Malevich and the New Millennium. I am amused and flattered by these characterizations of redemption and hope, and what more than one reviewer has called my “exultant, savage minimalism.” My current biographic mythology has been constructed, partly, I suppose, because I live half the year in New Mexico, am active in the anti-war movement, and my most published portrait, a grainy black and white photograph, shows me in a cowboy hat, black leather pants, and a large, wooly Issey Miyake shirt. It’s a persona I enjoy. It gives me an aura of Marlboro independence, a brooding inscrutability so different from the eager momma’s boy I once was.
WHEN I WAS SIXTEEN, in the final sprint of senior year, my mother had her first nervous breakdown. It was brief, fortunately, thanks to some strong medication, and within a week she was out of the hospital and at home under my watchful eye. My father had left her for another woman. A month earlier, he’d taken me to a crab house on the marina for my birthday. No sooner had he toasted my entry into manhood with a clink of our bourbons, then he admitted he was seeing a woman named Bella, a woman who loved him the way he wished my mother would have: adoringly and with brio. The rest of the meal was a lamentation. “I plucked her too young,” he said of my mother. “If only I’d waited, encouraged her to go to college… She was too intellectually curious not to devote her mind to a passion. Not that it was my fault she became so goddamn petulant and sad.”
One rainy Sunday after my father moved out, I baked brownies and my mother and I plopped on the couch to watch TV. Casablanca was playing. My mother, wrapped in a duvet, watched raptly, as if studying a distant memory. Then, near the end, when Rick utters that famous line, “We’ll always have Paris,” she burst into laughter. She laughed so hard she almost suffocated. Then she took another bite of brownie and began giggling. That was when I realized she’d taken a brownie from my plate, one of my pot brownies.
It was her first experience with marijuana and she was hooked. For the next week, my mother and I behaved like dorm-room stoners, sucking down bong hits the moment we woke up, blasting reggae on the stereo as we rolled fat joints of seedy Jamaican and devoured instant mac and cheese. One evening while we were watching a mediocre movie which we found hilarious, the doorbell rang. My mother and I peered through the side window. It was my father. He looked like he’d lost thirty pounds, and rather than his usual cocky self, he seemed humbled, a man on a mission to deliver an apology. But when my mother opened the door and he saw us, red-eyed and slovenly, he said he’d come for an old photo album. Never nostalgic, my mother urged him to retrieve it, even though it contained many one-of-a-kind photos of their courtship.
“So,” he said a few minutes later, the fraying green album clutched in his right hand. “I guess this is it.”
“It really is!” My mother howled with laughter.
That laugh killed my father. Though Bella was more temperamentally suited to him, he was too tired to reinvent himself. The true love of his life had remained my mother. Ten days later, while strolling under the cherry trees ringing the Tidal Basin, he had a heart attack. The news plunged my mother a little lower, but she was too proud to reveal the depth of her feelings, whether she’d really loved him, if she had any remorse. The only thing I knew for certain was that it ended her romance with pot.
After the funeral, Bella invited me to go through my father’s things. There was quite a collection of suits and books and tchotchkes. But all I wanted was the photo album. Being insecure, Bella had rifled through its brittle pages and scissored my mother out of any photos of the two of them. Though furious, I understood her jealousy. Of the few unmutilated photographs, only one interested me, a small black and white of my mother who was the same age I was then—sixteen.
DYING IN PARIS IS AS GOOD AS IT GETS. My mother actually said that. She was seventy and had gone to live on the Left Bank for the summer. All through June and July I’d received cheerful postcards with ecstatic references to Dietrich, Baker, Colette, Satie. On one she’d written, “How I cried when you were born!” Then in August came a worrisome silence. A neighbor found her—the smell —in a rocking chair, facing the Pont Neuf, Emma Bovary in her lap. The coroner told me she’d been dead for a week. Her face was pale and peaceful. I sprinkled her ashes in the Neva, the river that passed her childhood home.
When I returned to Washington to close her house, I found two things among her belongings which helped set me free. The first was a pair of silk panties. That they’d been kept in her peignoir, in an old hat box filled with other nostalgia—an opera ticket (Madame Butterfly), a Cuban flag, a sapphire necklace—intrigued me. Why had my mother, a woman who’d never revealed the slightest erotic proclivities, kept them? I imagined they were an expensive gift from my father—though more likely from a secret lover. Her sad prudishness had lain so heavily on me that the possibility of her having any passion—intellectual, spiritual, carnal—was a comfort.
The second thing was a thangka I’d given her ten years earlier, after Renata and I had visited Tibet. It was hanging in the back of her walk-in closet, beside a full-length mirror. Though guided by aesthetics when I bought the painted scroll in Lhasa, I sensed significance in the Green Tara figure in the middle. My mother’s lack of enthusiasm when she received it had so quickly extinguished my curiosity for thangkas in general and Tara in particular, that I’d totally forgotten about it. She’d probably looked at it the morning she left for Paris. Tara, I’ve come to learn, is the mother of liberation.
SOMETIMES WHEN I’M IN MY PICKUP, I find myself thinking about Iris, Margaret, Lynn, and Renata. Was it all a self-fulfilling prophecy—I was only attracted to unhappy women—or had they chosen me because they sensed I was a sucker? My wife Joan, a therapist (surprise, surprise), cautions me against reductive regret: “You needed them as much as they needed you. Like your paintings.”
Occasionally though, I get nostalgic for my dumb, drunken heart. I miss the drama, the beauty of the impossible. The years of yearning for epiphanies that would bring them down to me. So many opportunities to say Tell me how to love you. The decades of bad paintings (though there were breakthroughs, works which point to where I am now). And even now, so many years later, I find them when I least expect it. The deer in the morning fog. The cardinal in the forsythia. The owl in the juniper. The dog barking late at night.
I START WITH A PORTRAIT OF MY MOTHER. A pencil sketch of the sixteen-year old girl my father fell in love with. This is based on the photograph I retrieved from Bella, the kind of snapshot you might find at a flea market, faded, ruffle-edged, glowing with narrative hope. It’s summer. My mother’s wearing a one-piece bathing suit, a towel around her waist, her dark hair long and wet. She’s walking barefoot up a quay along the Seine, a smile on her face, an outstretched hand holding a flower blossom.
Over the sketch I paint a landscape of smoky clouds. Then I sand it down and begin the layering of the primaries, the serpentines of red, yellow, and blue, which signify, to some critics, the war in Iraq or post-millennial doubt. I don’t pretend to know what my paintings mean. All I know is that I’m happy to repeat the process over and over again.