Through a Glass Darkly

BY KATHY PERUTZ

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child . . . . .                                                     I Corinthians, 13:11

“It’s D again,” I whispered to my mother when she came up to my bedroom. Just “D” because I couldn’t say the word, it scared me too much.  Witches’ heads were pouring out from the bottom of my bed and death was near.  Like the young Tahitian girl lying on her stomach in Gauguin’s beautiful and terrifying painting, “Spirit of the Dead Watching,” I was rigid with fear.  An only child, and often alone, I probably feared death as not-being, and not-being meant I wasn’t part of my mother, who was my shelter.  I was young enough to have recently emerged from the glue of symbiosis, still clinging to the host (her body) where I had incubated for 9 months to emerge as a creature unable to do anything but suck and cry, with a head still not completely formed.

A charming 5-year old of my acquaintance, also an only child, is very aware of death. His mother tells me he regularly checks up on her: “When are you going to die?” he asks, and says that when she does, he will too.  I’m not sure he’s made the kind of deal I tried to foist on the Almighty, but he might still do so.  I put it to god that, if I refrained from saying “Jesus Christ” forever, he would let my mother and me (my father would automatically come along, I suppose: it was not specified) live for another 500 years.  That would have made me 506.

But there was a problem (which had nothing to do with the fact that I was Jewish, something I hadn’t yet learned, and which would mean little to me then beyond the ability to stay home on certain days in early autumn). It was that, since god knows everything, he would know if I ever thought the words “Jesus Christ,” or just “Jesus” or “Christ” on their own.  And that would invalidate the whole agreement.  But how to stop thinking?  The more I thought about it, the more those two words beat a tattoo in my mind, a constant presence. And so it turned out that my mother died at 70, my father at 88, and I am now close to it, and a long way from being 506 years old.

Death, to the very young, is something that happens inexplicably. It happens to people because they’re old or because they live down the street or because they’re on television. It means you’re not there anymore, and not to be there is as terrifying a thing as can be imagined, as readers of A.A. Milne well know:

James James/MorrisonMorrison/Weatherby George Dupree/

 Took great/Care of his mother/ Though he was only three.

James James said to his Mother: “Mother,” he said, said he.

“Don’t ever go down to the end of the town if you don’t go down with me.”

But of course she did. She went down to the end of the town all by herself.  And she hasn’t been heard of since.

Death is absence. Solitude, abandonment (our latest psychological jargon), the fears of being alone or left alone, unable to cope.

***

After puberty, death becomes something palpable and near.  Certain actions and situations, you learn, can lead to death.  Daredevil stunts, poisonous mushrooms, snakes, tarantulas, mass murderers, aliens, war, bad grownups, gangs, or your own feelings that you are worth nothing and can do nothing. Death becomes a choice, or at least a possibility.

When I was fifteen, we moved from Kew Gardens, Queens – where I was the oldest on the block and still friends with Dukey (a.k.a.The Duke), across the street, whom I’d met when she was 18 months and I two years older, at a time when she was curly haired and cherubic and had not yet decided to be a lady wrestler when she grew up – to a beautiful old house in Kings Point, New York (a part of Great Neck), built in 1638 by British pirates, its entrance facing the sea above our private beach.  A more beautiful house I have not seen in this country, with its wine cellar below the trap door of the dining room, its artificial mound (to protect the house from other pirates) in which we found arrowheads; the old locust trees where a family of raccoons made their home, the unfaced wooden beams of the living room and the tilt of all the rooms; the fireplaces, the historic items scattered through the attic of a house that once served as the school for the surrounding area; the simplicity and authority of the oldest inhabited house on Long Island, with us being only the 4th owners in all that time. It was here that I felt more alone and forsaken than I could handle, knowing no one my age, hating the new, upscale school where all the girls, it seemed, wore cashmere sweater sets and pearls. I developed a fever every day when the school bus unloaded me at the high school, and my mother was called to the nurse’s office to take me home.  It was not far from that to wanting to be dead, and since the wish is father to the act, I was scary enough to myself as well as to my mother that I told her, “If you don’t get me to analysis tomorrow, I don’t know what I’ll do.”  At which point, I put my hand through the glass window of the kitchen door and cut my wrist.

Fifteen and precocious, I’d read my Freud, I knew about libido and thanatos, and every day, after a session at home with a white-haired and kind-hearted retired teacher sent by the Board of Education because I was adjudged emotionally incapable of attending school, I made my way into Manhattan to the office of Larry Kaufman on Lexington Avenue, on whose couch I spoke aloud my dreams and whom I considered beneath contempt because he had a very bad reproduction of an awful Rouault print on his wall, hung askance.

Suicide is the main cause of death among teenagers. It is almost always an apology, an admission of failure – “I was not what you (my parents) thought I was;” or some variation of A.E. Housman’s echoing lines: I, a stranger and afraid/In a world I never made.  A few years later I read in Albert Camus’ long essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”: In a sense, and as in melodrama, killing yourself amounts to confessing. It is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it.  

At seventeen I became a freshman in college, and my close friend in the room directly opposite mine killed herself. I found her, lying blue on her pillow, an overdose of sleeping pills.  Her mother, a stage-mother type, had been taking her to auditions for Broadway plays and musicals over our Thanksgiving break; she was also a debutante, and much was expected of her.  She was very pretty, wide-set blue eyes, a love of Botticelli and escargots.

***

Death changes as we near it.  My mother died, and my world ended in many ways. My father died.  My aunts and uncles, and then my friends. Michael, my husband of 50 years, died this year.  My metastatic cancer continues its determined hold; I am now in the 24th year of its habitation.  What I fear now is not death so much as disfiguration, and by that I don’t just mean physically.  I mean the suffering that flesh is heir to, the bones of the spine crumbling onto the nerves, as happened last year; the cancer in pancreas or liver making itself felt   Suffering is of no possible use, in my opinion.  It makes no one better or wiser or nobler; quite the contrary.  The suffering of Jesus is a source of fascination to many, not only Christians. But it’s not for me.  I have decided that instead of letting “nature” (in this instance “cruel nature” might be allowable) take its course and transform me from who I am into a thing of pain, I want to be able to die as myself.  This means suicide, of course.  A chosen death instead of one imposed, which would inevitably include torture; just as, in the early war years, people killed themselves to avoid the boxcars taking them to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  In the state of New York, doctor-assisted suicide is not legal.  Other states offer it, but to residents only.  I have little time.  I am making plans to go to central Europe to a place that offers what I seek.  It’s tricky: I have to be well enough to get there – transatlantic flight and all – and to be fully conscious when I arrive.  It’s hard to choose the right moment.  When I’m with friends, or even now, at my desk, writing, I feel the whole scheme is absurd.  I love life, I want to go on living.

Razors pain you;/Rivers are damp;/Acids stain you;/And drugs case cramp.

Guns aren’t lawful;/Nooses give;/Gas smells awful;/You might as well live.

– Dorothy Parker, “Resumé”

And then I remember some of the deaths of friends, and I do not want to descend into that chaos, the loss of clarity and humor and self that has been all I know of the world. I realize that each of us knows the universe only through his or her consciousness, and that each of us inhabits (creates?) a slightly different universe from anyone else’s.  It is a great pity that these universes must die.  But to paraphrase Pascal, Man is nothing but a reed, the weakest thing in nature.  But it is a thinking reed. . . and the advantage that man has over the entire universe is that he knows he will die, while the universe knows nothing.  Or, in Saul Bellow’s words: Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything.

Death gives us life. Mortality is the source of time, and only in time do we live, love, create – or take our fate into our own hands.

England Swings

BY KATHY PERUTZ

 

England swings like a pendulum do,

Bobbies on bicycles, two by two.

Westminster Abbey, the Tower of Big Ben,

The rosy red cheeks of the little children.

– Roger Miller, 1965

 

“Those rosy red cheeks,” said my friend Sally at the time, “are broken capillaries – from the cold.”  Sally was an American girl (born in Hollywood), living in London at the time.  Her British father had been expelled from the U.S. during the McCarthy era for his questionable politics (he published The National Guardian, a radical newspaper) and the family returned to London.  Sally was my best friend in the way you are best friends with someone when adulthood is very new on you and doesn’t yet fit properly.  We talked on the phone many times a day. We were both blondes, both American girls, both writers.  To the men we sometimes found in our beds, we were hardly distinguishable; they’d call me by her name or her by mine, and neither of us minded.  That’s the kind of girlfriends we were, our link forged by the slightly foreign world around us, whose people had never bitten into a pastrami sandwich or felt the thrill of a BLT whiskey down, heavy on the mayo.   The rosy cheeks, she said, were an illusion, a piece of everyday British hypocrisy (or a simple miscarriage of metaphor) in which a symptom of less than blooming health is taken for its opposite.  Those poor kids were freezing, in a country that hadn’t yet discovered or consented to central heating.

We were freezing too.  Americans in London at the time bravely wore sweater upon sweater, woolies underneath; went to the theatre and sat wrapped in suit-plus-overcoat from beginning to end, with a shot of whiskey at intermission to warm the plumbing; spent the winter months with hacking coughs, sucking on lozenges especially recommended by apothecaries for “bronchitis – the English disease.”  We watched the Thames freeze over, we drank coffee not much better than ink-stained water, we dreamed of radiators.  And yet we remained.  London in the early 60’s was where it was all happening, or so it seemed.  The Beatles, formed in Liverpool in 1960 had become the Fab Four and set loose the British Invasion.  Laura Ashley was dressing us in floral patterns and styles of the 19th century, a paradoxical comment on the Teddy boys of England, mainly young working class men in the industrial centers of the country who wore Edwardian clothes.  Vidal Sassoon, the Cockney lad with a salon in Mayfair, invented a way of cutting hair to make it sleek as seal’s fur, capping the head of  It-girls with geometric precision.  The BBC was opening up in the face of competition from Granada, a private tv company, allowing regional accents to creep into the voices of their announcers.  The Angry Young Men of literature brought John Osborne’s play, Look Back in Anger, Alan Sillitoe’s novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (and the film made from it) and many new works by the kind of people who hadn’t been published before, on themes of class and social privilege (or lack of it) that hadn’t been raised earlier.

England was changing.  William Burroughs, author of The Naked Lunch, a book considered scurrilous by most people and praised by Mary McCarthy, along with Nabokov’s Pale Fire as one of the two most important international novels of the time, moved to London from Paris where the American-born author had been living.  A big fuss was made by the literati, though when Burroughs was asked by interviewers why he’d moved, his answer was a laconic, “for the food.”

The food, atrocious by most standards, had actually begun to improve.  Though “British cuisine” was still recognized as an oxymoron, it was occasionally possible to find something edible in London.  The new espresso bars had something like coffee, and eventually even croissants were seen in Soho.  English cheeses were excavated from buried memory and Victoria Station actually had a little eatery where British cheeses abounded.  The senses and what they could offer were reviving again, after long hibernation through the reign of Queen Victoria (“close your eyes and think of England”) and her followers, and the sex scandal of 1963 was a real peach, involving Cabinet ministers, Russian spies and some London call girls.  This was the Profumo Affair, starring John Profumo, Secretary of State for War, Stephen Ward, a socialite osteopath (the facilitator), Yevgeny Ivanov, Soviet naval attaché, and the girls – Christine Keeler,

Oh what have you done, said Christine,

You have wrecked the whole party machine.

To lie in the nude

Is not at all rude,

But to lie in the House is obscene.

– Time Magazine, unattributed, reporting on the affair, summer 1963

and Mandy Rice-Davies, who happened to live opposite me when I was staying in the mews house of a friend in Knightsbridge, off the Brompton Road.  Her clients would arrive in Rolls and Bentleys, their owners let off on the other side, away from my window so that I could never see more of them than their bespoke trousers, and then the sleek cars would purr off over the cobblestones until it was time to retrieve the newly-satisfied (one hoped!) politician or other celebrity and whisk him off to dinner.

These doings led to the collapse of Prime Minister MacMillan’s Conservative government in the fall of 1963, at a time when America was recovering from its very different summer, of civil unrest and racial violence before the March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington at the end of August, where Martin Luther King gave his “I have A Dream” speech.

Sally and I were back in America for that, but we overstayed and then Kennedy was assassinated in November, and we returned to England in late ’63. My friend Mike was there too, one of my three Michaels and my oldest inhabited pal, as I call him, since I have known him for all these consecutive years.  Mike and I ended up sharing a flat in Fitzrovia, a part of London that was then more mongrel than most, with Belgravia on one side and the Tottenham Court Road and lots of foreigners all around.  We congratulated ourselves that we were in the right place at the right time.  It had been Paris in the 40’s, and earlier; New York in the 50’s (he is a painter) and now it was London.  The older generation still reminisced about the time when  the map was red – when England ruled the waves and held her colonies, or at least some of them – but the younger people were moving forward, recognizing the rest of the world.  I dined at the Café Royal, haunt of Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, Shaw and other lights, including royalty, with His Lordship H, father of the man then in my life.  His Lordship was jovial, cordial, but when he asked me what I did all day and I replied that I was a writer, he then asked where I rode.  At the end of the meal, confections were brought out, including peanut brittle, a favorite of mine.  Milord was entranced by the way I mispronounced it, briddle to his ears.  “You Americans,” he said in his jovial way, “you think you’re speaking English.  We ARE English!”  And then he laughed aloud with the sheer joy of it.

But his son had lived in Paris for a time, where I’d met him. Nick had gone to Eton and King’s College, Cambridge, the high road to advancement, but he’d finally balked when he was chosen for the Queen’s Guards (he was 6’3″ or 4″), saying, “I’d rather go to Korea.”  There he was sent, a young officer in the war whose arm was blown off when the grenade he picked up in No Man’s Land exploded in his hand.  Nick was politically left and part of the new culturally diverse England, though he couldn’t shed the markers (accent, bearing, assumptions) that had shaped him.

***

Ultimately the Teddy boys with their long hair and tailored jackets gave way to the Skinheads, neoNazis roving the urban streets of England. As in America, the strains of liberty, libertarianism, xenophobia and racism combined.  The working class Brits, once the salt of the earth and the best of Britain, along with the little shopkeepers and the rest of the struggling middle class became more globalized.  Some bought cheap vacation cottages in places like Céret, where Picasso once lived on the French side of the Costa Brava or condos around Malaga on Spain’s Costa del Sol, where Spanish is rarely heard, and certainly not attempted by the beer-drinking flock that migrates south in summer.

I married an Englishman, Michael, who had fled England more than a decade earlier and was living in New York.  He’d been brought up in the pattern I had learned from my earlier companion.  My Michael didn’t go to war, though he was in the British army for a time (in Intelligence), and he wasn’t the son of a lord.  But he, too, went to a private “public school”, Marlborough, and then, on scholarship to one of the Cambridge colleges named for the Christian savior – either Christ or Jesus.  He left home at 8, and was away at school until he left England for good.  He and I are not Anglophiles, though you can get the boy out of England, as they say,  but you can’t get England out. . .

And for me – my time in England was probably the happiest and most exciting of my life. There I headed after college, and there I stayed for several years, writing books and being well-published and well-reviewed, meeting the kind of people I’d never imagined as anything but stars, going to the theater with Kenneth Tynan on one side of me and Noël Coward on the other, having friends of many nationalities, with a sizable proportion coming from Africa and the Caribbean; and, when I turned 25, on the quayside of the Thames, close by Westminster Abbey with Big Ben tolling the hour and light spangling the river below, I was in my white sharkskin dress, the white Jaguar parked not far away, and as the last of the chimes receded with midnight, I was in the arms of and being kissed by James Bond.  The first James Bond.

England was my Cinderella time, and to some extent England made me. Here I was on my own, finding out who I was and what the world was about through the fine seine of English life and manners, English values and history, as well as being in the ferment of London, of people from all races and cultures coming together to do their work, to make art or love or politics in an atmosphere of extreme tolerance.  With Sally to confide in and change places with, and my aunt and uncle to visit up in Highgate, being able to move up and down the social scale because I was a foreigner and belonged to no particular pigeonhole, except the glamorous world of Upper Bohemia, artists and journalists, painters, film makers, poets, a sprinkling of royalty, a few dabs of working class, gays and straights, black brown and pink.  My world was one of freedom and youth at a time when youth led to love and freedom to compassion.

***

Last week England swung beyond the pendulum’s reach, voting to leave the European Common Market in the ignominious Brexit. It was a tremendous shock, not only to Michael and to me, but to most of the people I know in England, none of whom have casitas in Spain or maisons de campagne in Provence, all of which may eventually crumble from the weightlessness of the pound.  But my friends are in great distress, either climbing the walls or taking to their beds. They are ashamed of what their country has done.  And we are all united in an even greater fear: that xenophobia and racism will prevail over Europe, that elections in France, Germany and other countries (Austria immediately) may turn these nations inward on themselves in petty nationalism and much worse.  And the greatest fear of all is harbored here in the daughter-nation, of this great country of ours with its persistent dream of individual liberty, falling to the hysteria of crowds and the ranting of a charlatan.

The Temple

BY KATHY PERUTZ

 

Moishe Schneider emigrated from Poland to New York in the 19th century. He was a tailor by trade, a sign of God’s amusement, who had given him a name that served equally as profession.  “Schneider” in German means tailor, and Moishe came from the part of Poland that belonged to the Austrian Empire.

Settled with an uncle in Brooklyn, Moishe soon found his heart’s delight in Trudi, whose breasts were generous and her bottom large. Almost immediately they had children and knew they were blessed.  Moishe’s tailoring shop was doing well, and when the little boys were 3 and 1 1/2 Moishe decided to expand.  He prayed to the Almighty for assistance and the Lord answered him, saying: “Go, my son, open a clothing store.  Call it Gott and Schneider and I shall protect you.”

Moishe did as the Lord told him, and was successful.

Soon he became adventurous and thought of opening another shop, in Queens. Again the Lord blessed him.  The second Gott and Schneider became as successful as the first, perhaps more.

Then the little tailor turned his eyes to the Bronx, and again the Almighty said it was good, and he opened another Gott and Schneider, and was rewarded.

At last Moishe dared to dream of Manhattan. God heard his prayers and said, “Again I bless you, my son, for you have been successful and carried my name through the boroughs.  You will open your store in Manhattan, but this time you will call it Lord & Taylor.”

***

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On the Brink

By KATHY PERUTZ

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Out of the dusk they came, the ground vibrating with their approach although they moved slowly, the air still filmy with warmth as they made their way, mothers and children, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, daughters and the young sons.  They ambled without haste until they came to the stream, a silver ribbon of water against the reddish sand.  There they stopped.  The tiniest elephant stood between its mother’s legs.  The convoy fanned out in a long line at the water’s edge and drank with their trunks, then lifted them high above their heads to get the water down, trumpets against the sky.

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Bad Empathy?

BY KATHY PERUTZ

 

Last April at breakfast the tears began. I didn’t know why I was crying or what had started it, but I felt a weight, not heavy, holding me down like the casting sinker on a fishing rod.  I went on eating my Raisin Bran. Maybe this was a fleeting form of depression: no symptoms, just tears.  Eventually  breakfast ended and the tears stopped.  I had a friend, S, who cried regularly, though mostly about herself, and she was diagnosed as bi-polar. About me there wasn’t much, or at least nothing new to cry about.  I was on oral chemotherapy then, a pill a day, which wasn’t a hardship in itself though the side effects were extravagant, especially the spontaneous bleeding of the feet.  This happened during a gay wedding ceremony on a high dune overlooking Provincetown in Cape Cod when blood began seeping out from between my toes onto my sandals.  I stared down at them and thought, Jesus Christ!  Then I crossed my ankles and hid my feet under the chair.

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Late Lunch

by KATHY PERUTZ

 

He was waiting outside, blue cap perched on his head, the more to light up his bonny blue eyes. We kissed and walked in, on this warm February afternoon on the Upper West Side for a celebratory lunch in a French bistro, perfect for us.

He is my other Michael, not the Michael I am married to, also not the Michael I’ve known for over 50 years, with whom I shared a flat in London in the early 1960’s and who now lives a block away from me, past the cheese store, left at the Japanese restaurant. There are many Michaels in my life, so many that Michael has nearly become a synonym for “man.”  I used to joke that this made it easy to stay out of trouble, though usually Michael means my husband, the man I married on a cold November Saturday in my parents’ 350-year old house on Long Island, and with whom I have spent more days of my life than with any other person, living or dead.  But Monday’s Michael, fair of face, is my boyfriend.

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