The Veronese Circle
The train to Granada takes eleven hours, which is long enough for Eli, all deranged on ouzo, to threaten jumping off the train, proclaiming he's "more worthless than this chicken wing," which apparently he'd found in one of the trash bins he and Beatrice had been digging through trying to prove their theory that riches prefer meek and filthy terrain. Dr. and Mrs. Doveman talk him out of it by explaining how Duchamp proved self-worth wasn't worth all that much when you got right down to it. Tragedy averted, and Eli still has time to climb into Sharini's bed-car--the only girl he hasn't fucked loudly and tearfully--and fuck her loudly and tearfully.
On the train station platform, Mrs. Doveman counts the writers to make sure they're all accounted for. As the au pair, I stand aside, holding her son, Camus, who's sleeping peacefully, and though it's only eight in the morning, my arms and chest grow damp under the Spanish summer heat and Camus's small body.
"Where's Helene?" Mrs. Doveman says.
"Gone and never coming/ back/ Taken by hell-hound bakers to/ feast on loaves:/ tepid shit-bread," Beatrice says. "It's from the Pindaric ode I'm working on."
"Very powerful," Mrs. Doveman says. "Positively visceral."
It was the same in Verona, the same in Paris, and will no doubt continue the same throughout the trip; the writers are always wandering off, and though they'll discuss Helene's possible whereabouts, motives for her disappearance, will consider her menstrual cycle, her abandonment issues, her self-esteem concerns, it will get them nowhere and she'll be back in about an hour. I take Camus and my career book, After College . . . What?, and wait on a nearby dirty bench. The book tells me "In Man's long process of development, we have come up with things to do which we call 'occupations,' and without them we would be miserable, for Man is an active creature."
Occupation #1: Accordion Maker.
Each of the six writers (there were seven until, in Paris, Niles found out that Victor Hugo's former apartment was for rent and told Dr. Doveman, "Goddamnit man, the fates are practically begging to suck me off! I have to let them!") paid the Dovemans thirty-five hundred dollars for this four-week traveling writers' colony making its way from Verona to Paris to Granada to Casablanca to Krakow to Prague to Istanbul and finally back to Verona. Dr. Doveman calls it the Veronese Circle.
At our orientation, in the courtyard of what is believed to be Juliet's home, Dr. Doveman groped a bronze statue of Juliet, made-out with the pure Veronese soil, and said, "Let Verona cradle you like some benevolent Ur-Mother, as it cradled Romeo and Juliet--and let their story color the writing all of you will generate during the next twenty-eight days." Then he wiped the dirt from his lips and pawed at a real Veronese boulder he claimed "Romeo may once have sat, grief-stricken, upon."
Seven years ago, Dr. Doveman's first and only novel, Romeo and Julio, a bisexual re-writing of Shakespeare's classic, caught hold of a particularly carnal Zeitgeist and inexplicably topped the bestseller list. Mrs. Doveman is an unpublished poet with a remarkable memory for every positive review Dr. Doveman ever received. She's working on a manuscript of poems constructed from lines of these reviews.
Helene strolls back two hours later. She had been observing a dubious (her word) couple on the train and "knew that under no circumstances could I allow them to escape my searching gaze." She followed them off the train, around a fruit market, and then watched them drink coffee and eat egg sandwiches. She's recorded some of their dialogue and is pretty excited to read it to the others, and they're pretty excited to hear it, and there would probably be an impromptu reading right here on the train station platform if Dr. Doveman didn't announce "all this erudite voyeurism is fine and dandy, yet there is balderdash, damn me, and that balderdash is our engagement at the university for which we are unforgivably late, goddamn me to hell, so, my budding geniuses, as Romeo said, Act I, Scene 5, 'Direct my sail!--On lusty gentleman!'"
And we walk. Hundred-degree heat, everything we own on our backs, and we walk. Dr. Doveman brainwashed the writers to believe you can't taste the lives of the other in taxi-cabs, so no one complains. I say, "Hey you guys, what if we tasted the life of a cab driver? Do they qualify as 'the other'?"
"Did somebody speak?" Mrs. Doveman says. "I heard something like a rat twittering about."
I'm still not used to being treated as something sub-human and half-witted. I'm probably not a budding genius, but I'm still basically worthy. To them, though, I'm just the lowly au pair boy, and as long as Camus and I are quiet, they're pretty pleased to ignore us both utterly.
I took this job despite the fact that the summer camp where I've worked for the past three summers offered me the choicest camp assignments, like permanent lifeguard duty and official campfire storyteller--they even offered to let me start up the lake snorkeling program I've been pushing for for the past two years. The thing is, I'd just graduated from college and if I took the same old job, what was to stop me from becoming one of those camp counselor lifers with the terrible ponytail and soggy Birkenstocks? I needed a vocation, and until I found one, au pairing seemed a good compromise: a sort of jet-setting camp counselor.
We walk for far too long and I'm pretty shocked when Mrs. Doveman takes Camus from my arms, saying, "There's my baby."
"I'm not a baby," he says, "and I don't like you today." Mr. and Mrs. Doveman are of the school of parenting where you put huge amounts of pressure on the kid but otherwise ignore him, and when you ultimately fail at your life, you always have his life and his potential to fall back on. In the rare moments when he's playing like a normal kid, they ask him whether he thinks Tolstoy spent his time bouncing a ball against the floor, or coloring pictures of anatomically incorrect horses, or stacking dirt on top of other dirt. "Go do something great," they'll order, and he'll look to me, perplexed, his dirt not just dirt after all, but a rocky castle fortress with mud-clump guards and pebbled towers, and he'll look from me back to the fortress, unsure of how to do something great, unsure what something great would even look like, but positive his dirt fortress isn't it--so he'll stand and kick it over, and smash it back into dirt.
Mrs. Doveman awkwardly cuddles Camus for a few moments before handing him back to me, complaining he's moist and a bit gluey. Through it all, Michelangelo talks at me again about how his agent insists he's "the voice of a disenfranchised generation." I congratulate him and he does his best to appear humble but gladdened. Then he asks if I've heard about the cutthroat industry battle to purchase his screenplay. I have.
Camus and I share a dorm room with Olivier, a brooding poet who's far too tragic and fragile to complain if Camus cries out in the night, which he often does. I ask him if he wouldn't mind watching Camus while I shower and he says that the heroic couplets he's working on are just on the verge of answering the question of why we are here. "Go ahead and shower, Ted; certainly the oldest and most fundamental of questions can wait while you wash your useless body and I squander my talents watching a six-year-old."
"Seven," Camus says. "Goddamnit, seven."
"Tell me about the couplets," I say.
"You wouldn't understand," and he looks me over (bitter distaste), his vanity eventually winning out over my abject non-writer status. "Okay," he says. "Try. To. Follow. Along. Think of Whitman, in his poem 'I am the Poet,' when he says 'all the things seen are real.' It's a poetic truth, and I'm close, Ted, I'm brutally close to discovering an even greater truth: something which can tell us why the things we see are real, and even more importantly, what value we have in relation to these things: what the value is of a single human life!
"I can see by your bewildered gape that you have no conception of what I'm talking about. I'm talking about why Eli made the right decision not to throw himself off that train. If I write this as well as I think I can, it'll answer that question."
"I understand," I say.
"I doubt it," he says. "Now go wash yourself."
Occupation # 81: Diplomat: A person skilled in dealing with other people.
"Okay," I say brightly, "I will. I'll be right back, Camus." He's sprawled out on my bed with a book of Yeats, and I lie down next to him. "Do you need anything, buddy?" He shakes his head and smiles. "Be good for Unkie Olivier," I say. He smiles again and holds up a middle finger, a gesture he's just learned and can probably no more understand than the book of poetry he's pretending to read.
In the shower, I think about Camus--how sweet but fucked-up he is, and what it would take to fix him. After College . . . What? suggests itemizing one's talents in order to find "your own harmonious vocation." I know probably two hundred camp songs, can start a fire with wet wood, I can teach almost any kid to be an adequate archer, I know glass-blowing, wallet-making, I know all the basic sailing knots, can execute and teach an Eskimo roll in either a sea or a river kayak, but I'm not sure any of these skills can help him.
"You are chock full of talents," the book assures me, "if only you'll allow yourself to see them." It recommends that I stand in front of a mirror and frankly appraise what I see, and in the shower-misted mirror appears my reflection: pale-bellied, fat-cheeked, lethargic balls, misshapen freckles covering sunken, hairy shoulders. But also there's a strong chin, a rocky cliff of a chin, and eyes so blue the fogged-up mirror does nothing to dull them, and forearms any sailor would be proud to have; and all things considered, it's a reflection which, given the chance, could be capable of doing a lot.
When I get out of the shower, Olivier, face down on a desk, is weeping quietly and saying, "Where are you my beautiful muse?" Camus is setting fire to my blanket with Olivier's matches. I stomp on the smoldering blanket, and when it's mostly out, I switch it with Olivier's, since he's far too absorbed in his failure to answer the un-answerable to care about a char-crusted blanket. The air is lush with Olivier's chain smoking and burning blanket. Oliver, still face-down, mutters weakly, "I am lost. Fetch me my Rilke."
Later, we all go to the workshop. There's our writers and the usual special guest, in this case, a pole-shaped Spanish poet. It's the same as all the workshops in all the cities before: They discuss writing schedules--is it better to write in the morning or the afternoon? Is it true that Rimbaud only wrote in the middle of the night? Beatrice reads another poem about her dead boyfriend and begins weeping during the last line ,which is "Now you're dead. Now you're dead. Now you're dead!" Eli reads a chapter from his novel about a writer who hates himself too much to give himself the pleasure of suicide (all the girls and Dr. Doveman swoon), Helene reads an impenetrable villanelle about a solitary cup of soup which learns to love, and then Sharini, as always, reads a poem so clearly better than everyone else's that it's embarrassing to listen to. She's our beautiful, angry, talented one, and all the others want equally to fuck and to kill her. Then they all compliment each other using words like "enchanting" and "genius," and the pole-shaped Spanish poet assures us that "there is nowhere in God's robust world I would rather be than right here critiquing this most misguided work," and he laughs, though no one else does.
Michelangelo sits beside me making one-word comments about each of the readers: Banal. Asinine. Pestilent. Folly. He himself refuses to read in public, claiming the material which would have made up his first book was "filched in bits and pieces by the sort of hack writers who frequent readings." Through it all, I keep Camus occupied by letting him burn the bottom of his desk with a lighter he's stolen from somewhere.
Eventually, Dr. Doveman, as always making light of his alcoholism and sweating condition, says, "Attention everyone, what say we slip out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini?" Sometimes Dr. and Mrs. Doveman invite me along if there's something they want Camus to see, like if a famous writer once drank himself to death in the bar, but apparently there's no such richness to be found in Granada's bar scene, and Mrs. Doveman kisses Camus on the cheek (purple-lipped, scent of wine), hands him a stack of pesetas, and tells me to take good care of her future Pulitzer Prize winner. I take one last look at the writers--so wounded and full of praise for each other--and I'm a little jealous. We're almost the same: so mid-twenties, so American, so white. But they have community, they have direction--however delusional. I can't imagine what that would feel like--to have your purpose all figured out and a whole lifetime left to get good at what you know you should be doing.
Camus takes my hand as we walk through Granada and tour the Alhambra. We run our fingers along Islamic carvings and smell the vast flower gardens. He picks a few carnations for his parents, but very quickly puts them into a trash can. He picks me a red rose and says, "Are you my brother?"
"No, Camus, you know we're not brothers."
"Are you my friend?"
"Yes, Camus, we're friends."
Later, after seeing fountains and tall trees, after watching young couples kiss beneath these trees, we walk up the narrow cobbled streets of the Moorish Quarter to the inhabited caves overlooking the city. It's dark and I hold Camus's hand tightly. He points toward the city lights below and says, "I can see our room from here."
"You're amazing," I say.
"And there's my mommy and daddy," he says, pointing.
"There they are."
"They see me," he says. "Look, they're waving at me!"
"I can't see them, but I believe you."
"They're waving at me," he says, then, "I think you're my best friend. Is that okay?"
"That's okay, Camus. We'll be best friends."
"My dad says all the writers are hacks, except for Sharini who he says is one gifted bitch. He says you're a lackey. What does it all mean, Ted?"
"I don't know," I say, "I don't have any idea," and I can see he's disappointed.
An old man comes out of a cave and Camus asks him questions about living in caves, but the man only smiles and touches Camus on the head.
"He doesn't speak English," I say.
"Is that why he lives in a cave?"
"No, he lives in a cave because he's poor."
"Oh," he says and gives the old man the stack of money his mom gave him, and the man touches Camus's head again, and laughs.
In the night, I'm awakened by Olivier who, with something like shit on his breath, says, "That's right, sleep the sleep of the innocent while I grapple with true human suffering."
From Granada, we head to Morocco--"on the trail of Paul Bowles," as Dr. Doveman puts it. In Casablanca, Mrs. Doveman switches from Rioja to Stork beer, and Camus decides money is more fun to steal than lighters and matches. He divides his swindling fairly evenly between his parents and the other writers, and gives all the cash away to child beggars, who he believes live in caves. I could put a stop to it, but I respect his ability to act out, and I think that while his parents try to cull his nature and forge him into a mature literary figure, it's my job to let him go as far as he can in anything he feels like doing.
Under the absurd Moroccan sun, Dr. Doveman's sweating has reached new heights. He carries three, sometimes four shirts and makes a huge presentation changing into each one. He often brags about his football days and, standing shirtless before us, eyes on Eli, he unconsciously flexes--his tall, pale body thick with black hair and the memory of muscle, a twitching nipple; I think Eli is starting to notice.
Occupation #379: Sociologist: Scientific observer of human society and social relations.
The writers give a reading in a quiet café filled with international students. Everyone is moved by Sharini's poems, and by the obvious animosity she holds for us all. She understands the world intuitively and looks down on those of us whom the world flusters. Though I am often confused by my world, her work makes perfect sense to me. She says the things I already knew, but could never have put into words. I want to tell her how highly I value her work and I would, if she weren't so mean and unapproachable and if it would interest her in the slightest, which it wouldn't, because clearly the au pair boy's opinion isn't worth snot.
Helene reads a confusing sestina about a battle between flapjacks and empathy, and Camus goes through her bag looking for money. Dr. Doveman and Eli are talking at a corner table, their faces too close, while Mrs. Doveman is at the bar talking to what must be her sixth bottle of Stork. Olivier sits alone, hair wild, his old pen, lined paper. He seems so close to something big--to discovery, to breakdown: who can tell which? Most of the other people in the bar have their eyes closed, intent on Helene's pancake battle or perhaps their own momentous thoughts. Camus catches my eye and smiles. He holds up his cash booty and waves it around for everyone to see, which nobody does.
In Fez, Michelangelo announces that the Moroccans are an uneducated and uncultured people. Eli says he'd do anything to shed himself of his education, which he claims makes it impossible for him to "write anything of any degree of competence, and why shouldn't I just slit my wrists anyhow?" Beatrice says her dead boyfriend's dark good looks made him look Moroccan, and she breaks into tears. Camus's thievery has likely led to a whole generation of wealthy Moroccan beggar-children. Olivier--unshaven, unbathed, unhealthy--takes me aside and whispers, "I'm not there yet, Ted, but listen closely: 'From sunshine comes death, while moonshine brings breath.'" I nod and he goes away. It's probably doubtful he's close to any sort of discovery, but I envy the way he absolutely believes he is. Dr. Doveman likens the Moroccan heat to the awesome and destructive passion of Romeo for his Juliet. He drinks steaming cups of hot tea, sweats more than ever, and sways his pale and shirtless body to mating music I cannot hear.
It's strange the way they all sleep with each other. And so loudly! They have sex the way they (over) write, with much drama, suffering, and noise. I believe this is the way writers bond. And also because they're all alcoholics. It started the first night, in Verona, when Eli had Helene. He had Beatrice on the following afternoon, and, later that night, gave Olivier the only blowjob he'd ever received from a male. Then Olivier, confused for the first time about his sexuality, had Helene four times in a single afternoon. Sharini had Helene. Mrs. Doveman had Michelangelo, and she continues to have Michelangelo whenever she wants because he thinks she can help his career, which she can't. Olivier had Beatrice. Michelangelo had Beatrice. Sharini had Eli. The Dovemans have nightly marathon sessions which culminate in Dr. Doveman screaming, "Don't you give up on me!" before howling minutes later. Indirectly they've all slept with one another. Most of them have no idea of what's going on and imagine they've had a romantic and isolated European fling. They tell me everything, though, because they have to tell someone and I'm less a person than a harmless au pair--a body in charge of keeping a smaller body out of their way.
People talk about living vicariously and all that garbage, but it isn't working for me. Mine is a penetration-free life: it's just me and Camus for two more weeks, and then he'll go back with Dr. and Mrs. Doveman to their Berkeley home, ignored, reading books he can't understand, being told how far he is from the person they want him to be.
On another train of what will be an epic thirty-seven-hour train/ferry/train trip from Fez to Krakow (more specifically, from Fez to Tangier to Algeciras to Madrid to Paris to Prague to Krakow)--which Dr. Doveman says is meant to "echo the illusion of love's permanence in Romeo and Juliet"--the writers and Dr. Doveman try to hold a conversation using only lines from poetry and fiction.
Beatrice says, "'Look how peaceful these wooden figures are, going to their death,' Gerald Stern."
"'I find my clothes as barbarous as theirs,'" Eli says, "'only I don't butter my hair,' Arthur Rimbaud."
"'Good gentle youth," Dr. Doveman says, "'tempt not a desperate man,' Romeo and Juliet, Act V, Scene 3." Dr. Doveman directs all his lines to Eli, and if he merely had a crush on him before, it has clearly blossomed into full-blown love. Am I the only one who notices him changing his shirt constantly, pointing out moles and mismatched hair patterns to Eli as though seduction were a hideous thing? Though Mrs. Doveman is still sleeping with Michelangelo (her bloated hand even now circling his knee), I have the feeling her husband has never cheated on her--that their marriage is a sort of barter: her endless devotion to his work in exchange for a young lover now and then, and his fidelity.
"Oh tempt away," Helene says, for 'Naked, you are blue as a night in Cuba,' Pablo Neruda."
"And besides, 'Tis better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven,' Milton," Olivier says.
"And do you all know what the road to hell is paved with?" Dr. Doveman asks. "Who knows what the road to hell is paved with?"
"I know this," Eli says. "I know this."
"The road to hell is paved with . . . what?" Dr. Doveman repeats.
"Oh man how I know this!" Eli says.
"You've got it son, don't give up!" Dr. Doveman urges.
None of the others knows, and since Eli will never get it, I say, "'Unbought stuffed dogs,' Ernest Hemingway."
"The au pair speaks," Sharini says.
"The au pair reads," Dr. Doveman says.
"I'm not an idiot," I say suddenly and with too much vivacity.
"Of course you're not," Mrs. Doveman says, "You read a book. You remembered a line: clearly, you're very accomplished." I keep my head down. She continues, "Now, writers, shall we continue this exercise?"
Occupations 82&endash;84: Ditchdigger, Dogcatcher, Doorman.
"I am more foolish than the au pair," Eli says sadly, as though unable to conceive of a lousier fate.
"No," the others say.
"No, of course not," Dr. Doveman consoles, "don't you believe that for a second." So they continue, allowing Eli to begin with anything he'd like. "I can't think of a single line," he says.
"'Sad is the man who is asked for a story and cannot come up with one,' Li-Young Lee," Sharini says.
"Come on, Eli," Helene says, "'Say something about pomegranates. Say something about real love,' Yusef Komunyakaa."
"'Speak with broken teeth of the squalid poop-chute of your soul,'" Michelangelo says, "from my last unpublished novel."
"I've got one," Eli says. "The only one: Kafka: 'What have I in common with Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself, and should be happy to sit here, alone in a corner, content that I can breathe.'"
Then there's silence.
"Jesus," Helene says, "what a downer."
Mrs. Doveman leans toward me and hisses, "And where is Camus?"
"He's here," I say, gesturing to the empty seat beside me. And then I'm squatting under the empty seat and under all the seats. Mrs. Doveman rolls her eyes at me, and soon I'm looking inside an empty bathroom, and then rushing out of our compartment to the food car, and the first-class sleepers, the conductor's compartment, the electrical closet. And now it's me and two Spanish men in gray and brown uniforms, and we're searching back and forth across the train and they're calling out "Hijo! Hijo! Donde estas Camus?" and each time we pass Mrs. Doveman she gives us a more condescending look and flares her nostrils in a way that makes all of us afraid, I think, and I can't believe I've lost him. I think about all the kids I've ever been in charge of--in boats, on hikes, building fires, leaping off high-dives. I think about how frightening the title of "lifeguard" is and how it's a miracle I could ever relax with a job so intrinsically accountable and potentially disastrous: how ridiculous it was that I never really worried about those once-a-summer William Tell incidents that some brave/stupid kid would attempt--how I never felt that anything was seriously at stake. I open the door to all the couchettes, exposing surprised faces, bored faces, sleeping faces. I can feel my heart beating.
Then one of the Spanish men calls out "Gracias a Maria!" and I rush over and Camus is asleep on a windowsill behind a drawn curtain. "Camus!" I say, and scoop him up. He's dusty, and there are window-frame prints on his cheek and ear, and when he sees my face he too breaks into tears. I haven't cried since I was a boy and the release is overwhelming but not unpleasant.
"Camus," I say, "you scared the crap out of me." I hug him tightly, not sure why I'm so angry. "Don't you ever run away again!" I shake him, aware that I'm yelling, and aware that my yelling is only making him cry harder.
"I got lost," he says.
"No. You ran away." I hug him and he cries, and my anger is gone, and I'm shaking.
Our second day in Krakow, Olivier refuses to come out of his dorm room, claiming, "all this traveling about is hindering the advance of my poetic truth." Mrs. Doveman sends Camus and me out to buy and deliver him pirogis and juice.
From inside his room comes movie-villain laughter. Camus knocks and I call out, "Olivier, we've got your lunch here."
The room is littered with broken bottles, broken pencils, and about a million scraps of paper. Die Fools! is scrawled on a wall in, I suspect, blood, and what can only be human excrement has been thrown onto the wall facing it: the two declarations face off like some ghastly joust of fluids versus solids. Cigarette smoke hovers like storm clouds. Olivier looks dirty, happy, and very artsy.
"It smells in here," Camus says.
"My body is free from soap," he says, and awkwardly embraces me. He reaches for Camus, who hides behind my leg.
"How are those heroic couplets coming?" I ask.
"Let me tell you something, Ted. I used to think that my life and my genius would end up like Romeo and Juliet, Act V, Scene 3, 'I am the greatest, able to do least.' But Ted, I'm almost there--and no, it's not about superiority and disgust for the masses as I once thought, it's about love and kindness and something about moonshine, but I haven't figured that part out yet. I'm close, damn it, and I have the feeling that people will read these couplets forever. Can you imagine what that feels like? It's ecstasy, Ted. Ecstasy." Then he begins eating the pirogis, one after another, and it's as if we're not there anymore; so Camus pilfers a handful of change and we leave.
Camus suggests we spend the day writing in a café as his father does. We walk around Krakow looking for just the right place, entering one after another, but Camus constantly complains: "No, Ted, this one is filled with hacks," or, "God, no, Ted, I said café, not coffee-shop." Every once in a while he takes out a plain composition notebook, the same kind Dr. Doveman is constantly scribbling in, and scribbles something. He's obviously decided that the best way into his father's life is to mimic him as closely as he can. Still, he's just Camus and we laugh together about the cuteness of the Polish language--at the signs advertising filmowy and hotelowy and hot-dogy.
Eventually we find a literary-looking place near the Rynek Glowny and Camus pulls out two composition notebooks and orders us two cappuccinos. When the coffee arrives, Camus complains to me that his isn't strong enough, and how he can't tolerate a weak cappuccino. Then he scoops twenty-six spoonfuls of sugar into it. I ask him what we should write in our notebooks. He takes me by the forearm, a gesture Dr. Doveman is famous for, and says, "Whatever you write, Ted, goddammit, make sure it's honest."
"Yes, Camus, I'll try to be as honest as I can," and then I write an actual poem, without rhyme and everything. I maybe copied a few things from Sharini, a bit of obliqueness from Helene, but the poem is mine. Is this all it takes to be a writer: space to work, a small amount of confidence, and caffeine?
Beside me, Camus plunges his head into his hands. "Goddammit, Ted, I can't find my moose." He's drawn pictures of monkeys in trees under a frowning sun.
"Stop talking like your dad," I say. "Muse," I say.
"Without a visit from the moose, you're nothing but a hack, but goddammit, Ted, you still have to be honest."
"Stop. You're Camus. You're perfect just the way you are."
"You get money to say that," he says. "My mom pays you to be my friend."
"Oh, Camus," and I pick him up and bring him onto my lap. "You and I are friends. We're buds." All we have is each other, I want to say. He looks away shyly, pinches my nose, and he's just a kid again with eyes seeming to say Help me!, but when the waitress walks by, those eyes harden and he calls out, "Mademoiselle, may we have two gin and tonics, easy on the tonic, if you know what I mean," which clearly neither of them does.
People have begun to notice their missing cash and theories abound as to the culprit. Eli is convinced that Helene is taking the equivalent of two dollars for every night he doesn't sleep with her, so he begins sleeping with her. Michelangelo believes the other writers are "trying to shake my unshakable confidence with this senseless campaign of thievery and deception." Beatrice, though she's drunk, confides in me that her dead boyfriend has returned from heaven to reclaim the two hundred dollars she owed him before he died. Olivier corners me against St. Adalbert's Church and declares that the dirty Poles and the dirty Moroccans and even, he believes, the dirty Spaniards are in cahoots to bankrupt him before "my benevolent discovery of poetic truth can illuminate this dark and desperate world." He pauses to make sure I comprehend the graveness of the situation. "Or maybe the dirty Gypsies," he whispers.
Our Krakow reading is held in a candlelit bar in the Jewish section of town where Schindler's List was filmed, and amidst so many stories of atrocity, the writers begin to embrace their latent Judaism. Dr. Doveman stands shiny-faced on a makeshift stage reading from his new work-in-progress (Mrs. Doveman taking notes, taking vodka shots, taking photographs), while at our large, round table the writers speak in coded mathematics, each trying to über-Jew the other. Helene says, "My uncle married a Jew, and when he divorced her, he married another Jew, which I think makes me one-twelfth Jewish."
"I'm one-eighth Jewish on my mother's side, and a quarter Jewish on my father's side," Eli says, "though emotionally I'd say my Judaism figures into my character at one-third, at least."
"My great-grandparents were killed at Treblinka," Sharini says.
"Really?" I say.
"No, I'm fucking lying about the massacre of my great-grandparents!"
"Maybe even as high as one-half," Eli says.
"Maybe the dirty Jews too," Olivier whispers into my ear. It's all a little too much and Camus is counting money beside me and Dr. Doveman, on stage, is screaming his finale, nearly in tears though nobody else is, and I'm drinking kosher beer. Camus scurries onto my lap and whispers, "Eli and Sharini think you're stealing their money and they gave me this much money to watch you," and he holds up a ten-zloty note.
"You know I'm not stealing, Camus."
"I know," he says. "I told them it was me, but they laughed and Eli kissed me on the face, and here's his passport," and he holds up a passport.
"What are you going to do with that?" I ask.
"I don't know. What should I do?"
"You should put it back. You should talk to your parents and tell them what you've done. They'll listen to you if you tell them."
"No," he says. "They won't listen and I don't want to tell them."
"Eli will be very sad if anything happens to his passport."
"I've seen Eli kiss Dad like Mom kisses Dad," he says, as though justifying anything he's planning to do.
Occupation #494 Wrecker: A person who demolishes or dismantles, or one who salvages and clears away wreckage.
There could be beauty in Prague were it not so deeply shrouded in Eli's appropriation of Kafka's misery. He wears it like a ponderous hat, slumping his shoulders, breaking his back, crawling along as though each step were a kick to the groin. The Charles Bridge could be spectacular were it not described by Eli as "lengthy as my sorrow, impenetrable as my suffering, cold and hard as my heart." I suppose, however, that there is a certain beauty to Eli's woe. It's so overblown, yet completely sincere, and I can see that he's looking to it to save him. I would have thought that writers would look to their work to find some truth in the world, some saving grace, but it seems as though their work most often distracts them from seeing anything at all. Olivier is an exception, believing that his work and the truth it uncovers will save him, but look at Dr. Doveman, with his shirtless seduction and his belief that Eli, and Eli's misery, can somehow save him. Michelangelo, it occurs to me, is looking for Mrs. Doveman's connections to the world of publishing, and therefore fame, to save him. Mrs. Doveman is putting her hopes on Dr. Doveman's fame, and Camus's potential (and on alcohol to shroud the lack of them both). Sharini has her talent and her anger to keep away any who would think to rescue her on their own. Beatrice has the pain of her lover's death. It doesn't matter whether or not she can imagine his face or the heat of his body against hers, or even whether or not he was ever real; it's the pain that she has to save her now, which she can hold onto at night and be held by. I suppose Helene has abstraction and sex to divert her from seeing things as they are. When Camus holds my hand and tells me the things he's stolen, I see that he hopes I can save him, which is probably impossible, but is nonetheless the only way I can save myself.
Tonight, our writers read in an old, ornate auditorium with another writer's colony from Charles University who seem to suffer from the same range of problems as we do. They have their lost loves, past abuses, chemical depressions, impending failures, sexual misadventures, and one Bosnian writer breaks down and cries while reading about a dead lover he can't get over, which makes Beatrice break down for her dead lover she can't get over, and so they all cry--all that pain bouncing around the old building, and even I start to tear up, though for reasons which have nothing to do with Beatrice or any of them, and Camus closes his eyes and plugs his ears.
After everyone has a good cry, Dr. Doveman makes his suggestion about wet clothes and dry martinis, and Camus insists we go along. In the smoky bar, I watch Camus try to engage his father in conversation. I watch him hop on one leg to divert attention away from Eli. I see the actual moment of resignation, the sinking of his little head, the emptying of his father's wallet.
And the writers . . . how to describe the debauchery? Like ass-sniffing dogs, the writers in our group hook up with the Prague writers, swapping self-pity for saliva and later, I suppose, semen. I see Olivier explaining the imminence of his discovery to a Slavic blond with a lame foot--the fascinated gape of foreplay on her face. I hear Helene moan and be moaned at. I look around for a nice au pair girl and maybe a kid for Camus, but there are none.
Later, walking through the dorm halls, I can hear the screams and groans of so much unleashed sex echoing like childbirth.
The next morning, when we're supposed to be enjoying hard rolls and jam and getting on a train to Turkey, we all crowd in front of Beatrice's room without hard rolls and jam and try to convince her not to stay in Prague with Stjepan, the Bosnian writer with the dead lover who she insists is the carrier of her dead boyfriend's soul.
"Stjepan understands me better than I understand myself. He's my Romeo. I have dreamed of him!"
"Yes, dreams . . . " Dr. Doveman says, " . . . Act I, Scene 5, 'dreams which are the children of an idle brain, begot of nothing but vain fantasy: which is as thin of substance as the air and more inconstant than the wind.' Romeo and Juliet."
"But he's dreamed of me," Beatrice says.
"And so have I dreamed about you--and so has Mrs. Doveman dreamed about you--in Istanbul, dear. I have envisioned you in front of the Blue Mosque writing words as honest and delicious as milk chocolate."
"Come with us, dear," Mrs. Doveman says. "You need this trip, and we need you. Olivier needs you, and Michelangelo, and this . . . " and she points at me and frowns.
"Thief," someone says.
" . . . and, well certainly Eli needs you," she continues.
"Beatrice," Eli says, bored, "come on." Dr. Doveman squeezes his shoulder, says, "It's okay, son." Helene puts her hands in a prayer position: "Act I, Scene 4," she says, "'You are a lover; borrow Cupid's wings, and soar with them above common bound,'" and she kisses Beatrice on the forehead. Sharini scowls.
Dr. Doveman says, "Act II, Scene 3, 'wisely and slowly; they stumble that run fast.'"
Beatrice says, "'Did my heart love till now? foreswear it, sight! For I never saw true beauty till this night.' I don't know the act or the scene. I think it was in the beginning though."
Michelangelo says, "'Young men's love, then lies, not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.'"
"Indeed," Dr. Doveman says, "Act II, Scene 2, if I'm not mistaken: by jiminy if that's not insightful."
"We love each other a lot and fuck you all!" Beatrice says, slamming her door, and we stand there, hungry, listening to the pitter-patter of her weeping and the deep and sexy notes of Bosnian compassion.
Dr. Doveman says, "Act II, Scene 5, people: 'These violent delights have violent ends'--nonetheless, Beatrice has made her foolish decision. We, however, are expected in Istanbul by one hundred or so of the most belletristic Turks and Americans you'd ever want to meet. And we will, meet them that is, tonight, if we zip, which we will, right over to collect our pastries and jellies--we have a train to catch."
The others make their way back to their rooms and Camus appears beside me.
"Booty," he says, holding up money and passports.
"Booty," I say, poking him in the butt.
"Don't." I pick him up anyway, and he laughs and spanks me on the head with a stolen passport.
It's hard to say exactly where we are when the police come into our sleeper-car to check our passports. It's me, Camus, Helene, Michelangelo, and the police look disco-ish in tan pants and orange jackets. I find Camus's and mine, no problem, but feel pretty sorry for Helene and Michelangelo: emptying pockets and backpacks, sifting and then re-sifting, disbelieving.
"It has to be here!" Helene says.
"I never lose anything!" Michelangelo says.
"Here's ours," I say.
And then we're milling about the narrow train corridor with the other writers and Mrs. Doveman. Dr. Doveman is conferencing with the police behind the closed door of his couchette, and Camus sleeps soundly in my arms.
"Nobody panic," Mrs. Doveman says, drinking from a silver flask, "Dr. Doveman was called 'America's only living genius' by the Salt Lake City Tribune. He'll get us out of this."
"Somebody is going to get shot here," Sharini says, looking at me.
The policemen and Dr. Doveman come out of the sleeper-car all smiles. "Change of plans," Dr. Doveman says. "We won't be going to Istanbul."
"No Turkey?" Eli says, sadly.
Dr. Doveman embraces Eli in a bear hug: "Yes, my boy, certainly Turkey. Marmaris, Turkey."
"Where we honeymooned?" Mrs. Doveman says.
"Yes, exactly where we honeymooned. We'll disembark at the next stop escorted by these four enterprising magistrates where we'll travel to Bucharest, and from Bucharest to Edirne, Turkey, where these gentlemen assure me we can enter with some rather expensive visas they've sold me. From there, we'll travel by bus to Marmaris, charter a boat, and let things cool down while we figure out a way to complete the Veronese Circle sans passports."
Thirty-six hours later, Dr. Doveman says, "We're about chin-deep in a very large heap of shit." We're on a yacht-like boat, stretched out on lounge chairs, drinking cold Turkish beer in the hot Mediterranean sun, and I can't imagine feeling less like I was in a heap of shit. Our illegal bus ride through Romania and across the border was one for the books. I have never felt so clearly and unabashedly criminal, and so completely not myself. I kept thinking about Occupation #315 which is Product Namer, a sub-shoot of advertising, where you decide what things are called. I felt that same sense of possibility during the clandestine bus trip that I imagine product namers must feel gazing upon an unnamed object. "There's a thief among us, people," Dr. Doveman continues, "and until this brigand returns our passports, we aren't going anywhere." He looks each of us in the eye. "Ted," he says, "you haven't had your passport stolen, have you?"
"No," I say.
"Interesting," he says, "that you're the only one, besides Camus, which could constitute a clue, if this were a crime of sorts, which it is."
"Oh, just give it the fuck up, Ted," Michelangelo says.
"I'll slit open your goddamn belly, you ignorant fuck," Sharini says.
"Act III, Scene 2," Mrs. Doveman says, completely smashed, "'There's no trust, no faith, no honesty in men.'"
I look around at them, at all the eyes suddenly on me (a not unpleasant feeling) and it's like all the dramatic language I've had pounded into my head by them suddenly arranges itself into an order that makes sense, and I realize I've finally been invited to take part in their drama. I say, "I haven't taken anything from any of you, except your insults and your condescension, and now your suspicion. You probably threw away your passports in some unconscious act of self-sabotage, and I can't wait to see the volumes of rueful literature you'll produce about your wretched imprisonment on a Turkish boat. You want thieves? You're the thieves! Search me. Search my valise and search up my ass if it'll ease your fragile souls. I'm as innocent as Camus!"
And I storm off, because storming off seems like the most appropriate option. And how great do I feel! Valise? Whose hat did I pull that beauty out of? I feel tragic and accused, and sitting alone on my narrow cot in the hot windowless berth, I realize they're no better or worse than me, that I can wear suffering just as smartly as they can.
So we float. We eat and drink, they write, there's a bit of water-skiing, and we wait for something to happen. For a thief to come forward. For passports to fall out of cloudless skies. On the second night of this, I'm reading and Camus is lying on his cot with a pillow over his head. My book tells me that though finding an occupation is essential, "no book is going to solve my problem if I have one." It suggests getting out there and "experiencing the world of work and commerce." I re-read Occupation #121: Justice of the Peace, and think about how that's both the most beautiful and most difficult-sounding job I've ever heard--but how it's nonetheless possible. There's a single knock on our door. It's Olivier, clean-shaven, slick hair, scent of baby powder.
"I am a genius," he says, holding up one sheet of paper.
"Congratulations, Olivier," I say. "You've finished."
"Yes, yes," he says. "We all knew I could do it. Allow me to read you the central couplet of the piece. If you listen carefully, Ted, you'll likely perceive a poetic truth." He clears his throat.
"'Kiss the moon. Beam. Forge the alliance
The heart, salmon, unclad, Love's acrimonious appliance.'"
What to say? "It's wonderful, Olivier! Pregnant with poignancy!"
"Yes, thank you. I meant salmon-colored, you know."
"Not the fish, of course."
"Wow, I'm really impressed, Olivier. It's genius."
He takes my hand in both of his and says, "Thank you, Ted. Thank you. And nice speech the other day." He walks out.
"What a hack," Camus says from beneath his pillow.
Who's to say? Maybe there was a poetic truth in there, and you just needed to be Olivier to find it.
"He works as well as he can, Camus. At least he's trying. At least he's failing."
It's enough already. The air feels so ripe with impotence--is positively begging for action. "Camus," I say, "I'm going to tell your parents that you're the one with the passports." He doesn't move.
"No," he finally says, his voice muffled by pillow. "You can't tell on me. You're my best friend."
"And you're my best friend, Camus, but we can't just do nothing. How can we fix anything by doing nothing?" I remove the pillow, kiss his forehead. "I'm sorry," I say, and stride (what feels like) purposefully out of our berth. I stop for a bit on the main deck and consider the meteor shower in the night sky. All those old stars hurtling themselves to death in some celestial last hurrah. "You're killing yourselves," I'd warn them, if stars could understand--if they would let themselves be helped. I think about Romeo and Juliet and what an ugly thing fate is--how violently we battle against it. There's so little we can do for one another. I can't save Camus any more than I can save that star there . . . or that one. In ten years he'll be in therapy, he'll be pretentious, enraged, and self-loathing: he'll be utterly unlikable.
At the Dovemans' berth, Mrs. Doveman, ripe with brandy, answers in a thin white robe. "Dr. Doveman is disappeared," she says. "I cannot find him anywhere."
"It's Camus," I say. "Camus is the thief."
"What are you talking about?" she says. "What are you saying?"
Then Camus is beside me and I make a gesture meant to say Aha! The thief in the flesh, but the way Camus is tugging on the bottom of my shirt tells me that something is very wrong. He pulls me back toward our berth, a brandy-pickled Mrs. Doveman scantily arranged and in tow.
The door is hot from the fire, and when I fling it open, I see that two walls and both our cots are engulfed by flames.
"Camus, what happened?"
"I don't know," he says. He's still holding onto my shirt, there are tears, and I imagine him burning money and passports--the easy way things can get out of control. "Put it out, Ted," he says.
So I try. And when I fail, the captain tries, and soon all of us are standing on the main deck buttoning up life-jackets. "We're missing Dr. Doveman and Eli!" someone screams.
"I will rescue them!" Michelangelo yells, but he doesn't move. The heat from the flames is enormous.
I take Camus by the hand and jump overboard. Soon Helene and Michelangelo splash nearby, and then Sharini. Olivier calls out, "'I must be gone and live, or stay and die!'" and then casts himself among us. Mrs. Doveman belly-flops, and the captain executes a perfect swan dive deep into the phosphorescent sea. He emerges about thirty yards from us and swims quickly and efficiently toward the distant shore. He yells something to us in Turkish that sounds vaguely hopeful. Eventually, Eli and Dr. Doveman appear glistening at the flaming edge of the ship, buck-naked save for their life-jackets, their erections like arrows indicating the location of the polestar. Hand in hand they jump.
Nobody speaks, and we float in the warm sea watching shooting stars and burning ship. Camus, snuggling against my hip and stomach, swirls his hands through the water.
"Look at the lights," he says, of the phosphorescent bubbles following the trail of his little hands.
"Look at the lights," I say, pointing to the sky.
"It's beautiful," he says, speaking of one or maybe the other.
We won't make it to Verona again to complete the circle of our trip. We won't be there to wish on the time-and-wear-faded bronze breast of Juliet and remember how it feels to know you can't have what you most want.
"Oh, Camus," I say, and place my arm over his shoulder to steady him against whatever is to come.