Kindle Location: 182
They might have done, many of them. So many people will do. But once you’ve actually been in love, you can’t live with “will do”; it’s worse than living with yourself.
Less looked at his lover, and perhaps a series of images flashed through his mind—a tuxedo jacket, a Paris hotel room, a rooftop party—or perhaps what appeared was just the snow blindness of panic and loss.
New York is a city of eight million people, approximately seven million of whom will be furious when they hear you were in town and didn’t meet them for an expensive dinner, five million furious you didn’t visit their new baby, three million furious you didn’t see their new show, one million furious you didn’t call for sex, but only five actually available to meet you. It is completely reasonable to call none of them.
A man he almost stayed with, almost loved, and now he does not even recognize him on the street. Either Less is an asshole, or the heart is a capricious thing. It is not impossible both are true.
Where is the real Less? Less the young man terrified of love? The dead-serious Less of twenty-five years ago? Well, he has not packed him at all. After all these years, Less doesn’t even know where he’s stored.
Less’s generation often feels like the first to explore the land beyond fifty. How are they meant to do it? Do you stay a boy forever, and dye your hair and diet to stay lean and wear tight shirts and jeans and go out dancing until you drop dead at eighty? Or do you do the opposite—do you forswear all that, and let your hair go gray, and wear elegant sweaters that cover your belly, and smile on past pleasures that will never come again? Do you marry and adopt a child? In a couple, do you each take a lover, like matching nightstands by the bed, so that sex will not vanish entirely? Or do you let sex vanish entirely, as heterosexuals do? Do you experience the relief of letting go of all that vanity, anxiety, desire, and pain? Do you become a Buddhist?
He wonders when their conversations had begun to sound like a novel in translation.
Is there a pill for when the image of a trumpet vine comes into your head? Will it erase it? Erase the voice saying, You should kiss me like it’s good-bye? Erase the tuxedo jacket, or at least the face above it? Erase the whole nine years?
The work, the habit, the words, will fix you. Nothing else can be depended on, and Less has known genius, what genius can do. But what if you are not a genius? What will the work do then?
The tragicomic business of being alive is getting to him.
Why do today’s young men insist on marrying? Was this why we all threw stones at the police, for weddings?
It was in the middle of their time together, when Less was finally worldly enough to be of help with travel and Robert had not become so filled with bitterness that he was a hindrance, the time when any couple has found its balance, and passion has quieted from its early scream, but gratitude is still abundant; what no one realizes are the golden years.
At ten, we climb the tree higher even than our mothers’ fears. At twenty, we scale the dormitory to surprise a lover asleep in bed. At thirty, we jump into the mermaid-green ocean. At forty, we look on and smile.
They knew trouble would come but expected it in degrees. Life so often arrives all of a sudden. And who knows which side you will find yourself on?
“Strange to be almost fifty, no? I feel like I just understood how to be young.” “Yes! It’s like the last day in a foreign country. You finally figure out where to get coffee, and drinks, and a good steak. And then you have to leave. And you won’t ever be back.”
“I wish I were single.” Less smiles bitterly at the subjunctive but does not move his arm. “I’m sure you don’t. Otherwise you would be.” “It is not so simple, Arthur.”
He must have been lonely a long time to stand before Arthur Less and ask such a thing. On a rooftop in Paris, in his black suit and white shirt. Any narrator would be jealous of this possible love, on this possible night.
“We’re too old to think we’ll meet again,” Less says.
“Arthur, you’re going to have to figure something out. You see all these men over fifty, these skinny men with mustaches. Imagine all the dieting and exercise and effort of fitting into your suits from when you were thirty! And then what? You’re still a dried-up old man. Screw that. Clark always says you can be thin or you can be happy, and, Arthur, I have already tried thin.”
It is, after all, almost a miracle they are here. Not because they’ve survived the booze, the hashish, the migraines. Not that at all. It’s that they’ve survived everything in life, humiliations and disappointments and heartaches and missed opportunities, bad dads and bad jobs and bad sex and bad drugs, all the trips and mistakes and face-plants of life, to have made it to fifty and to have made it here:
And I thought, Well, that was nice. That was a nice marriage.” “But you broke up with him. Something’s wrong. Something failed.” “No! No, Arthur, no, it’s the opposite! I’m saying it’s a success. Twenty years of joy and support and friendship, that’s a success. Twenty years of anything with another person is a success. If a band stays together twenty years, it’s a miracle. If a comedy duo stays together twenty years, they’re a triumph. Is this night a failure because it will end in an hour? Is the sun a failure because it’s going to end in a billion years? No, it’s the fucking sun. Why does a marriage not count? It isn’t in us, it isn’t in human beings, to be tied to one person forever. Siamese twins are a tragedy. Twenty years and one last happy road trip. And I thought, Well, that was nice. Let’s end on success.”
“It’s true things can go on till you die. And people use the same old table, even though it’s falling apart and it’s been repaired and repaired, just because it was their grandmother’s. That’s how towns become ghost towns. It’s how houses become junk stores. And I think it’s how people get old.”
I think maybe I’ll go it on my own. Maybe I’m better that way. Maybe I was always better that way and it was just that when I was young, I was so scared, and now I’m not scared.
Why this endless need for a man as a mirror? To see the Arthur Less reflected there? He is grieving, for sure—the loss of his lover, his career, his novel, his youth—so why not cover the mirrors, rend the fabric over his heart, and just let himself mourn? Perhaps he should try alone.
“She told me she met the love of her life,” Zohra says at last, still staring out the window. “You read poems about it, you hear stories about it, you hear Sicilians talk about being struck by lightning. We know there’s no love of your life. Love isn’t terrifying like that. It’s walking the fucking dog so the other one can sleep in, it’s doing taxes, it’s cleaning the bathroom without hard feelings. It’s having an ally in life. It’s not fire, it’s not lightning. It’s what she always had with me. Isn’t it? But what if she’s right, Arthur? What if the Sicilians are right? That it’s this earth-shattering thing she felt? Something I’ve never felt. Have you?”
“What is love, Arthur? What is it?” she asks him. “Is it the good dear thing I had with Janet for eight years? Is it the good dear thing? Or is it the lightning bolt? The destructive madness that hit my girl?” “It doesn’t sound happy” is all he can say.
We all recognize grief in moments that should be celebrations; it is the salt in the pudding.
Time has been waiting here all along. In a snowy alpine resort. With cuckoos. Of course Time would turn out to be Swiss.
Like a wintertime swimmer too numb to feel cold, Arthur Less is too sad to feel pity.
Boredom is the only real tragedy for a writer; everything else is material.
They are not young, not at all; there is nothing left of the boys they used to be. Why not sell his letters, his keepsakes, his paintings, his books? Why not burn them? Why not give up on the whole business of life?
“Arthur, I’ve got a theory. Now, hear me out. It’s that our lives are half comedy and half tragedy. And for some people, it just works out that the first entire half of their lives is tragedy and then the second half is comedy.
“Arthur, I changed my mind. You have the luck of a comedian. Bad luck in things that don’t matter. Good luck in things that do. I think—you probably won’t agree with this—but I think your whole life is a comedy. Not just the first part. The whole thing. You are the most absurd person I’ve ever met. You’ve bumbled through every moment and been a fool; you’ve misunderstood and misspoken and tripped over absolutely everything and everyone in your path, and you’ve won. And you don’t even realize it.”
He doesn’t feel victorious; he feels defeated. “My life, my life over the past year—” “Arthur Less,” Carlos interrupts, shaking his head. “You have the best life of anyone I know.” This is nonsense to Less.
It was one of the grandest and most dismaying experiences in Less’s life—Marcel Proust, that is—and the three thousand pages of In Search of Lost Time took him five committed summers to finish.
There is that scene at the end of Proust when our narrator, after many years out of society, arrives at a party furious no one told him it’s a costume party; everyone is wearing white wigs! And then he realizes. It isn’t a costume party. They have simply grown old.
I know I’m out of your life / But the day that I die / I know you are going to cry.
“My marriage is failing, it has been failing a long time. Marian and I hardly sleep together anymore. I get to bed very late, she gets up very early. She’s angry we never had children. And now that it’s too late, she’s even angrier. I’m selfish and terrible with money. I’m so unhappy. So, so unhappy, Arthur.
And Robert says nothing; he knows the absurdity of asking someone to explain love or sorrow. You can’t point to it. It would be as futile, as unconveyable, as pointing at the sky and saying, “That one, that star, there.”