YESTERDAY, I FOUND VIOLET'S LETTERS TO BILL. THEY WERE hidden between the pages of one of his books and came tumbling out and fell to the floor. I had known about the letters for years, but neither Bill nor Violet had ever told me what was in them. What they did tell me was that minutes after reading the fifth and last letter, Bill changed his mind about his marriage to Lucille, walked out the door of the building on Greene Street, and headed straight for Violet's apartment in the East Village. When I held the letters in my hands, I felt they had the uncanny weight of things enchanted by stories that are told and retold and then told again. My eyes are bad now, and it took me a long time to read them, but in the end I managed to make out every word. When I put the letters down, I knew that I would start writing this book today.
"While I was lying on the floor in the studio," she wrote in the fourth letter, "I watched you while you painted me. I looked at your arms and your shoulders and especially at your hands while you worked on the canvas. I wanted you to turn around and walk over to me and rub my skin the way you rubbed the painting. I wanted you to press hard on me with your thumb the way you pressed on the picture, and I thought that if you didn't, I would go crazy, but I didn't go crazy, and you never touched me then, not once. You didn't even shake my hand."
I first saw the painting Violet was writing about twenty-five years ago in a gallery on Prince Street in SoHo. I didn't know either Bill or Violet at the time. Most of the canvases in the group show were thin minimalist works that didn't interest me. Bill's painting hung alone on a wall. It was a large picture, about six feet high and eight feet long, that showed a young woman lying on the floor in an empty room. She was propped up on one elbow, and she seemed to be looking at something beyond the edge of the painting. Brilliant light streamed into the room from that side of the canvas and illuminated her face and chest. Her right hand was resting on her pubic bone, and when I moved closer, I saw that she was holding a little taxi in that hand—a miniature version of the ubiquitous yellow cab that moves up and down the streets of New York.
It took me about a minute to understand that there were actually three people in the painting. Far to my right, on the dark side of the canvas, I noticed that a woman was leaving the picture. Only her foot and ankle could be seen inside the frame, but the loafer she was wearing had been rendered with excruciating care, and once I had seen it, I kept looking back at it. The invisible woman became as important as the one who dominated the canvas. The third person was only a shadow. For a moment I mistook the shadow for my own, but then I understood that the artist had included it in the work. The beautiful woman, who was wearing only a man's T-shirt, was being looked at by someone outside the painting, a spectator who seemed to be standing just where I was standing when I noticed the darkness that fell over her belly and her thighs.
To the right of the canvas I read the small typed card: Self-Portrait by William Wechsler. At first I thought the artist was joking, but then I changed my mind. Did that title next to a man's name suggest a feminine part of himself or a trio of selves? Maybe the oblique narrative of two women and a viewer referred directly to the artist, or maybe the title didn't refer to the content of the picture at all, but to its form. The hand that had painted the picture hid itself in some parts of the painting and made itself known in others. It disappeared in the photographic illusion of the woman's face, in the light that came from the invisible window, and in the hyperrealism of the loafer. The woman's long hair, however, was a tangle of heavy paint with forceful dabs of red, green, and blue. Around the shoe and the ankle above it, I noticed thick stripes of black, gray, and white that may have been applied with a knife, and in those dense strokes of pigment I could see the marks left by a man's thumb. It looked as if his gesture had been sudden, even violent.
That painting is here in the room with me. When I turn my head I can see it, although it too has been altered by my failing eyesight. I bought it from the dealer for $2,500 about a week after I saw it. Erica was standing only a few feet away from where I am sitting now when she first looked at the canvas. She examined it calmly and said, "It's like looking at another person's dream, isn't it?"
When I turned to the picture after Erica spoke, I saw that its mixed styles and shifting focus did remind me of the distortions in dreams. The woman's lips were parted, and her two front teeth protruded slightly. The artist had made them shiny white and a little too long, almost like an animal's. It was then that I noticed a bruise just below her knee. I had seen it before, but at that moment its purple cast, which was yellow- green at one edge, pulled my eyes toward it, as if this little wound were really the subject of the painting. I walked over, put my finger on the canvas, and traced the outline of the bruise. The gesture aroused me. I turned to look at Erica. It was a warm September day, and her arms were bare. I bent over her and kissed the freckles on her shoulders, then lifted the hair off her neck and kissed the soft skin underneath it. Kneeling in front of her, I pushed up the material of her skirt, ran my fingers along her thighs, and then I used my tongue. Her knees bent slightly toward me. She pulled down her underpants, tossed them onto the sofa with a grin, and pushed me gently backward onto the floor. Erica straddled me and her hair fell forward onto my face as she kissed me. Then she sat back, pulled off her T-shirt, and removed her bra. I loved that view of my wife. I touched her breasts and let my finger circle a perfectly round mole on the left one, before she leaned over me again. She kissed my forehead and cheeks and chin and then began fumbling with the zipper of my pants.
In those days, Erica and I lived in a state of almost constant sexual excitement. Just about anything could spark off a session of wild grappling on the bed, the floor, and, once, on the dining room table. Since high school, girlfriends had come and gone in my life. I had had brief affairs and longer ones, but always there had been gaps between them— painful stretches of no women and no sex. Erica said that suffering had made me a better lover—that I didn't take a woman's body for granted. On that afternoon, however, we made love because of the painting. I have often wondered since why the image of a sore on a woman's body should have been erotic to me. Later, Erica said that she thought my response had something to do with a desire to leave a mark on another person's body. "Skin is soft," she said. "We're easily cut and bruised. It's not like she looks beaten or anything. It's an ordinary little black-and-blue mark, but the way it's painted makes it stick out. It's like he loved doing it, like he wanted to make a little wound that would last forever."
Erica was thirty-four years old then. I was eleven years older than that, and we had been married for a year. We'd literally bumped into each other in Butler Library at Columbia. It was late on a Saturday morning in October, and the stacks were mostly empty. I had heard her steps, had felt her presence behind the dim rows of books illuminated by a timed light that gave off a low humming sound. I found the book I was looking for and walked toward the elevator. Except for the lamp, I heard nothing. I turned the corner and tripped over Erica, who had seated herself on the floor at the end of the stack. I managed to keep my footing, but my glasses sailed off my face. She picked them up, and as I bent over to take them from her, she began to stand up and her head knocked against my chin. When she looked at me, she was smiling: "A few more like that, and we might have something going—a regular slapstick routine."
I had fallen over a pretty woman. She had a wide mouth and thick dark hair cropped to her chin. The narrow skirt she was wearing had moved up her legs in our collision, and I glanced at her thighs as she tugged at her hem. After adjusting her skirt, she looked up at me and smiled again. During the second smile, her bottom lip quivered for an instant, and I took that small sign of nervousness or embarrassment to mean that she was susceptible to an invitation. Without it, I'm quite sure I would have apologized again and walked away. But that momentary tremor in her lip, gone in a moment, exposed a softness in her character and offered me a glimpse of what I guessed was her carefully guarded sensuality. I asked her to have coffee with me. Coffee turned into lunch, and lunch into dinner, and the following morning I was lying next to Erica Stein in the bed of my old apartment on Riverside Drive. She was still sleeping. The light came through the window and illuminated her face and hair. Very carefully I put my hand on her head. I left it there for several minutes while I looked at her and hoped she would stay.
By then we had talked for hours. It turned out that Erica and I came from the same world. Her parents were German Jews who left Berlin as teenagers in 1933. Her father became a prominent psychoanalyst and her mother a voice teacher at Juilliard. The Steins were both dead. They died within months of each other the year before I met Erica, which was the same year my mother died: 1973. I was born in Berlin and lived there for five years. My memories of that city are fragmentary, and some may be false, images and stories I shaped from what my mother told me about my early life. Erica was born on the Upper West Side, where I ended up after spending three years in a Hampstead flat in London. It was Erica who prompted me to leave the West Side and my comfortable Columbia apartment. Before we married, she told me she wanted to "emigrate." When I asked her what she meant, she said that it was time for her to sell her parents' apartment on West Eighty-second Street and take the long subway ride downtown. "I smell death up here," she said, "and antiseptic and hospitals and stale Sacher torte. I have to move." Erica and I left the familiar ground of our childhoods and staked out new turf among the artists and bohemians farther south. We used the money we had inherited from our parents and moved to a loft on Greene Street between Canal and Grand.
The new neighborhood with its empty streets, low buildings, and young tenants freed me from bonds I had never thought of as constraints. My father died in 1947, when he was only forty-three years old, but my mother lived on. I was their only child, and after my father was gone, my mother and I shared his ghost. My mother grew old and arthritic, but my father remained young and brilliant and promising—a doctor who might have done anything. That anything became everything for my mother. For twenty-six years she lived in the same apartment on Eighty-fourth Street between Broadway and Riverside with my father's missing future. Every once in a while, when I was first teaching, a student would refer to me as "Dr. Hertzberg" rather than "Professor," and I would inevitably think of my father. Living in SoHo didn't erase my past or induce forgetfulness, but when I turned a corner or crossed a street, there were no reminders of my displaced childhood and youth. Erica and I were both the children of exiles from a world that has disappeared. Our parents were assimilated middle-class Jews for whom Judaism was a religion their great-grandparents had practiced. Before 1933 they had thought of themselves as "Jewish Germans," a phrase that no longer exists in any language.
When we met, Erica was an assistant professor in English at Rutgers, and I had already been teaching at Columbia in the art history department for twelve years. My degree came from Harvard, hers from Columbia, which explained why she was wandering in the stacks that Saturday morning with an alumni pass. I had fallen in love before, but in almost every case I had arrived at a moment of fatigue and boredom. Erica never bored me. She sometimes irritated and exasperated me, but she never bored me. Erica's comment about Bill's self-portrait was typical of her—simple, direct, and penetrating. I never condescended to Erica.
I had walked past 89 Bowery many times without ever stopping to look at it. The run-down, four-story brick building between Hester and Canal had never been more than the humble quarters of a wholesale business, but those days of modest respectability were long over by the time I arrived to visit William Wechsler. The windows of what had once been a storefront were boarded up, and the heavy metal door at street level was gouged and dented, as if somebody had attacked it with a hammer. A man with a beard and a drink in a paper bag was lounging on the single front step. He grunted in my direction when I asked him to move and then half-rolled, half-slid off the step.
My first impressions of people are often clouded by what I come to know about them later, but in Bill's case, at least one aspect of those first seconds remained throughout our friendship. Bill had glamour—that mysterious quality of attraction that seduces strangers. When he met me at the door, he looked almost as disheveled as the man on the front step. He had a two-day beard. His thick black hair bushed out from the top and sides of his head, and his clothes were covered with dirt as well as paint And yet when he looked at me, I found myself pulled toward him. His complexion was very dark for a white man, and his clear green eyes had an Asiatic tilt to them. He had a square jaw and chin, broad shoulders, and powerful arms. At six-two, he seemed to tower over me even though I couldn't have been more than a few inches shorter. I later decided that his almost magical appeal had something to do with his eyes. When he looked at me, he did so directly and without embarrassment, but at the same time I sensed his inwardness, his distraction. Although his curiosity about me seemed genuine, I also felt that he didn't want a thing from me. Bill gave off an air of autonomy so complete, it was irresistible.
"I took it for the light," he said to me when we walked through the door of the loft space on the fourth floor. Three long windows at the far end of the single room were shining with the afternoon sun. The building had sagged, which meant the back of the place was considerably lower than the front. The floor had warped as well, and as I looked toward the windows, I noticed bulges in the boards like shallow waves on a lake. The high end of the loft was spare, furnished only with a stool, a table constructed from two sawhorses and an old door, and stereo equipment, surrounded by hundreds of records and tapes in plastic milk crates. Rows of canvases had been stacked against the wall. The room smelled strongly of paint, turpentine, and must.
All the necessities for daily life had been crowded into the low end. A table knocked up against an old claw-foot bathtub. A double bed had been placed near a table, not far from a sink, and the stove protruded from an opening in an enormous bookcase crammed with books. There were also books piled in stacks on the floor beside it, and dozens more on an armchair that looked as if it hadn't been sat on in years. The chaos of the loft's living quarters revealed not only Bill's poverty but his obliviousness to the objects of domestic life. Time would make him richer, but his indifference to things never changed. He remained curiously unattached to the places where he lived and blind to the details of their arrangements.
Even on that first day, I felt Bill's asceticism, his almost brutal desire for purity and his resistance to compromise. The feeling came both from what he said and from his physical presence. He was calm, soft-spoken, a little restrained in his movements, and yet an intensity of purpose emanated from him and seemed to fill up the room. Unlike other large personalities, Bill wasn't loud or arrogant or uncommonly charming. Nevertheless, when I stood next to him and looked at the paintings, I felt like a dwarf who had just been introduced to a giant. The feeling made my comments sharper and more thoughtful. I was fighting for space.
He showed me six paintings that afternoon. Three were finished. The three others had just been started—sketchy lines and large fields of color. My canvas belonged to the same series, which were all of the dark- haired young woman, but from one work to another, the woman's size fluctuated. In the first painting, she was obese, a mountain of pale flesh in tight nylon shorts and a T-shirt—an image of gluttony and abandon so huge that her body appeared to have been squeezed into the frame. She was clutching a baby's rattle in her fat fist. A man's elongated shadow fell across her right breast and huge belly and then dwindled to a mere line at her hips. In the second, the woman was much thinner. She was lying on a mattress in her underwear looking down at her own body with an expression that seemed to be at once autoerotic and self-critical. She was gripping a large fountain pen in her hand, about twice the size of a normal pen. In the third picture, the woman had gained a few pounds, but she wasn't as plump as the person in the canvas I had bought She was wearing a ragged flannel nightgown and sitting on the edge of the bed, her thighs casually parted. A pair of red knee socks lay at her feet. When I looked at her legs, I noticed that just below her knees were faint red lines left by the elastic of the socks.
"It reminds me of Jan Steen's painting of the woman at her morning toilet, taking off her sock," I said. "The small painting in the Rijksmuseum."
Bill smiled at me for the first time. "I saw that painting in Amsterdam when I was twenty-three, and it got me thinking about skin. I'm not interested in nudes. They're too arty, but I'm really interested in skin."
For a while we talked about skin in paintings. I mentioned the beautiful red stigmata on the hand of Zurbaran's Saint Francis. Bill talked about the skin color of Grünewald's dead Christ and the rosy skin of Boucher's nudes, whom he referred to as "soft porn ladies." We discussed the changing conventions of crucifixions and pietàs and depositions. I said Pontormo's Mannerism had always interested me, and Bill brought up R. Crumb. "I love his rawness," he said. "The ugly courage of his work." I asked him about George Grosz, and Bill nodded.
"A relative," he said. "The two are definitely artistic relatives. Did you ever see Crumb's series Tales from the Land of Genitalia? Penises running around in boots."
"Like Gogol's nose," I said.
Bill showed me medical drawings then, a field I knew little about. He pulled out dozens of books from his shelves with illustrations from different periods—diagrams of medieval humors, eighteenth-century anatomical pictures, a nineteenth-century picture of a man's head with phrenological bumps, and one from around the same time of female genitalia. The latter was a curious drawing of the view between a woman's splayed thighs. We stood beside each other and stared down at the detailed rendering of vulva, clitoris, labia, and the small blackened hole of a vaginal entrance. The lines were harsh and exacting.
"It looks like a diagram for machinery," I said.
"Yes," he said. "I never thought of that." He looked down at the picture. "It's a mean picture. Everything is in the right place, but it's a nasty cartoon. Of course the artist thought it was science."
"I don't think anything is ever just science," I said.
He nodded. "That's the problem with seeing things. Nothing is clear. Feelings, ideas shape what's in front of you. Cézanne wanted the naked world, but the world is never naked. In my work, I want to create doubt" He stopped and smiled at me. "Because that's what we're sure of."
"Is that why you've made your woman fat and thin and in between?" I said.
"To be honest, it was more of an urge than an idea."
"And the mixture of styles?" I said.
Bill walked to the window and lit a cigarette. He inhaled and let the ash drop on the floor. He looked up at me. His large eyes were so penetrating, I wanted to turn away from them, but I didn't. "I'm thirty-one years old, and you're the first person who ever bought one of my paintings, unless you count my mother. I've been working for ten years. Dealers have rejected the work hundreds of times."
"De Kooning didn't have his first show until he was forty," I said.
"You misunderstand me," he said, speaking slowly. "I don't ask that anyone be interested. Why should they be interested? I'm wondering why you are interested."
I told him. We sat down on the floor with the paintings in front of us, and I said that I liked ambiguity, that I liked not knowing where to look on his canvases, that a lot of modern figurative painting bored me, but his pictures didn't. We talked about de Kooning, especially one small work that Bill had found inspiring, Self-portrait with Imaginary Brother. We talked about Hopper's strangeness, and about Duchamp. Bill called him "the knife that cut art to pieces." I thought he meant this in a derogatory way, but then he added, "He was a great con artist. I love him."
When I pointed out the razor stubble he had included on the thin woman's legs, he said that when he was with another person, his eyes were often drawn to a angle detail—a chipped tooth, a Band-Aid on a finger, a vein, a cut, a rash, a mole, and that for a moment the isolated feature took over his vision, and he wanted to reproduce those seconds in his work. "Seeing is flux," he said. I mentioned the hidden narratives in his work, and he said that for him stories were like blood running through a body—paths of a life. It was a revealing metaphor, and I never forgot it. As an artist, Bill was hunting the unseen in the seen. The paradox was that he had chosen to present this invisible movement in figurative painting, which is nothing if not a frozen apparition—a surface.
Bill told me that he had grown up in the New Jersey suburbs, where his father had started a cardboard-box business and eventually made a success of it. His mother volunteered for Jewish charities, was a den mother for the Cub Scouts, and had later gotten a real estate license. Neither of his parents had gone to college, and there were few books in the house. I imagined the green lawns and quiet houses of South Orange—bicycles in driveways, the street signs, the two-car garages. "I was good at drawing," he said, "but for a long time baseball was much more important to me than art."
I told him that I had suffered through sports at the Fieldston School. I was thin and nearsighted and had stood in the outfield and hoped that nobody would hit the ball in my direction. "Any sport that required a utensil was impossible for me," I said. "I could run and I could swim, but put something in my hand and I dropped it."
In high school, Bill began his pilgrimages to the Met, to MoMA, to the Frick, to galleries, and, as he put it, "to the streets." "I liked the streets as much as museums, and I spent hours in the city wandering around, inhaling the garbage." When he was a junior, his parents divorced. That same year he quit the cross-country team, the basketball team, the baseball team. "I stopped working out," he said. "I got thin." Bill went to college at Yale, took studio art, art history, and literature courses. That was where he met Lucille Alcott, whose father was a professor at the law school. "We were married three years ago," he said. I found myself looking for traces left by a woman in the loft, but I saw nothing. "Is she at work?" I said to him.
"She's a poet. She rents a little room a couple of blocks from here. That's where she writes. She's also a freelance copy editor. She copy-edits. I paint and plaster for contractors. We get by."
A sympathetic doctor saved Bill from Vietnam. Throughout his childhood and youth he had suffered from severe allergies. When they were bad his face swelled up and he sneezed so hard he got a neckache. Before he reported to the draft board in Newark, the physician added the phrase "with a tendency toward asthma" to the word "allergies." A couple of years later, a tendency might not have earned Bill 1-Y status, but this was 1966 and the full force of Vietnam resistance was still in the future. After college, he spent a year working as a bartender in New Jersey. He lived with his mother, saved all his earnings, and traveled in Europe for two years. He moved from Rome to Amsterdam to Paris. To keep himself going, he took odd jobs. He worked as a desk clerk for an English magazine in Amsterdam, a tour guide of the catacombs in Rome, and a reader of English novels for an old man in Paris. "When I read to him, I had to lie on the sofa. He was very particular about my position. I had to take off my shoes. It was important to him that he had a clear view of my socks. The money was good, and I put up with it for a week. Then I quit. I took my three hundred francs and left. It was all the money I had in the world. I walked into the street. It was about eleven at night, and there was this wasted old man standing on the sidewalk with his hand out. I gave the money to him."
"Why?" I said.
Bill turned to me. "I don't know. I felt like it. It was stupid, but I never regretted it. It made me feel free. I didn't eat for two days."
"An act of bravado," I said.
He turned to me and said, "Of independence."
"Where was Lucille?"
"She was living in New Haven with her parents. She wasn't very well then. We wrote to each other."
I didn't ask about Lucille's illness. When he mentioned it, he looked away from me, and I saw his eyes narrow in an expression of pain.
I changed the subject. "Why did you call the painting I bought a self-portrait?"
"They're all self-portraits," he said. "While I was working with Violet, I realized that I was mapping out a territory in myself I hadn't seen before, or maybe a territory between her and me. The title popped into my head, and I used it. Self-portrait seemed right."
"Who is she?" I said.
"Violet Blom. She's a graduate student at NYU. She gave me that drawing I showed you—the one that looks like machinery."
"What's she studying?"
"History. She's writing about hysteria in France at the turn of the century." Bill lit another cigarette and glanced at the ceiling. "She's a very smart girl—unusual." He blew the smoke up, and I watched its faint circles combine with specks of dust in the window light.
"I don't think most men would portray themselves as a woman. You borrowed her to show yourself. What does she think?"
He laughed for an instant and then said, "She likes it. She says it's subversive, especially because I like women, not men."
"And the shadows?" I asked him.
"They're mine, too."
"Too bad," I said. "I thought they were mine."
Bill looked at me. "They can be yours, too." He gripped my lower arm with his hand and shook it. This sudden gesture of camaraderie, even affection, made me unusually happy. I have thought about it often, because that small exchange about shadows altered the course of my life. It marks the moment when a meandering conversation between two men took an irrevocable turn toward friendship.
"She floated through the dance," Bill said to me a week later over coffee. "She didn't seem to know how pretty she was. I chased her for years. It was on again and off again. Something kept bringing me back." Bill made no mention of Lucille's illness in the following weeks, but the way he talked about her led me to think she was frail, a woman who needed protection from something he had chosen not to talk about.
The first time I saw Lucille Alcott, she was standing in the doorway of the Bowery loft, and I thought she looked like a woman in a Flemish painting. She had pale skin, light brown hair, which she had tied back, and large, almost lashless blue eyes. Erica and I had been invited to have dinner on the Bowery. It was raining that November night, and while we ate we heard the rain on the roof above us. Somebody had swept the floor of dust and ashes and cigarette butts for our visit, and somebody had put a large white cloth over Bill's worktable and set eight candles on top of it. Lucille took credit for cooking the meal, a tasteless brown concoction of unrecognizable vegetables. When Erica politely inquired after the name of the dish, Lucille looked down at her plate and said in perfect French, "Flageolets aux légumes." She paused, raised her eyes, and smiled. "But the flageolets seem to be traveling incognito." After stopping for a second, she continued, "I would like to cook more attentively. It called for parsley." She peered down at her plate. "I left out the parsley. Bill would prefer meat. He ate a lot of meat before, but he knows that I don't cook meat, because I have convinced myself that it is not good for us. I don't understand what it is about recipes. I am very particular when I write. I am always worrying about verbs."
"Her verbs are terrific," Bill said and poured Erica more wine.
Lucille looked at her husband and smiled a little stiffly. I didn't understand the uneasiness of the smile, because Bill's comment had been made without irony. He had told me several times how much he admired her poems and had promised to give me copies of them.
Behind Lucille, I could see the obese portrait of Violet Blom and wondered if Bill's craving for meat had been translated into that huge female body, but later my theory was proven wrong. When we had lunch together, I often saw Bill chewing happily on corned-beef sandwiches, hamburgers, and BLTs.
"I make rules for myself," Lucille said about her poems. "Not the usual rules of metrics, but an anatomy I choose, and then I dissect it."
Numbers are helpful. They're clear, irrefutable. Some of the lines are numbered." Everything Lucille said was characterized by a similarly rigid bluntness. She seemed to make no concessions to decorous conversation or small talk. At the same time, underneath nearly every remark she made, I felt a strain of humor. She talked as if she were observing her own sentences, looking at them from afar, judging their sounds and shapes even as they came from her mouth. Every word she spoke rang with honesty, and yet this earnestness was matched by a simultaneous irony. Lucille amused herself by occupying two positions at once. She was both the subject and object of her own statements.
I don't think Erica heard Lucille's comment about rules. She was talking about novels with Bill. I can't imagine that Bill had heard it either, but during the discussion between them, rules came up again. Erica leaned toward Bill and smiled. "So you agree, the novel is a bag that can hold anything."
"Tristram Shandy, chapter four, on Horace's ab ovo," Bill said, pointing his index finger at the ceiling. He began to quote, as if he were hearing an inaudible voice somewhere to his right. "'Horace, I know, does not recommend this fashion altogether: but that gentleman is speaking only of an epic poem or a tragedy—(I forgot which);—besides, if it was not so, I should beg Mr. Horace's pardon;—for in writing what I have set about, I shall confine myself neither to his rules, nor to any man's rules that ever lived.'" Bill's voice rose on the final clause, and Erica threw back her head and laughed. They meandered from Henry James to Samuel Beckett to Louis-Ferdinand Céline as Erica discovered for herself that Bill was a voracious reader of novels. It launched a friendship between them that had little to do with me. By the time our dessert arrived—a weary-looking fruit salad—Erica was inviting him to Rutgers to speak to her students. Bill hesitated at first, and then agreed.
Erica was too polite to ignore Lucille, who was sitting beside her, and some time after she asked Bill to visit one of her classes, she focused all her attention on Lucille. My wife nodded at Lucille when she listened, and when she talked her face was a map of shifting emotions and thoughts. In contrast, Lucille's composed face betrayed almost no feeling. As the evening went on, her peculiar remarks gained a kind of philosophical rhythm, the clipped tone of a tortured logic, which reminded me a little of reading Wittgenstein's Tractatus. When Erica told Lucille she knew of her father by reputation, Lucille said, "Yes, his reputation as a law professor is very good." After a moment, she added, "I would have liked to study law, but I couldn't. I used to try to read my father's law books in his library. I was eleven. I knew that one sentence led to another, but by the time I got to the second sentence, I had forgotten the first, and then during the third, I forgot the second."
"You were only eleven," Erica said.
"No," she said. "It was not my age. I still forget."
"Forgetting," I said, "is probably as much a part of life as remembering. We're all amnesiacs."
"But if we've forgotten," Lucille said, turning to me, "we don't always remember that we forgot, so that to remember that we forgot is not exactly forgetting, is it?"
I smiled at her and said, "I'm looking forward to reading your work. Bill's talked about it with a lot of admiration."
Bill lifted his glass. "To our work," he said loudly. "To letters and to paint." He had let himself go and I could see he was a little drunk. His voice cracked on the word "paint." I found his high spirits endearing, but when I turned to Lucille with my glass lifted for the toast, she smiled that tense, forced smile a second time. It was hard to tell whether her husband had brought on that expression or whether it was merely the result of her own inhibition.
Before we left, Lucille handed me two small magazines in which her work had appeared. When I shook her hand, she took mine limply. I squeezed her palm in return, and she didn't seem to mind. Bill hugged me good-bye, and he hugged and kissed Erica. His eyes were shiny with wine, and he smelled of cigarettes. In the doorway, he put his arm around Lucille's shoulder and pulled her close to him. Next to her husband, she looked very small and very self-conscious.
It was still raining when we stepped outside onto the Bowery.
After I put up our umbrella, Erica turned to me and said, "Did you notice that she was wearing the loafers?"
"What are you talking about?" I said.
"Lucille was wearing the shoes, or rather the shoe, in our painting. She's the woman walking away."
I looked at Erica, absorbing her statement. "I guess I didn't look at her feet."
"I'm surprised. You looked pretty closely at the rest of her." Erica grinned, and I saw that she was teasing me. "Don't you find that evocative about the shoe, Leo? And then there's the other woman. Every time I looked up, I saw her—that skinny girl looking down at her underpants, a little greedy and excited. She looked so alive, I felt like they should have set a place for her at the table."
I pulled Erica toward me with my free hand, and holding the umbrella over us, I kissed her. After the kiss, she put her arm around my waist and we walked toward Canal Street. "Well," she said, "I wonder what her work is like."
All three of the poems Lucille had published were similar—works of obsessive, analytic scrutiny that hovered somewhere between the funny and the sad. I remember only four lines from those poems, because they were unusually poignant, and I repeated them to myself. "A woman sits by the window. She thinks / And while she thinks, she despairs / She despairs because she is who she is / And not somebody else."
The doctors tell me that it won't come to blindness. I have a condition called macular degeneration—clouds in my eyes. I have been nearsighted since I was eight years old. Blur is nothing new to me, but with glasses I used to see everything perfectly. I still have my peripheral vision, but directly in front of me there is always a ragged gray spot, and it's growing thicker. My pictures of the past are still vivid. It's the present that's been affected, and those people who were in my past and whom I still see have turned into beings blotted by clouds. This truth startled me in the beginning, but I have discovered from fellow patients and from my doctors that what I have experienced is perfectly normal. Lazlo Finkelman, for example, who comes several times a week to read to me, has lost some definition, and neither my memory of him from before my eyes dimmed nor my peripheral vision is enough to sustain a clear picture. I can say what Lazlo looks like, because I remember the words I used to describe him to myself—narrow pale face, tall bush of blond hair that stands straight up at attention, black glasses with large frames over small gray eyes. But when I look straight at him now, his face won't come into focus, and the words I once used are left hanging. The person they are meant to delineate is a clouded version of an earlier picture I can no longer bring fully to mind, because my eyes are too tired to be always peeking at him from the side. More and more, I rely on Lazlo's voice. But in his even, quiet tone as he reads to me, I have found new sides to his cryptic personality—resonances of feeling that I never saw on his face.
Even though my eyes have been crucial to my work, poor vision is preferable to senility. I can't see well enough anymore to wander through galleries or return to museums to look at works I know by heart. Nevertheless, I keep a catalogue in my mind of remembered paintings, and I can leaf through it and usually find the work I need. In class, I have given up using a pointer for slides, and refer to details instead of pointing at them. My remedy for insomnia these days is to search for the mental image of a painting and work to see it again as clearly as possible. Lately, I've been calling up Piero della Francesca. Over forty years ago, I wrote my dissertation on his De prospectiva pingendi, and by concentrating on the rigorous geometries of his paintings I once analyzed so closely, I fend off other pictures that rise up to torment me and keep me awake. I shut out noises from the street and the intruder I imagine is lurking on the fire escape outside my room. The technique has been working. Last night, the Urbino panels began to melt into my own semisleep dreams, and soon after, I lost consciousness.
For some time, I have had to struggle to ward off dread when I he alone and try to sleep. My mind is large, but my body feels smaller than it once did, as though I am steadily shrinking. My fantasy of reduction is probably connected to growing older and more vulnerable. The circle of a lifetime has begun to close, and I've been thinking more often about my early childhood—what I can remember from Mommsenstrasse 11 in Berlin. It isn't that I recall every part of the apartment where we lived, but I can still take the mental walk up two flights of stairs and past the window with etched glass to our door. Once inside, I know that my father's office is to the left and the parlor rooms lie ahead of me. Although I have retained only a few details of the apartment's furniture and objects, I have a general memory of its spaces—of its large rooms, high ceilings, and changing light. My room was located down a small corridor off the apartment's biggest room. That was where my father played the cello on the third Thursday of every month with three other musical doctors, and I remember that my mother would open the door to my room so that I could hear them play while I was lying in bed. I can still walk through the door of my room and climb up onto the window casement. I climb, because in memory I am as tall as I was then. Below I can see the courtyard at night, detect the lines of the paving bricks and the blackness of the bushes. When I take this walk, the apartment is always empty. I move through it like a phantom, and I have begun to wonder what actually happens in our brains when we return to half-remembered places. What is memory's perspective? Does the man revise the boy's view or is the imprint relatively static, a vestige of what was once intimately known?
Cicero's speaker walked through spacious, well-lit rooms he remembered and dropped words onto tables and chairs where they could be easily retrieved. No doubt I have assigned a vocabulary to the architecture of my first five years—one mediated through the mind of a man who knows the horror that would arrive after the little boy was gone from the apartment. During the last year we were in Berlin, my mother left a light burning in the hallway to calm me before I slept. I had nightmares, and I would wake to a strangling fear and the sound of my own screaming. Nervös was the word my father used—Dos Kind ist nervös. My parents didn't speak to me about the Nazis, only about our preparations to leave home, and it's hard to know to what degree my childish fears were related to the fear that every Jew in Germany must have felt at the time. The way my mother told it was that she was taken by surprise. A party whose views had seemed absurd and contemptible suddenly and inexplicably took hold of the country. Both she and my father were patriotic, and while they were still in Berlin, they regarded National Socialism as something distinctly un-German.
On August 13, 1935, my parents and I left for Paris, and from there we traveled to London. My mother packed sandwiches for the train— brown bread with sausage. I remember the sandwich on my lap, because beside it on a wrinkled square of wax paper was a Mobrenkopf— a ball of pastry filled with custard and covered with chocolate. I have no memory of eating it, but I distinctly recall my delight at the thought that it would soon be mine. The Mobrenkopf is vivid. I see it in the light of the train window. I see my bare knees and the hem of my navy blue shorts. That is all that remains of our exodus. Around the Mobrenkopf is emptiness, a void that can be filled with other people's stories, historical accounts, numbers, and facts. Not until I turned six do I have anything like a continuous memory, and by then I was living in Hampstead. Only weeks after I was sitting on that train, the Nuremberg Laws were passed. Jews were no longer citizens of the Reich, and the opportunities to leave had diminished. My grandmother, my uncle and aunt, and their twin daughters, Anna and Ruth, never left. We were living in New York when my father found out that his family had been pushed onto a train for Auschwitz in June of 1944. They were all murdered. I keep their photographs in my drawer—my grandmother in an elegant hat with a feather standing beside my grandfather, who would be killed in 1917 at Flanders. I have the formal wedding portrait of my Uncle David and Aunt Marta, and a picture of the twins in short wool coats with ribbons in their hair. Beneath each girl in the white border of the photo, Marta wrote their names, to avoid confusion. Anna on the left, Ruth on the right The black- and-white figures of the photographs have had to stand in place of my memory, and yet I have always felt that their unmarked graves became a part of me. What was unwritten then is inscribed into what I call myself.
The longer I live the more convinced I am that when I say "I," I am really saying "we."
In Bill's last finished portrait of Violet Blom, she was naked and starved. Her entire body was darkened by the enormous shadow of an unseen spectator who loomed over her. When I stood close to the canvas, I noticed that parts of her body were covered with a fine hair. Bill called it "lanugo" and said that the starving body often grows hair for protection. He said that he had spent hours studying medical and documentary photographs to get it right. Her skeletal body was painful to look at, and her huge eyes gleamed as if she had a fever. Bill had painted her emaciated body in color, first rendering her with painstaking realism and then going over her body with bold, expressionistic strokes, using blue and green and dabs of red on her thighs and neck. The black-and- white background resembled an aging photograph, like the ones I keep in my drawer. On the floor behind Violet were several pairs of shoes— men's, women's, and children's, painted in gray tones. When I asked Bill if this portrait referred to the death camps, he said yes, and we talked about Adorno for over an hour. The philosopher had said there could be no art after the camps.
I knew Bernie Weeks through a colleague at Columbia, Jack Newman. The Weeks Gallery on West Broadway had done well, because Bernie had a talent for sniffing out new artists, and he had connections. He was one of those people in New York who was purported to "know everybody." "Knowing everybody" is a phrase that denotes not having many relations with people but having relations with a few people generally thought to be significant and powerful. When I introduced Bernie to Bill, Bernie was probably about forty-five, but his age was subsumed by his youthful presence. He wore immaculate, up-to-the-minute suits with brightly colored sneakers. The casual shoes gave him a faint air of eccentricity always welcome in the art world, but they also added to what I thought of as Bernie's bounce. He never stopped moving. He ran up stairs, hopped into elevators, rocked back and forth on his heels when he examined a piece of art, and jiggled his knees through most conversations. By drawing attention to his feet, he alerted the world to his indefatigable go-getting and nonstop pursuit of newness. He had a breathless patter to go with the bounce, and his speech, although sometimes fractured, was never stupid. I pushed Bernie to look at Bill's work and had Jack call Bernie as well. Jack had already been to Bill's studio and had become a convert to what he called "the growing and shrinking Violets."
I wasn't on the Bowery when Bernie came to look at the work, but it ended as I had hoped. The paintings were shown the following fall. "They're weird," Bernie said to me. "Good weird. I think the fat/thin angle is going to fly. Everybody's on a diet, for Christ's sake, and the self-portrait bit. It's good. It's a little risky to show new figurative work right now, but he's got something. And, I like the quotations. Vermeer, de Kooning, and Guston after his revolution."
By the time the show opened, Violet Blom had flown off to Paris. I met her just once before she left—on the stairway in 89 Bowery. I was coming. She was going. I recognized her, introduced myself, and she paused on the steps. Violet was more beautiful than Bill's paintings of her. She had large green eyes with dark lashes that dominated her round face. Curling brown hair fell over her shoulders, and although her body was hidden under a long coat, I came to the conclusion that she was not thin but didn't qualify as chubby either. She shook my hand warmly, said she had heard all about me, and added, "I love the fat one with the taxi." She then said she was sorry she had to run and raced down the stairs. As I continued my climb, I heard her call my name. When I turned around, I saw that she was already standing in front of the door to the street. "You don't mind if I call you Leo, do you?" I shook my head.
She ran back up the stairs, stopped a couple of steps below me, and said, "Bill really likes you." She hesitated. "I'm going away, you see. I'd like to be able to think that you're there for him."
I nodded. She took a couple more steps, reached up for my shoulder, and squeezed it as if to confirm that she really meant what she was saying. Then she stood very still and looked straight at me for several seconds. "You have a nice face," she said. "Especially your nose. You have a beautiful nose." Before I had time to respond to this compliment, she had turned around and was running down the steps. I watched the door slam behind her.
That night when I brushed my teeth and for many nights after, I examined my nose in the mirror. I turned my head to one side and then to the other and tried to catch a glimpse of my profile. I had never spent much time on my nose, had rather disparaged it than admired it, and I can't say that I found it particularly attractive, but that feature in the middle of my face was nevertheless changed forever, transformed by the words of a beautiful young woman, whose image I saw every day hanging on my wall.
Bill asked me to write an essay for the show. I had never written about a living artist and Bill had never been written about before. The little work I called "Multiple Selves" has now been reprinted and translated into several languages, but at the time I regarded its twelve pages as an act of admiration and friendship. There was no catalogue. The essay was stapled together and handed out at the opening. I wrote it over a period of three months, between correcting papers and committee meetings and student conferences, jotting down thoughts as they came to me after class and on the subway. Bernie knew that Bill needed critical support if he was going "to get away with" his work at a moment when minimalism reigned in most galleries. The argument I made was that Bill's art referred to the history of Western painting but turned its assumptions inside out, and that he did it in a way that was essentially different from earlier modernists. By including a viewer's shadow in each canvas, Bill called attention to the space between the viewer and the painting where the real action of all painting takes place—a picture becomes itself in the moment of being seen. But the space the viewer occupies also belongs to the painter. The viewer stands in the painter's position and looks at a self-portrait, but what he or she sees is not an image of the man who has signed the painting in the right-hand corner but somebody else: a woman. Looking at women in painting is an established erotic convention that essentially turns every viewer into a man dreaming of sexual conquest. Any number of great painters have painted pictures of women that subvert the fantasy—Giorgione, Rubens, Vermeer, Manet—but as far as I know not a single male painter has ever announced to the viewer that the woman was himself. It was Erica who elaborated the point one evening. "The truth is," she said, "we all have a man and a woman inside us. We're made from a father and a mother, after all. When I'm looking at a beautiful, sexy woman in a picture, I'm always both her and the person who's looking at her. The eroticism comes from the fact that I can imagine I'm him looking at me. You have to be both people or nothing will happen."
Erica was sitting up in bed reading the indecipherable work of Jacques Lacan when she made this statement. She was wearing a sleeveless cotton nightgown cut low at the neck, and she had tied her hair back, so that I could see her soft earlobes. "Thank you, Professor Stein," I said to her, and put my hand on her belly. "Is there really someone in there?" Erica put her book down and kissed me on the forehead. She was almost three months pregnant, and it was still our secret. The exhaustion and nausea of the first two months had lifted, but Erica had changed. There were days when she shone with happiness and other days when she seemed always to be on the brink of tears. Erica had never been steady, but her moods were even more volatile now. One morning at breakfast she sobbed noisily over an article about foster care in New York City that featured a four-year-old boy named Joey who had been booted out of one home after another. One night she woke up weeping after she dreamed that she left her newborn on a ship and it sailed away as she stood on the dock. Another afternoon, I found her sitting on the sofa with tears streaming down her cheeks. When I asked her what was the matter, she sniffled and said, "Life is sad, Leo. I've been sitting here thinking about how sad it all is."
These changes in my wife, physical and emotional, also affected my essay on Bill. Violet's body, which grew and shrank in the canvases, did more than hint at fertility and its transformations. One of the fantasies between the viewer/painter and the female object had to be impregnation. After all, conception is plurality—the two in the one—the male and the female. After he read the piece, Bill grinned. He shook his head and felt his unshaven face before he said a word to me. In spite of my confidence, I felt a rush of anxiety. "It's good," he said. "It's very good. Of course half of it never crossed my mind." Bill was silent for about a minute. He hesitated, seemed about to speak, and then paused again. Finally, he said, "We haven't told anybody yet, but Lucille is two months pregnant. We've been trying for over a year. The whole time I was working with Violet, we were hoping that we would have a child." After I told Bill about Erica, he said, "I've always wanted kids, Leo, lots of kids. For years I've had this daydream about traveling around the world and populating the earth. I like to imagine myself as the father of hundreds, thousands of children." I laughed when he said it, but I never forgot that fantasy of extravagant potency and multiplication. Bill dreamed of covering the earth with himself.
About halfway through his own opening, Bill disappeared. He told me later that he went to Fanelli's for a Scotch. He had looked pretty miserable from the start as he stood under the NO SMOKING sign, inhaling deeply on a cigarette and tapping the ashes into the pocket of a jacket that was too small for him. Bernie always attracted a good crowd. The guests milled about the big white space with glasses of wine and talked loudly. My essay sat on the desk in a pile. I had given papers at conferences and seminars, had published in journals and magazines, but my work had never been distributed as a leaflet. The novelty pleased me, and I surveyed the takers. A pretty redhead picked it up and read the first few sentences. I felt particularly gratified when she moved her lips as she read. It seemed to suggest an added interest in my words. The piece had also been taped to the wall, and a few people glanced at it. One young man wearing leather pants appeared to read it in its entirety. Jack Newman showed up and slouched around the gallery, one eyebrow raised in an expression of bemused irony. Erica introduced Jack to Lucille, and he cornered her for a good half hour. Every time I looked up, I saw him leaning over her, an inch closer than he should have been. Jack had been married and divorced twice. His lack of success with wives hadn't stopped him from pursuing less permanent encounters, and his wit more than compensated for his lack of physical charm. Jack was comfortable with his jowly face, big belly, and stubby legs, and he made women comfortable with them, too. I had seen him go after the most unlikely people time and time again and succeed. He seduced them with the well-turned compliment. I watched his mouth move as he stood beside Lucille, and I wondered what baroque quips he was using on her that evening. When Jack sidled up to me later to say good-bye, he rubbed his jaw, looked me straight in the eyes, and said, "So what about Wechsler's wife? Do you think she melts in the sack or stays frozen?"
"I have no idea," I said. "But I hope you don't have any leanings in that direction. She's not one of your student nymphettes, and she's pregnant, for God's sake."
Jack lifted his palms toward me and gave me a look of mock horror. "Heaven forbid," he said. "The thought never entered my mind."
Before Bill escaped to Fanelli's, he introduced me to his parents. Regina Wechsler, who had become Regina Cohen after her second marriage, was a tall, attractive woman with a large bust, thick black hair, considerable amounts of gold jewelry, and a sweet, lilting voice. When she spoke, she cocked her head sideways and glanced up at me from under her long eyelashes. She undulated her shoulders as she declared the evening "wonderful" and referred to the toilet, before she went off to use it, as "the powder room." And yet Regina wasn't all artifice. She sized up the soberly dressed crowd in a few seconds, pointed to her red suit, and said, "I feel like a fire engine." She let out a deep, sudden laugh, and her humor cut straight through her posing. Her husband, Al, was a pink-faced man with a square jaw and a deep voice, who seemed genuinely interested in Bill and his work. "They take you by surprise, don't they?" he said about the paintings, and I had to agree.
Before Regina left, I saw her hand Bill a letter. I was standing right beside her, and I suppose she thought I deserved an explanation. "It's from his brother Dan, who couldn't be here tonight." An instant later, she turned to Bill and said, "Your father just walked in. I'm going to say hello to him before we leave."
I watched Regina approach a tall man who had just come out of the elevator. The resemblance between father and son was striking. Sy Wechsler had a narrower face than Bill, but his dark eyes and skin, his broad shoulders and strong limbs were so much like his son's that the two could have been mistaken for each other if viewed from behind, a fact I would remember later when Bill began a portrait series of his father. While Regina spoke to him, Sy nodded and answered, but his expression was vague. I guessed that the encounter was awkward for him and that he was bearing up by adopting a polite but distant attitude toward his ex-wife, but the expression on his face never changed. When he approached Bill, he stuck out his hand and Bill shook it. He thanked his father for coming and introduced me. When we shook hands, I looked into the man's eyes and he returned the look, but there was little recognition in his face. He nodded at me, said, "Congratulations and good luck," and then turned to his pregnant daughter-in-law and said exactly the same thing. He did not comment on his forthcoming grandchild, who by then was a small bump under Lucille's dress. He glanced at the paintings as if they were the work of some stranger, and left the gallery. I don't know whether the suddenness of his father's arrival and departure rattled Bill enough to make him leave or whether it was just the pressure of finding himself under scrutiny by an art world he feared might reject him.
As it turned out, the critics both rejected and accepted him. That first show set the tone for the rest of Bill's career. He would always have passionate defenders and violent detractors, but as painful or pleasant as it might have been for Bill to be hated by some people and worshiped by others, he would become far more important to reviewers and journalists than they ever would be to him. By the time of his first show, Bill was already too old and too stubborn to be swayed by critics. He was the most private person I have ever known, and only a few people were ever allowed to enter the secret room of his imagination. It is ironic and sad that perhaps the most important inhabitant of that room was and would always be Bill's father. Alive, Sy Wechsler was the incarnation of his son's unfulfilled longing. He was one of those people who were never fully present at the events of their own lives. A part of him was not there, and it was this absent quality in his father that Bill never stopped pursuing— even after the man was dead.
Bill showed up for the small dinner at Bernie's loft after the opening, but he was mostly silent, and we all went home early. The next day, a Saturday, I went to see him on the Bowery. Lucille was visiting her parents in New Haven, and Bill told me the story of his father.Sy's parents were immigrants who had left Russia as small children and ended up on the Lower East Side. Bill told me that his grandfather had abandoned his wife and three children when Sy, the oldest, was ten. The story in the family was that Moishe ran off to Canada with another woman, where he became a wealthy man and fathered three other children. At his grandmother's funeral, Bill had met a woman named Esther Feuerstein, and it was through Esther that he learned what no one in the family had ever mentioned. The day after her husband left, Rachael Wechsler had walked into the tiny kitchen in their tenement on Rivington Street and stuck her head in the oven. It was Sy who had pounded on Esther's door and Sy who helped Esther pull a screaming Rachael away from the gas. Despite her encounter with early death, Bill's grandmother lived to be eighty-nine years old. His description of the old lady was unsentimental. "She was nuts," he said. "She used to howl at me in Yiddish, and when I didn't understand her, she'd whack me with her purse."
"My father always favored Dan," Bill said. He didn't make this statement with any bitterness. I already knew that Dan had been an unstable, high-strung child and that sometime in his early twenties he had had a schizophrenic breakdown. Since then, Bill's younger brother had been in and out of hospitals and halfway houses and mental health clinics. Bill said that his father was touched by weakness, that he had a natural attraction to people who needed a helping hand. One of Bill's cousins had Down's syndrome, and Sy Wechsler had never forgotten Larry's birthday, although he sometimes forgot his older son's. "I want you to read the note Dan sent me," Bill said. "It will give you a good idea of what goes on in his head. He's mad, but he's not stupid. I sometimes think he's got the life of at least five people in him." Bill handed me a wrinkled, smudged piece of paper, written by hand.
CHARGE BRO THE RS W.!
REACH THE ACHE!
HEAR THE BEAT.
TO THE ROSE, THE COAT,
THE CAR, THE RATS, THE BOAT.
TO BEER. TO WAR.
TO HERE. TO THERE.
WE WERE, ARE
LOVE, DAN (I) EL. (NO) DENIAL.
After I read the note, I said, "It's a kind of anagram."
"It took me a while to figure it out, but if you look at it closely, all the words in the poem are made up of the letters in the first line—except the last ones, when he signs off."
"Who is the 'her'? Did he know about your paintings?"
"My mother might have told him. He writes plays, too. Some of them rhyme. Dan's sickness isn't anybody's fa