The Other Planet
“Head tilted back, mouth open, Denise wrapped her lips around her third bourbon as if her aim were to unfasten her mouth from its weak mooring in the face. She could tell right off what Valeria’s big problem was, she said. She thought that she was smarter than other people. She thought other people were stupid. Even if it were true that people were stupid: so what? No use feeling superior. Sooner or later you found out that you were stupid too — more intelligent than some, stupider than others, a mole tunneling in higher ground. Life made you stupid, a natural process. She herself, while not really intelligent, nevertheless had given certain things a lot of thought. For example. She knew that every age had its dominant principle, something that pulled you forward, even if only to a tiny degree. In bygone ages this dominant principle had been an ideal of beauty or of order, goodness, freedom, will, knowledge, consciousness itself. What the dominant principle of this age was she had no idea. Were we, for example, still in the ‘age’ we were born into? Perhaps someone knew, but not her. Or it had yet to make it itself clear. But something did pull her forward. Had been pulling her forward over the years — had changed her, no matter what Valeria said.
“Once upon a time she was married and a moron. A familiar story, but hers nonetheless. She chose to be an idiot, married a dope, spent her life in office, kitchen and bed. Her reasoning then was that she was dropping below Culture, the everyday blather of civilized conversation. Not one day passed without getting high. They’d return home from work filled with as much enthusiasm as a bus returning to the garage, wash up, eat, turn on the tv, get high. Or drive over to a friend’s house, horse around, and get high. Make love and get high. Through it all there was a glimmer of awareness that all this was exactly as exciting as getting electrocuted in your own bathtub.
“Then a few things happened all at once. She got sick of feeding her husband his roast chicken and 12 x 16 pans of frosted devil’s food cake. (There were just so many times you could get a thrill out of seeing a well-fed face.) She became depressed. It dawned on her for the first time that there really was such a thing as wasted time, a wasted life. It actually went by, dumber and dumber with every day. She met Noel, divorced her husband and his mother, went to business school, moved in with Noel.
“In her relationship with Noel she began to discover her real nature. Or to feel that something was pulling her forward. There wasn’t an ounce of sentiment in her nature. Not a grain. All that mattered to her, what she wanted out of a relationship, was someone who could screw her gracefully from the rear, someone who was sufficiently self-possessed to stroke her breasts and enter her at the same time. Someone who was able to satisfy her while she stood up or leaned over a soft chair back. Someone who didn’t mind being on bottom. Someone who could, with a reasonable amount of consistency, provide orgasms of at least one full minute’s duration.
“All that meant more to her than birthday presents, companionship, flowers, someone to cook for, cute greeting cards, someone to watch tv with and bring to family gatherings.
“Then, not long ago, she noticed a remarkably beautiful young man working as a file clerk in her office. In the less or more real life he led outside the office he was a model, kept in an expensive apartment by a middle-aged designed named Zerka something. His friends were good-looking people who had ill-defined connections with fashion, records, movies. She didn’t dislike him and didn’t admire him any more than she would a good glass of beer. Their relationship was simple. It consisted of nothing but sex. Nothing outside it and nothing inside it. She hadn’t broken with Noel, but what seemed liberating before now felt bound by the familiar hoop of faithfulness.
“She wanted to know what Valeria thought. Should she tell Noel about Roland? About the guy back at her place right now watching I Married A Monster from Outer Space and eating a late night snack? Keep quiet and continue to do what she wanted? Break it off? Or what?
“It seemed to Valeria that Denise’s mouth (she’d lost count of the number of straight bourbons Denise had put down while she nursed a solitary gin-and-tonic) had arrived at the free-floating state it tended toward. She took that to mean that it didn’t matter one way or the other how she answered.
“She turned and looked into the room: small cocktail tables, red banquettes, mirrors, a small stage with red curtains, a familiar, cheesy modernity (the saloon dragged toward the 21st century) and over all a reddened soup of smoke. Looking into only one reality, the moment narrowed down, lost its savor.
“ ‘Know what I think?’ Denise said, articulate as raspberry Jello. ‘Know who I’m like? I’m exactly like Jean Peters.’
“ ‘Like Jean Peters? How do you know what Jean Peters is like?’
“ ‘Like Jean Peters in Niagara! She’s married to a middle-American jerk with an Eagle Scout chuckle, Hawaiian vacation-wear and a Kodak necktie who works for a shredded wheat manufacturer. He’s come up with a prize-winning shredded-wheat turkey stuffing recipe and that’s why they’re in Niagara Falls. They’ve driven to the Falls to meet the big boss and they’ve turned the trip into a second honeymoon. While they’re waiting for the boss and his wife to show up the husband passes the time by reading The Collected Works of Winston Churchill and Jean Peters (girlish-looking, sympathetic and trusting) is drawn into Marilyn Monroe’s weird relationship with Joseph Cotton.
“ ‘Niagara is about Jean Peters’ education. It’s about innocence and experience and Jean Peters growing up. At the end of the film the husband’s the same dumb cluck as before — nothing’s pulling him on, life is irrelevant to whatever it is he’s doing. But Jean Peters is transformed, sexually alluring, going down the rapids with Joseph Cotton, stripped down to red lipstick and wet underwear. Or it’s about water. Or it’s not about water. It’s about the color red. There’s a secret red code — Marilyn Monroe’s red lipstick, the red rainbow colors of her jeweled lipstick case when she’s murdered, red light on blonde hair, red dresses, shoes, blood, fingernails, kisses. . . .’
“ ‘You know so much about them,’ Valeria said. ‘And no one knows anything about us.’ ”
“The reasons we did things were never the reasons we did things, Denise said as they crossed the street at a long diagonal toward the spot near the green bank of the park, in view of a near-distant railroad cut, where Valeria had parked her car.
“Blue morning was already being pulled across the sky by a noisy little plane with three sparkling star blue lights. On the ground evening was still dark blue, more luminous than the blue trousers or blue short-sleeved shirt of a white-haired man hurrying toward an all-night pharmacy. And astir with the cool, breathless wind, the negative south sea dreaminess of outer space.
“During the drive home, house fronts began to light up, to glow, almost yellow. The air began to feel sultry with the vegetable fragrances that signal the birth of amazing numbers of winged insects out of the earth, the green bark, the low-lying meadows blue with ground water.
“Valeria thought: while you more or less prided yourself on your freedom, your intelligence, others, many others, more than you’d like to think, were already living more freely than you. Or not simply more freely: according to new principles, as if they’d moved on to the next century while you lagged behind for all the reasons you could and couldn’t name. She found herself wishing that the car could go faster — faster than the fastest supersonic transport — at least 55,000 miles an hour, like a space vehicle — through one sleeve of light, then another — giving her the feeling of being on stage at the instant the curtain over the unknown is drawn up.”
“BRIEF CONSIDERATION OF THE FUTURE
“As the green station wagon went over the top of the hill, Valeria watched the driver of the red tow truck detach hook and chain from the fender of her yellow VW. The straw filling of the wrenched-out back seat was still smoldering, sending up a yellow flare of smoke by the side of the road.
“It would be pure luck if she ever found her car again, Valeria said. She’d left it in that out-of-the-way garage that looked like a tiny, deliberately concealed Howard Johnson’s.
“The driver didn’t answer. He stared straight ahead through the half-blind sluice of the windshield, as if he didn’t understand a word she was saying.
“He doesn’t look stupid, Valeria thought, giving up on conversation and switching on the radio. In fact, he was rather good-looking. Skin as clear and pink as the skin of a girl in a plaid school uniform, curly hair the color of straw with the subtlest hint of red in it. His face looked somehow at odds with his forest green shirt and pants, the emblematic uniform of years of workaday boredom.
“The music that came over the radio might have been from another century. A syrupy tenor sang a lively but sentimental ballad over a rudimentary dance band (accordion, drums, clarinet and another instrument she couldn’t identify), couples somewhere probably dancing to its forceful rhythms as if they had something to celebrate.
“There was no need for her to worry about finding her way back to the garage, the young man said without turning toward her. The garage lay below the mountains with all their confusing turns, loops and side paths and he knew the district below the mountains rather well, having passed through it many times on the way to the home of such-and-such a relation of his sister-in-law’s. He was returning to New York after having been there last night, in fact, for a party that had dragged on beyond the orange circle of the barbecue stage into real night. He’d had too much to drink and very little sleep. Some had stayed the night (though god knew there was room for very few, and even they were cramped and uncomfortable in that little dump). Those who had to get to work had dragged themselves off (neither alive nor dead, like himself) and those who were able to stayed. His brother was out of work, so he was still there with his wife. He lived with them on Long Island. He had his own apartment, that is, in the basement of their house. His father had, so far as he knew, deserted his mother before he was born. His mother died before he was three. He was raised in orphanages and in a succession of miserable homes, a very early sampling of human greed, stupidity and indifference. He’d run away from these places any number of times and lived like a wild animal. It wasn’t until he was in his teens that his older brother (he hadn’t known until then that he had a brother) tracked him down, found him quite miraculously.
“He stopped talking as abruptly as he’d started, like a difficult talk show guest. He concentrated on steering the car as if it were a motorboat.
“They drove on a bit longer, while the radio gave off a sequence of tunes all to the same lively and unhappy effect.
“After a while he said that he had a confession to make. He was feeling extremely uncomfortable. There was something about her that made him want to talk to her. But he had no facility at all for keeping up a conversation in the usual way. Speech seemed to come and go in spasms. The story went (according to his brother, Ambrose) that one day, when his mother was still alive and he was an infant, Ambrose looked in the carriage and said something to him and he didn’t answer. Ambrose went to his mother and said: ‘Something’s wrong with baby Liam. He doesn’t talk.’ ‘Nonsense,’ his mother said, and she came over too. But he wouldn’t make a sound for her or for anyone else. Everyone was terrified. And someone said: ‘This one isn’t going to learn the secret.’ And it was true. He never did. Hadn’t said three words all weekend.
“The house was a dump, a three-story mess with sagging porches. It had one foot in the grave and the other in mediocre woodland. Lanterns and food on picnic tables covered with green-checked tablecloths under trees. It went the way of every barbecue and family outing he’d ever been to. Someone’s birthday and ‘It’s Your Birthday’ played three dozen times. After a while drinking changed voices into other voices. Jokes became meaner and stupider. An argument or two. Ambrose (who was in a bad mood nowadays because he was out of work) knocked the brand-new Stetson hat off the Beatle-playing cousin’s head.
“ ‘You’re an asshole for buying a stupid thing like that !’ he said. ‘You and twenty million other assholes with their cowboy boots. . . !’
“They very nearly came to blows. He saw the blood in Ambrose’s eye and stepped in, accidentally getting caught with a feeble punch on the ear.
“Nora, his sister-in-law, took the occasion to cut Ambrose up. Who was he, she said, to talk about the stupid things someone else bought? She told the often-told story of the hairy biscuit he’d bought her for Christmas because she’d seen a drawing of a mink hat in a Macy’s advertisement and said she wanted one.
“Ambrose woke up under-the-weather. Not even up to slapping some paint on a porch or putting a few nails into the rotten boards of his run-down property. He felt guilty because his regular work kept him from lending a hand as much as he ought to. He had to repair an elevator this afternoon in still one more condo complex by the Hudson. People lived in them, people lived everywhere, and yet the world looked like a no-man’s land.
“Valeria wondered aloud what he meant by a no-man’s land — and whether every age felt so much like a trough between one thing and another. The more truly modern things were, the less they had to do with the way people were still living; and the more one had a sense that they were imposing a way of life not-yet-here. She thought it would be a long while before anything like a livable future architecture turned up. A long while before people agreed to live according to different principles. Perhaps new people were needed first.”
“ ‘I’m afraid your niece doesn’t believe in marriage,’ he said. ‘She isn’t a romantic, like me. I’ve been married four times and all my marriages ended in bitter divorces, filthy accusations, no more than half of which were true. The judge who presided over my last divorce complained about the sheer ugliness of the whole business. “If you don’t mind my saying so, Your Honor,” I said, “you’re an idiot. It’s a priceless gift to see people at their worst. No one ever insulted anyone else unfairly. The uglier the accusations, the closer to the truth. The things that are said in anger never have quite the same stench of the mediocre and the hypocritical as the endearments murmured in tender affection. Naturally you wouldn’t know that. As the old axiom says, what we really hanker after in success is the chance to rise above the truth. The atmosphere up there is a delirious cocktail of oxygen and bullshit. So, if you’ve lost touch with things it’s only to be expected.” For example: not long ago I was walking along the narrow promenade above the East River and I couldn’t decide if it was beautiful in a way no other age could imagine or just plain ugly. Ugliness the spontaneous aesthetic principle of the age. The random, repulsive vista, with its panoramic hodge-podge of accident, accumulation and deliberate construction easily overwhelming every feeble effort at conscious, aesthetically pleasurable design. A thousand kinds of smoke, a million brands of filth, billions of flakes and quadrillions of particles swarming in every casual vista. Similarly, every marriage has its unique smoky flavor.’
“ ‘Its own special ugliness?’ her mother asked. ‘It’s special filth?’ Aunt Grete chimed in.
“Aunt Grete’s laughter, while on much too long a wavelength to rouse the dead, did cause Valeria’s father and uncle to resettle themselves in their deep chairs.
“Humberto Vilanescu replenished their drinks, while his own remained full.
“Marriage was bound to have a fresh spasm of popularity, Valeria yawned. Every surge toward the future was marked by violent relapses of mystical nostalgia. She’d picked up the idea from two girls on a bus, so it had to be true. They’d also said that we didn’t all live in the same century. History occurred at an astronomical distance from everyday life, as remote as a nightclub act one either booed or applauded. Remote from history, it was impossible to say where and when everyday life was actually lived out. Life as we knew it was lived in a peculiar, timeless trough, part museum, part television receiver.
“She sank back into the cushions.
“Perhaps it wasn’t merely a question of mystical nostalgia, Humberto Vilanescu suggested, Perhaps there was something indispensable and inevitable about marriage, like the suicidal lure of Golden Gate Bridge. One had to be on guard against an easy cynicism.”
“Once upon a time, on vacation, he met a couple of morons on Basseterre, a little island in the Leeward chain. A guy named Laurens, who looked exactly like a pair of low-budget Italian boots, and a wealthy young woman named Nina Pozzzi who for some reason couldn’t wait another second to sign over her savings, her stocks, her condominiums and country houses to this guy with a brain like a refrigerator drip pan, a sort of combination red bikini and stainless steel fountain pen to sign all necessary documents.
“A couple of months after returning to New York Nina Pozzi called him. She was suicidal, begged him to meet her at such-and-such a restaurant. She didn’t look like the same woman. A bright red dress and a worn out face. Her father had killed himself while she was away and his second wife, who was like a mother to her, was moving out to San Francisco to take charge of her father’s container shipping interests. Then, on the heels of that, her sister Lilliana decided to marry some numbskull with a farm in Connecticut. She was actually going to sell her gallery, move out to some level wilderness of lawns and fruit trees, have babies and learn to play the piano.
“ ‘ “But you aren’t alone,” he said. “You have Laurens.” ’ ”
“He didn’t understand, she said. She’d given Laurens huge sums of money. He’d lost a small fortune on some phony energy deal. And lesser sums on frozen death, picture phones, holography. He was a sucker for anything that had to do with the future. Somebody knew that and knew about their engagement and was trying to milk her dry through him. She was angry, she was hurt, and she broke up with him. But he was so pathetic, he needed her so, that she took him back. Something about his eyes coaxed out a milky sap of sympathy. When they kissed the bottom dropped out, like a fragile jar when you pour in hot soup.
“A couple of weeks ago Laurens took her to a party. Some guy was trying to get together a consortium of backers to launch a rocket or a satellite or something.
“A very weird crowd. Mainly business vultures, she guessed, with here and there some screwball ‘scientist’ thrown in. You could tell that some of them already had their piece of meat, teeth and appetite were a little dull; but there were some real live werewolves, guys with fresh blood on their lips, people using English in ways that sounded like six different foreign languages.
“Around 1:00 a.m. things settled down to a bit of quiet dancing and a lot of rabid embracing in corners.
“Laurens went into the bedroom and called out to her. He had a sudden, overwhelming need for her, he said.
“The apartment was dim and quiet; the amber helix of some sour melody had risen up from the turntable and was revolving on the ceiling; a pink, hypnotic shadow spread from one end of things to the other. So it seemed ok.
“They lay down on the big pink bed, glossy as a magazine cover. They kissed. His eyes looked like the sad eyes of a donkey. She called him ‘donkey face’ and undid his shirt. Again he said, ‘I need to touch you,’ and her legs turned to chocolate pudding. One thing led to another. She was undressed from the waist down and he was stroking and stroking the long, black path of hair between her legs. Her orgasm was strange — long, hot waves, very low peaks, almost flat — like a dream that seems to go on all night. He kept whispering ‘this is good for me — I need this — this is so good for me!’ And that and the stroking seemed to keep the hot, level waves flowing out of her, exactly like the overflowing pitcher in the fairy tale.
“In this midst of this, something clinked. She pushed Laurens off. Some people had slipped in and were watching. Someone had jostled the perfume bottles on the dresser. Ranks of glazed, flushed faces, slightly sticky, like taffy apples.
“She grabbed her clothes, ran out to the bathroom while Laurens shooed everyone out of the apartment.
“She cried on Laurens’ shoulder, poured out her humiliation. Maybe they should stop seeing one another, he said. What? She said. He’d met someone else. She didn’t grasp the point. To be exact about it, he said, he was engaged to marry a woman just a tiny bit older than her who had the desire, and the infinite means, to support some of the projects she’d lost faith in. The immortality research. The secret ‘space ark’ project that was already under way. This was, in fact, a sort of engagement party. Engagement party and farewell party combined. He intended to be faithful, for once. He’d needed to touch Nina one more time. Now that he’d done that he could say goodbye.
“He walked her to the door. Out in the hall she felt suicidal. Came close to killing herself in the lobby. But she ended up going home and watching television. She fell asleep during The Blood-Spattered Bride or Deep Red.”