“I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence, memory trace of past events, as the snail leaves its slime.”
They are both mildly high, heading east on the Long Island Expressway. Nadja, in the passenger seat, sits cross-legged. She is peeling half a stick of gum she will put in her mouth to fill it with flavor, at which time she will light a cigarette and take a couple of puffs. She measures everything, knows the exact small quantities she requires for momentary gratification. At the wheel is Raoul, a competent driver, lover, and part-time protector. He has both hands on the wheel, his entire being focused on the road. He is a man who takes his driving seriously, which may annoy her, depending on her mood. This morning she is inclined to be annoyed, even though she would much prefer it if she were in a better mood. Outside, it is a hot August morning; inside, it is a cool, enclosed universe. They had smoked half a joint before leaving her apartment, and Nadja entertains the thought that, glimpsed from outside, she and Raoul may resemble those stiff, shrouded dummies they use in the industry to test-crash a car.
“Let me have a shnickle,” Raoul says, a shnickle being their pet word for “puff.” But, he is too late. She has just killed the cigarette with her usual swiftness, expertly severing the burning tip, then puffing out the smoke still remaining in the body of her Marlboro.
“You always do that,” Raoul states a fact in a resigned, slightly discontented voice; he is grumpy, too. The problem is, he takes his cues from her, even though she has told him a thousand times that when she is in a foul mood, she needs him to cheer her up.
“You’re always a millisecond late,” she says, trying not to sound gleeful. Indeed, she is glad he is late: she keeps count of the cigarettes she smokes, and the less puffs he takes—Raoul is not a smoker—the more accurate the count. “I’ll light it again in a little while.”
But Raoul’s discontent is still simmering. “They say it’s not good for you to do that. You only inhale more germs or something.”
“That’s nonsense propagated by the tobacco companies,” she counters.
There is a short pause. “I love it,” Raoul says, now letting his discontent break free, “when you think you know best.”
Nadja turns to him. This man is her lover. Comfortably bourgeois, although he claims he wants more out of his life, and therefore sticks with her. She is an important part of his life, he whispers in her ear every so often, usually after sex, and she lies there thinking that Raoul is part of her life, too, but which part exactly? And what is her life, anyway? The more she thinks about it, the clearer it becomes that when she says “my life” she says something that makes sense but is meaningless. As long as she does not dwell on it, she can go on living her life. But as soon as she attempts to dive deeper and ponder such issues, a feeling of queasiness spreads in her stomach and a strange foggy somberness descends on her as if she has ventured too far and briefly touched something that is beyond her reach—perhaps forbidden, perhaps dangerous, perhaps an area in her brain where old phobias and superstitions lie in wait.
She cannot look at Raoul for long when he is not looking at her. Maybe because it allows her to look at him with cold, judging eyes. Maybe because his profile seems alien, remote: all she sees are his nose and chin, not his best features. His hands, she thinks, grip the wheel too tightly. She wishes her lover had a more relaxed, cavalier attitude when it comes to driving, but this car is new, and Raoul has been very fastidious about it. Abnormally so, she thinks. In fact, she resents the new car.
When she thinks such thoughts, cold and uncaring and critical of him, she reminds herself that he loves her, almost unconditionally. She misses the days when Raoul obeyed all her commands, worshipped her in fact. From the beginning, what moved and impressed her was the way he admired her—so openly, and without reserve. He still does, he is still wary of her, but dares to contradict her once in a while.
She says, “You get very contentious when you’re high.”
“I’m not high. You’re the one who’s high.”
A bubble of hysterical laughter begins to rise in her. How absurd he is. Maybe they are both absurd. Together. She could easily turn this small outburst of his into an argument, but does she want to?
“All right, you’re not high, but you’re contentious.”
“I don’t like it when you dismiss what I say.”
“What did you say?”
Just like a married couple. She puts her hands in her lap and looks straight ahead. Her so-called life is in a flux. She feels there is something in the offing, that there is something she must do, but she is not yet sure what it is exactly, or what direction she must take. The thought nags at her that she nags at him because she is unhappy. Is he the source of her unhappiness? Maybe, but her job takes first place. If she did not have Raoul, she would have no one—no lover, and no sex, of course. Chances are she would be even more miserable than she is now. Or maybe not. Maybe it would be good for her to be alone for a while. Maybe she needs someone new in her life.
Her thoughts are no help, they only bring more confusion. The trouble is: she will never know if Raoul admires her because she is admirable, or because he is married and is grateful to have her. It saddens her to consider that she and Raoul were meant for one another, perhaps for life, but circumstances will not allow them to fully explore the possibility. They both feel uncomfortable in the “situation.” They tell each other they did not mean to fall in love, it was meant to be a short affair. They say it, but Nadja suspects they both know they are lying. She was looking to fall in love, not necessarily with Raoul, but with someone, and Raoul, so she believes, was looking for the same thing, to be in love again, not necessarily with her, but with someone.
“What are you thinking about?” Raoul asks.
“Are you sure we didn’t miss the exit? It feels like we’ve been driving forever.”
“That’s why they call it Long Island,” Raoul says in his exaggerated heavy accent.
Nadja laughs. It has never occurred to her to wonder why the island is called Long Island, and she appreciates this unexpected illumination of the name. She and Raoul do not get to spend many weekends together, why be morose when she can be happy? Her life is not all that bad. She is not a total failure, she does accomplish things, even if it takes her a little longer.
Encouraged, Raoul continues. “It should be renamed: Long Long Island.”
Nadja laughs some more, biting into time.
Now it is her turn. “Very Long Long Island.”
They laugh, they are happy, nearly restored to normalcy. Last night, they went out to eat, and Nadja, already satiated with good food and pleasure, looked at her favorite dessert—chocolate soufflé—which had just been placed before her. She picked up her spoon and punctured the top, admiring the dark liquid inside the crater.
“What do you see?” Raoul whispered at her side.
“I see,” Nadja whispered back. “I see molten lava and I’m floating on it.”
“Is it hot?”
“Oh yes, very, and velvety and rich.”
“Is there room for me?”
Nadja, surprised, looked up at Raoul; a peculiar wistful expression sat on his face. “Always,” she said, meaning it.
They were both quite pleased, they were having a good night, which is not always the case. At times, they have a fight in the restaurant, not a loud fight, but a war of hardened eyes and tight lips.
Feeling somewhat better, she looks out the window, seemingly aloof behind her cool, dark shades, but actually checking out the passengers in passing cars, judging and comparing them with herself and Raoul. Most of the cars have the same compact, shiny look as theirs; they are the new middle class, heading for the shore, going 65-70 efficient mph. A huge truck looms in the right lane, dwarfing them. Nadja looks up, scrutinizes the strong, virile driver in the high cabin. She could have been with him, living a different life, driving cross-country, mile after mile of blissful insouciance, her hand on his thigh, his on hers. Occasionally they stop for fast food and sex.
For a stretch, the truck is parallel with their car. Mustache and sunglasses look down from the cabin and scrutinize her. Man to woman, woman to man; Raoul accelerates.
Ah, she sighs, the life of the mind, a short-lived fantasy. Idly she wonders if others indulge as promiscuously and deliberately as she in this futile mental exercise. Often, when she is in the grip of some elaborate dream-world, the pleasure is acutely physical (sexual fantasy) or acutely mental (fame and riches).
“You know what I’m thinking?” Raoul says.
“No,” she says in a slow lingering voice.
“I’m thinking we should have that shnickle you promised me.”
“Good idea.” Nadja reaches for her bag on the floor.
“But,” Raoul continues. “What I was really thinking about was the soufflé last night.”
“Me too,” she exclaims, sitting up.
Raoul shoots her glance. “See?” he says, and she nods. It is Raoul’s way of saying that they are connected in ways that even they do not fully understand.
“Yes,” she says, “I do.”
They smoke the rest of the cigarette, and Nadja stretches out her legs on the dashboard, a pleasant buzz in her head. Soon, they will arrive at Sabine’s, the proud owner of a small cottage on the North Fork, a cottage that Sabine and Nadja have named La Casa. The cottage is right on the Sound, and the water, most days, is beautiful and calm. Nadja is a regular visitor; Raoul, a first-time guest.
Nadja makes plans. “We’ll jog and swim. We’ll go bike-riding.”
“Does she have bikes?”
“Of course,” Nadja says smugly, as if she were the proprietor of the bikes and the cottage—being Sabine’s friend entitles her. According to this line of logic, Raoul, invited to come along as Nadja’s mate, should be grateful.
“Do you want to stop for coffee?” Raoul asks.
“No,” she says, “let’s just get there. Unless you want to stretch your legs,” she adds with impromptu generosity.
“No, I’m fine.”
She looks at him again, allowing tenderness into her heart. At fifty-one, he is twelve years her senior, and she feels sorry for him when she thinks about his other life. Originally from Argentina, now thirty years in this country, Raoul is a resourceful businessman with capital to his name, shared with Lydia, his wife. Sitting in the car, Nadja feels a little strange, maybe some guilt, occupying Lydia’s lawful, corporeal seat. Sometimes she has the weird, and thankfully brief, feeling that Lydia is in the car with them. Lydia, no doubt, had a say about the color, the make; it is probably she who read the consumer reports. Husband and wife went together to the car dealership in Rye, test-drove the car, discussed the various features they would have to pay extra for. Raoul once told Nadja that shopping with one’s spouse was the least sexy of activities, but the way Nadja sees it, shopping with one’s spouse is the connective tissue that binds them together and gives them this look, the couple’s look. Indeed, Raoul and Lydia look alike—Nadja has seen photographs—they have the same smile, the same composure of features, whereas Nadja and Raoul do not look even remotely alike.
Nadja has no intention of “stealing” Raoul from his family but at times, when in a certain mood and feeling defeated, she experiences a bitter resentment toward Lydia, and even toward the kids; this frightens her, and she instantly repents. On the rare occasions when their fights reach a crescendo and her self-loathing is charged to the fullest, she mocks Raoul to his face, deriding his small, perfect life, his two kids, a boy and a girl, now in college and the exact replicas of papa and mama in their aspirations. “You’re in the cloning business,” she tells Raoul, and he, perhaps understanding more than he lets on, says nothing.
Once, as they were walking home on a cold night, Raoul let a whimsical thought cross his lips, wishing Lydia to vanish somehow. Both Nadja and Raoul were shocked. They stopped walking and looked at each other for a moment and then smiled, half embarrassed, half giddy with the profanity of such a thought. Then Nadja spat on the sidewalk against the evil eye and made Raoul do the same.
Nadja reaches for the seatbelt. Lydia, Raoul says, always wears it. Nadja and Raoul seldom do, but lately Nadja has begun to have flashes of a terrible car accident. The car turns over again and again, and she and Raoul require medical care. The authorities get involved, and she and Raoul are found out: the scandal, the shame—their due punishment for being so careless and immoral. If they die, people will say they got what they deserved. People always know what others deserve.
Nadja looks at Raoul, his hands on the wheel, and bursts out laughing.
“You. A pilot.”
He glances at her. “A pilot? Oh, yes,” he recalls.
Last night, as Nadja was eating her dessert, allowing Raoul a taste, Raoul said, “I had the weirdest dream …”
Nadja gave him a look—he always starts like this when telling her his dreams—and he said, “All right, maybe not the weirdest, not in the top ten, but weird. I’m a pilot—”
“A pilot?!” Raoul is useless when it comes to mechanics. “Maybe a co-pilot?”
“No, a pilot. I’m in a TWA plane—”
“Oh, the one that crashed.”
He paused. “No, but it makes you wonder why TWA. Anyway, I’m waiting for take-off on the runway—”
“Do you have passengers?”
“I don’t remember, maybe. There are a couple of planes ahead of me, so I get off and go for a walk. Then I walk back and I can’t find my plane. I’m crossing a field and come to a house and knock on the door, and this man comes out and I say to him, ‘Look, I’m a pilot…’”
By this point, Nadja was laughing hysterically, envisioning Raoul going up to a stranger and saying, Look, I’m a pilot…
“…I say to him, ‘Look, I’m a pilot, but I can’t find my plane.’ But before that, as I’m crossing the field, I’m thinking I must ask one of the other pilots how far back I should pull the throttle for take-off…”
“It must have been a wonderful feeling, being in charge of the plane and ready for takeoff,” Nadja now says.
Raoul sighs. “It was, at first, but then I got anxious when I couldn’t find my plane.”
“And you never got to fly,” Nadja adds ruefully.
“True, I never got to fly.”
“Many guys say they fly in their dreams, like, you know, Superman, and without a machine. They just fly.”
“Yes, I’ve had those dreams, too, but I think being a pilot carries more oomph and authority. Responsibility.”
“Hmmm. You mean the passengers?”
“The passengers and the crew. And the machine, as you call it, is an expensive piece of equipment. You have to know how to operate it. You need a license.”
“But then, why can’t you find your plane? And why do you need to ask another pilot about the throttle?”
“Well, I must be a beginner pilot, and maybe it’s my virgin flight. Maybe I’m just flying to Long Long Island with my one and only Nadja and I worry about an accident, tfu, tfu.”
“Tfu, tfu,” Nadja echoes, spitting air.
And here, at last, is the gray cottage. They pull into the driveway behind Sabine’s newly leased Honda. “Leather seats!” Sabine boasts when she gets the chance to rave about the car. Sabine, Nadja thinks, is a first generation nouveau riche par excellence, but with a certain charm, given Sabine’s natural penchant for self-deprecation. An assortment of buoys hang from the back porch railing, and colorful wind socks merrily swing in the breeze. At first Nadja ridiculed the buoys and the socks as just another symptom of Sabine’s burgeoning bourgeois soul, but now she finds she actually likes them.
And there, on the doorstep, are Sabine and Butterscotch: an adoring mistress in print shorts and shirt, and her impervious cat. Sabine has tons of clothes she shoves into her drawers and sort of hangs in her closets in no discernible order, and Nadja always wonders how Sabine finds or decides what to wear on any given day. Often, like this morning, her choices seem haphazard, and the ensemble of dissimilar prints offers a cacophony of colors and shapes. And yet, Sabine, in her schlumpy disheveled way, somehow manages to look snappy, at least in Nadja’s eyes. Sabine’s tan small feet are in rubber thongs.
Nadja and Sabine exchange blasé kisses and hugs—blasé on Sabine’s part, Sabine who acquiesces to physical contact in a queer mixture of passivity and indifference. Instantly, if casually, Sabine appropriates Raoul to demonstrate for him the merits of her car, and Nadja, somewhat miffed, and yet willing Sabine and Raoul to “bond,” schleps their bags from trunk to guest room. She puts away the foods that she and Raoul have bought that morning at the Gourmet Garage, complying with Sabine’s demands. When one is invited to Sabine’s, one is not exactly a guest: somehow or other one must pay. It has recently come out in a conversation that Sabine keeps a record on who has visited her, and for how long, so that she could mention it, as if in passing, when the time is right: “You spent five nights in my house this summer.” Sabine has never said this to Nadja, but Nadja is waiting. She can just see Sabine’s face, hear her voice, when she tells Nadja how many times she has been to the cottage, how privileged and indebted she should feel for knowing Sabine.
“What took you so long?” Sabine asks, and Nadja and Raoul look at each other.
“It took us two hours,” Raoul says. “How long does it take you?”
“About the same, but I thought you’d get here sooner.”
“We had to stop at the Gourmet Garage to get some stuff for you,” Raoul says.
“Oh, you did?” Sabine is ecstatic. “Where is it?”
“In the fridge,” Nadja says.
In the guest room, Nadja and Raoul strip off their clothes and Nadja, playfully, reaches for his package. It is a habit with her, a habit that still gives her pleasure, both physical and mental, as if, with this small weighing gesture, she proclaims possession of him.
Raoul pushes her hand away, looking at the half-open door. They change into their bathing suits and Nadja goes down to the beach and plunges into the cool water. Ah, the good life. Sabine, with her purple goggles and her red white and blue Olympics swimming cap, joins her. Sabine has an arsenal of caps, goggles, and colorful swimsuits, and today she is wearing a pale green suit, with a long, latticed V stretching down to her navel. At any given time, Nadja has only one suit, black, and one pair of goggles, also black.
Raoul, a bottle of Pete’s Wicked Ale in his hand, waves from the porch.
“Why doesn’t he join us?” Sabine asks.
Nadja regards Raoul through Sabine’s eyes: male, middle-aged, a pair of old, red nylon trunks—definitely not cool; Nadja feels a bond with Raoul.
“He might, later.”
“Is he a good swimmer?”
“He’s not a water person, he’s a beach-and-book person.”
They swim parallel to the shore. The water is clear, refreshing. The sun is strong, but not too strong. Nadja dives, then floats on her back, looking at the very blue sky, wondering, not for the first time, what makes it blue. Is she enjoying herself? Yes, she is. And yet, she would have been just as happy had she stayed home. Around people she is usually tense, feeling compelled to display good cheer and humor.
Nadja resumes swimming. Sabine stands farther away, waiting for her. Sabine spits into her goggles.
“Why do you do that?” Nadja asks.
“To prevent the goggles from fogging up, you little ignorant you.”
Nadja laughs. “Do you know what makes the sky blue?”
Sabine eyes her. “Is it very important?”
Nadja is intent on Sabine’s mouth, the way Sabine’s lips and teeth work together to produce her precise, bitchy-sounding enunciation; her feisty belligerence shines through, even when she is acting friendly. Biologically, Sabine is a woman in her forties, but she is, in fact, a baby, if a shrewd one, still fighting her childhood battles. She is self-conscious about her mouth—she won’t smile if she can help it—because of her bunched up teeth. Nadja is surprised that Sabine’s Jewish, well-to-do parents did not bother to arrange for braces at the appropriate age.
“It’s not important,” Nadja says, “but I rely on you to tell me practical things. Do you think it’s the water reflected in the sky?”
“If anything, it’s the other way around. Water has no color.”
“Neither does air.”
“You ask the most inane questions.” Sabine, languidly, draws half circles across the surface of the water, causing tiny splashes. “What does he tell his wife when he goes off with you?”
Even with Sabine, Nadja feels uncomfortable discussing Lydia. It brings up the fact that Raoul is a liar and a cheat, and that Nadja, his accomplice, is not much better. She considers herself an honest person, and yet, her life is full of deceit, not only with Raoul, but also at the office. Like a thief, she constantly worries about getting caught.
“Oh, some business commitment,” Nadja feigns a light tone.
“And she believes him?”
“It looks like she does. We don’t do this very often, and they’ve been married for so long, I don’t think she really cares. Maybe she is happy to have the house all to herself.”
“I’m sure she knows. Women know these things. Do they fuck?”
“Not often. Long-term couples rarely do.”
“How do you know?”
“He tells me. Not only he and his wife, but their friends, too. They have what they call the obligatory fuck once or twice a month.”
“You’re so naive. Does it occur to you that Raoul may be lying to you?”
Sabine does this often. It is a principle with her to be challenging, mercilessly blunt. She is good at putting people like Nadja on the defensive and getting information out of them.
“He has no reason to lie to me. Besides, I’m not really jealous of his wife.”
“Of course you are.”
“I’m not, not when it comes to sex.”
“Well, I still think that he must lie to you. Men always lie.”
“I thought you liked Raoul.”
“For a man he’s all right, and he puts up with you. Years ago, I used to fuck men. I even liked a couple of them.”
Nadja splashes water on her face; the sun, in fact, is very hot. She would rather swim than talk, but she can’t think of a way to end the conversation without having Sabine accuse her of trying to avoid the subject, or of being rude. Not that Sabine could not take some rudeness. “So why don’t you try a man for a change? I’ve always said you were a fake dyke.”
“I don’t want a penis in my life. Still, I can’t believe his wife doesn’t know.”
“Maybe she does and is smart about it. Maybe she is glad to be released from sex duties.”
“You said he was good in bed.”
“He is for me, but maybe not for her, after so many years. He says she is not interested so much in sex anymore. He and his friends have a theory about sex and marriage, and they blame the wives. They say that women at a certain age dry up, something having to do with menopause and estrogen levels. I tell him it’s bullshit, the wives are simply bored with the husbands. If they had the guts and took on a lover, they’d be rejuvenated in sex.”
“Well, what about you? I don’t understand how you can come with a guy you’ve been seeing for over two years.”
Nadja laughs, and Sabine stops drawing circles in the water. Anxiously, she asks, “You work at it?”
Nadja hesitates. She can be honest, she can be evasive. Sabine is a gossip and whatever Nadja tells her, if juicy enough, will be repeated, distorted and enhanced a dozen times as Sabine spreads the news among their friends. Nadja hates gossip, but she tolerates Sabine because Sabine comes right back and tells you what she said about you and what others said about you. And since Sabine discusses everyone with everybody, it is no longer a true case of gossip behind one’s back, but a sort of net weaving that keeps them all well connected and informed, if a bit swampy.
“Of course,” Nadja says.
“I tense my muscles, I concentrate.”
“And you breathe fast?”
Nadja has to think. “No, I actually stop breathing.”
“You slut. Let’s jog back. Be careful, though, there are small rocks here and there. I hurt myself last week.”
They jog back, and Nadja, always worried about physical injury, is especially mindful of the rocks underfoot. Something she did not tell Sabine, and probably will not, is that lately she has been feeling discontented with Raoul and would gladly welcome a new lover, if only she met one. She feels sorry for herself, the way she hungrily looks at men on the street, even men who are not exactly her type, but may turn out to be her type. She looks at their crotch, trying to assess the goods and to finally grasp the core of sex and love. She longs for passion, for true and lasting partnership, something she has never experienced before. She is greedy, yes, but the hungry are always greedy.
Sabine is a bit ahead, and Nadja watches the short and determined figure, the bobbing Olympics-capped head. The sun is beating down, and Nadja is thinking skin cancer, she is thinking crime and punishment: she is a sinner, and she deserves punishment. At any moment, God may strike her dead. And even if God does not punish her, she is doing a good job punishing herself. Death inhabits a permanent, if inelegant, corner in her mind; every day it makes its presence known. At this hour, if she were not here, at Sabine’s, she would be at the office, maybe working on “Woman Ending Badly,” maybe doing slave-work. With a few exceptions, Nadja is the only person she knows who has a real job. Sabine, like most of her friends, is well-off and does not need to work: she is a Published Novelist and lives off a small inheritance her aunt has left her, as well as a monthly allowance from her parents. Nadja has published a couple of short stories and lives off her wages.
As she jogs, a sense of the eternal briefly visits her mind, immediately followed by sadness. To counter it, Nadja tells herself how beautiful the water is, how lucky she is to be where she is. Better not think about life, just live it. She deserves this respite. She should look forward to a cool beer, a cigarette, lounging under the awning on the porch, and schmoozing. This is what people do on nice summer days, people who can afford it, and she can afford it thanks to Sabine and Raoul.
“Wait for me,” Nadja shouts, and Sabine stops. Approaching, Nadja begins to laugh.
“What is it?” Sabine asks.
“You. You look funny from behind.”
“You look like a boy, no, like a little man. An eager little man, very determined. Maybe a cap-wearing midget.”
Despite herself, a burst of snorting laughter escapes Sabine. “I’m taller than you,” she retorts, and they resume jogging toward the cottage, now in sight.
Image by ironpoison