Selfie

BY KATHY PERUTZ

Here I am, an old man in a dry month/being read to by a boy, waiting for rain. . . 

-T.S. Eliot, “Gerontion”

Not an old man but an old woman. Not a dry month but the wettest of the year: April, that fool of a month, April, whose showers come your way/[and] bring the flowers/that bloom in May, though when the showers come and you are waiting for spring, they bring nothing but the blues.  Old blues, Chicago blues, blues in the night – regretting instead of forgetting/ with somebody new. . .

It’s Saturday night after my cataract surgery, the left eye now able to see what the right eye can’t, its lens dulled and yellowed by the mists of time, my own. Through my right eye my face is blurred and therefore young.  But my left eye, newly peeled and lens replaced, looks into the mirror and sees that I am old as the hills, wrinkles spreading like cracks over parched earth, webbing my face in a net, a widow’s veil now Michael is dead, my mate of 50 years.  I’m sitting at the dining table with my radio and  vodka.  Not a pretty picture.  I hold it at arm’s length, the way the kids do when photographing themselves over and over, smiling into their own lens like lunatics, “Hey me, It’s ME!”

The radio sits next to my vodka on the table, WNYC on the FM dial while I eat my spinach with a poached egg on top. The music is mellow, Saturday night, and Jonathan Schwartz is the DJ.  He must be a million years old by now.  Not so much, not a million.  He  plays the music his generation loves, the slow languorous melodies that bring instant nostalgia  even if you didn’t listen to them when you were young.  Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Ella, Nat King Cole – of course the names are familiar.  “April in Paris,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” “These Foolish Things,” all that lovely stuff, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter blending with the vodka, so mellow. . .

And I’m back in London, early 1960’s, in the flat on Tottenham Street, which runs off Tottenham Court Road and into Charlotte Street with all its international eating places, Schmidt’s delicatessen for sausages and the White Tower restaurant at the end, very fancy, rows of wineglasses at each setting (all “clarets,” as they called Bordeaux) at a dinner party given by an American with too much money, puffing out his chest like a pigeon.

I was living there for the nonce, the way I lived in many parts of London then, not squatting because I did pay rent, but moving from one place to another as their owners or tenants left town for a while.  The tenant of the Tottenham Street flat was off to India for a year I believe, to do good works.  Certainly the place was good for me, good in memory.  For a while I shared it with my friend Mike, an American painter, whose studio was nearby but it was a simple loft, no furnishings and the room he rented was so far north that he’d inevitably have to take a taxi home after our evenings together, dinner and long talks afterwards,  by which time the underground had stopped running.  We talked and talked, about art, life, about how our parents fucked us up or didn’t, the dreams we had and how the symbols in them worked, the unconscious puns revealing/concealing our Freudian underpinnings. One day we calculated that Mike was spending more on cab fare than I would on rent if we pooled it, and so he moved in.

It was fun for both of us. Sharing my flat with a man, whose shaving stuff cluttered the bathroom sink pleased me, while he probably felt some satisfaction at seeing my nylons hanging on the clothesline stretched over the tub.  We were friends, not lovers, and our living arrangement gave us stability (and me protection), which meant I could cavort wherever and with whomever I pleased in the afternoon and then come home, free to have dinner with Mike at the local Indian or the Transylvania Grill in Soho, all-you-can-eat for 7/6 (7 shillings sixpence – roughly a dollar), or on Mondays  in the Grill Room at the Regent Palace Hotel rounding the corner of Regent Street and Piccadilly Circus, great silver trolleys holding large joints, with your choice of lamb, beef or pork carved in front of you for not much more than that.  No pressure, we went Dutch, we had fun.

During the day Mike was off in his studio painting and I in the flat typing a novel on my Olivetti. Sometimes one or the other of us was traveling somewhere.  We never seemed to get in each other’s way.  Early morning, the bakery below our tiny kitchen would start baking its boring white bread, though the smells that filtered up were as magnificent as if we’d been in Paris, sniffing the boulangerie’s baguettes and croissants.  Breakfast was fresh-brewed coffee and the aroma from downstairs.

One evening, after dinner but not too late, the doorbell rang downstairs and I peered out to see a young man waving up at me from the pavement.  I didn’t catch the name but he said he was a friend of Bob M., who’d given him my address.  So of course I let him in.

He came up the stairs and when I opened the door there he was: Jonathan Schwartz.  The very same.  In another country a long long time ago.  I can’t remember what he looked like, what he was wearing, nothing at all except his name and that I told him he could stay a night or two. The Bob who’d sent him was a lovely boy, very pale with long tapering fingers and a thin nose forming a triangle at the tip.  I’d met him through a  new magazine in New York called Show, for which I’d done an interview with Joseph Heller in England when his Catch-22 came out there  (“Me and Dostoyevsky. . .” he began.)  We’d both been invited to the literary festival  in Cheltenham, he as the current star of  English-language literature and I because I was young, published (novel) and living in England.  We did the interview in his limo returning to London, the car seat so low, my legs so long and skirt so tight that it kept falling down my thighs and Joe said I was the first woman he’d met who wore her skirt like a bikini. Show published my piece, and when I went back to New York for a visit I met Bob.  I remember his apartment on the west side where he served me canapés he had prepared on a tray. Later in the evening he read me Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem “Eros Turranos,” which took my breath away.  Still does.  (“The falling leaf inaugurates/The reign of her confusion. . . .” )

The other memory of Bob comes from a later date, though not much later because I was still unmarried at the time, though now living in New York permanently. He phoned out of the blue and invited me to lunch.  He had just become engaged, he said, and wanted me to meet his fiancée.  I was touched by this, though when the time came I didn’t show up and didn’t call to explain.

A long time ago. I couldn’t tell him the reason.  Couldn’t tell anyone.   In those days abortion was illegal except when the life of the mother was threatened.  But many psychiatrists in the city were sympathetic to those of us who couldn’t or didn’t want to go through with the pregnancy.  It was all rushed and hushed up and there was no way to tell him and afterwards I found I had no number for him, no address, and I never spoke to Bob again.   But here is old Jonathan Schwartz on the radio, his voice susurrating into the mike before he puts on another song, and it all comes back in an instant, the flat on Tottenham Street, and Mike and Bob and everything that is past  –  and the music goes round and round and it comes out here, on a Saturday night, the loneliest night of the week, (cause that’s when my baby and I used to dance cheek to cheek) and the music is languorous and wafts around me like cigarette smoke and comforts me in a way because everything is past, my husband is dead, England has voted itself out of Europe and America has entered upon an unchartered course on a pirate ship whose captain is a madman.  But the old music plays, Jonathan Schwartz is still very much alive and kicking, A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces. . .

Oh! how the ghost of you clings, these foolish things. . .

7 thoughts on “Selfie”

  1. Where is the selfie of you with radio and vodka?

    What a cast of thousands you have played with. I’m glad Jonathan Schwartz plays these beautiful old songs for you.

    Saturday night is the loneliest night of the week, as the song goes. More lonely when you are a new widow.

    Your writing entertains and delights, Kathy Perutz, and then punches me in the heart, and I always end up crying.

    Thank you for writing as no one else can.

  2. another wonderful tidbit from such a rich life of experiences. thank you, Kathy, for sharing these little vignettes into another world, a literary world, a sensible world where things mattered.
    mike

  3. Serendipity: I listened to Jonathan Schwartz last weekend. Not something I do often. First his soothing voice and then quite a few songs, women singers–these were not songs I heard as a child or teenager. (I was a bit younger and memorized early Dylan and the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones, and 50s rock-and-roll and folk, which was what my older sisters played all the time.) But they came to me in other ways, through other friends, mainly Swedish jazz-lovers. Then came the Sinatra portion. Does Schwartz do that every week? I have trouble with Sinatra singing under pitch. So these were enjoyable, but I had to stop listening.

    I love this story, it brings up so many of my old memories too. Of my sister who died too young. Of others dying now. . . .

    You know that’s what your stories do, inviting us along for the journeys, helping us along our own.

    All love.

  4. Delighted! And shaken. Thank you Kathy, for weaving your story into our hearts and lives–that magic thing you do.
    Maya

  5. This really moved me and has so much poignancy and beautiful prose. It is sad but lovely. When is the next column?

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