Dinner Along the Amazon
On the morning of that day when we awoke in that house, we drank black coffee, listened to the Poulenc recordings and smoked Jean-Paul’s cigarettes.
We drove out in the Citroen and we bought bread, smoked oysters, Dutch gin and escargots in tin cans. We all bought flowers that day and we all wore them. We became a parade. It was the only time that it ever happened without calculation or without the wish of repetition. I remember it all without recalling a single important detail. It was that innocent—that betrayable.
At two o’clock we went to an art gallery somewhere and booed the paintings. At two-thirty we were put out on the street. By three we were back in Jean-Paul’s house, where we drank the gin and ate the snails with melted butter, lemons and garlic, and where we lay on the floor and listened to the Poulenc records again and again and again.
Diana let down her hair and she laughed and laughed and laughed.
Later on we all danced and Diana tried, very successfully, to play one of the Poulenc pieces on the piano from memory. After that there was a terrible argument about Kafka—about the Metamorphosis story—and it was loud and operatic with everyone taking part.
All I can remember is that Jean-Paul proposed that the metamorphosis had been self-induced—that it was wished for and that it was profoundly sexual—that it represented more than man-into-bug-like- incapacitation. It represented a sexual change as well, the change from aggressive to passive participation in sex. The man lying under the bed when the woman wanted to come in…the hugeness of the woman. The way she fed him. He saw a great deal of significance in the writing around all the entries into the room. Shoving things under the door…the fact that it was a man’s room. He went on about it for a long time, with a smile—until Brett exploded.
When the argument was over we all pretended that we were bugs and we crawled about, flapping imaginary legs at the ceiling and passing gin in saucers across the floor at each other. Finally, this induced Brett to laugh and Jean-Paul said, “Yes. There is only one here—one—who would be capable of that, of really changing from one to the other. Only one.”
We all cried, “Who?” each hoping to be the one—the one who might be so dramatically doomed. “Who?” we said. “Me?”
“No,” said Jean-Paul, “not you. Brett.”
Immediately we all looked under the piano where Brett had crawled to drink his gin.
“I’m a bug,” he said. “Don’t bother me. See me! The bug! I’m the beetle under Diana’s piano. I will never change!!”
We all roared. Even Diana, whose one abhorrence was beetles.
I forget the rest, except that later on that evening we went to yet another party—given, I think, by an artist, (at least it was in a studio-like place) and Diana drew an enormous beetle on the wall and labelled it “BRETT.” Underneath it Jean-Paul wrote “do not look under the bed” and he added, smiling at Diana, “Any bed, my dear. He might be there.”
This period of our lives lasted for about a month. Of course we all returned to our own homes once a day and most of the nights. Diana and Tanya went on attending lectures at the University and I did some acting on radio. Jean-Paul had his business to attend to nearly every day. The only immediate change was in Brett.
He decided to leave the University. He was going to commence his book. Studying didn’t matter. There was only one thing to study, anyway—the work of Hart Crane. It was decided that he might as well live in Jean-Paul’s house, because it would be quiet there, and Jean-Paul had seized on the opportunity of playing philanthropist and patron to a budding genius.
Jean-Paul bought a great many books for Brett and every day he went off to his place of business, leaving Brett alone with paper and ink and bottles of beer so that he might create his masterpiece.
All of this happened about two weeks after we had met Jean-Paul.
And now it was, when they had a house in which they could meet—a place for privacy—that it became clear to me how much in love Diana was with Brett. She would go there between lectures every day and make things for him. She would even go if she had only five minutes. She would stand beside him and pour his beer for him, empty his ashtray, put her fingers inside his shirt, kiss him and go away. She would not even speak.
I asked her if she was studying piano every day as she should be and she said, “Of course. Of course I am. One has to—one must—if you want to be Rubinstein.” And then she would look back through the door at Brett and put her collar up and ask me if I wanted her to drive me anywhere. “No,” I would say. “I’m not going anywhere, Diana. Bring Tanya as soon as the lectures are over…” and then she would drive away.
When I wasn’t rehearsing or actually doing a radio show I would sit in Jean-Paul’s living room and look at books. That was when I read Scott Fitzgerald first and Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder. But I have not gone back to Fitzgerald or to Gertrude Stein. Someday, perhaps I will, but Melanctha made me incalculably sad and Nicole Diver disturbed me to such a degree that I remember reading about her just a page at a time, and then pacing up and down that lovely room and playing a Bartok piano concerto on the gramophone, until Brett nearly went mad and would yell at me, every day, to find a new, sensible heroine—like Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary. Of course, I never found either. I was stuck with Nicole. She was part of the scenery.
Tanya and I had a fight, I remember, one evening—and she left. I asked Jean-Paul if I could spend the night. He said, “Yes.”
Diana had to leave early that evening, and so Brett, Jean-Paul and I were left alone. We drank. I got wildly drunk and I passed out. In the morning I awoke in the living room.
I remember the waking up very clearly.
It was a beautiful, snowy morning—white and secret and enclosed. The house was comfortable and warm and it smelled of furniture-wax and cigarettes and of Diana’s perfume. Yes. She had even given in so far as to wear perfume. I forget what it was called but I would know it in an instant if I should ever smell it again. It had the odour of a ballet—of flowers and of wine and of air that was stirred by the movement of dancers. You smell it sometimes at the theatre when the curtain rises. It was a sad smell—old-fashioned and nostalgic and lovely, like the remembrance of a person whose mementoes are found between the pages of an antique book.
I lay on the sofa and lit a cigarette. I even drank some per-nod, I remember, lying there like that. And I thought for the first time in years of our conversation on the Elephant’s Back. I thought, “It doesn’t matter, because Diana is in love, and even if it isn’t me she loves, and even if it never will be, the fear of being without her is gone. And the fear, forever, that she will never love. It’s good,” I thought, “it’s good that Brett is good—that he loves her and that he’s a genius,” (we really all did think so) “and she will be safe. One day she will play the piano for her children and be glad that pianists can have babies and her fame will be that she is Brett’s wife.”
I gave her up so easily, lying there that morning, because I couldn’t bear to be unhappy.
And so I lay there, almost as happy as I might have been if I had been Brett himself, with Brett’s future, and with Brett’s assurance of Diana and with Brett’s unbounded genius. It did not matter that it was not true. I, after all, was me. I, too, had a future, and if I did not marry Tanya then I would marry someone else and the someone else would love me or I wouldn’t marry them. I tried to remember why Tanya and I had fought. I laughed. I could not remember. So I decided to telephone her. I would wake her up and apologize and tell her that I loved her and that I wanted her to come right over and drink a pernod breakfast with me.
I got up, then, and went into the hall. The phone was. in Brett’s study. But he’d locked the door—or someone had. Wasn’t there another telephone? One upstairs in Jean-Paul’s bedroom? Yes. There was.
And so I went up and I must have gone up quietly and for some thoughtless reason I have always ever since regretted, I forgot to knock on
Writing that down—re-reading it—I feel as if I had stood there ever since because what I saw opened a vista for me of enduring despair and of unhappiness, forever, for Diana.
They were naked. I guess they were doing something. I didn’t see. All I could see was who they were and what they’d betrayed.
It wasn’t that it was two men. That didn’t even cross my mind. It was just the infidelity. The lie.
And the structure of everything came apart.
Miss Galbraith played with such cold command that I wondered at her given age. She sits as though her real desire was to hypnotize the keyboard. In the whole recital there was not one hint of warmth. It was as though she might be taking vengeance on the music. I received the very distinct impression that Miss Galbraith was one of those electrical machines that immobilizes things at the touch. Her playing is faultless—even brilliant—but there is the definite feeling after each successive interpretation that Miss Galbraith has carved something for you out of rock. This works, exquisitely, with the Scarlatti and Bach pieces which she chose. It has its moments, even, in the Beethoven, but it certainly did not suit the Debussy. Furthermore, Miss Galbraith is too young to have chosen to play the Poulenc pieces with which she concluded. She was either too young or, oddly enough, too old. At any rate, she does not understand them. They are witty, humorous and light—not pieces of ice. Perhaps when she is a little further along, life will serve to melt a little of this damaging overlay of complete withdrawal from her performance, and I am sure that we will then have the right to lay claim to a superb new artist—of the first mark.
When I was twenty-six, which means that Diana was twenty-six as well, I had been acting in New York for three years, and I got a phone call at the theatre one evening.
“I’ve been here for months. But I just couldn’t phone or get in touch. I wanted to be sure I was staying. You know me—I hate to make announcements before I’m sure of them.”
“But I’m so glad you phoned,” I said. “Will you meet me tonight after the play?”
“No,” she said, “but I will tomorrow. I want you to come to Columbus Circle. I’ll meet you there. I have something to show you, Davis. But I don’t want to say what until you get here.”
“All right,” I said. “I’d be delighted. What time?”
“Come at two o’clock, Davis. Two o’clock.”
I said that I would and we hung up.
She sounded different. She sounded old. She sounded muted. It was like the sound of the trumpet with its mute applied—the same, but distant; the attack all gone.
The next day I went up on the subway to Columbus Circle and came out into the traffic by the Park. I looked everywhere. It was two o’clock on the nose but I could not see her. And then I did.
She wore the braid of hair still; it was bound in a circle on top of her head. She wore no make-up—and a blue overcoat. Her hands were in her pockets.
Her eyes looked tired. The braid of hair had been sloppily coiled and it was not clean. When I came close to her, all I could smell was her coat. It smelled of camphor and I could tell that it was second hand.
She did not smile. She took my arm.
“We can walk, Davis,” she said.
She called me by name nearly every time she opened her mouth. Her speech was entirely formal and her voice never achieved anything beyond one tone.
“Are you married, Davis?”
“How is Maudie?”
“She’s fine. She’s still in Canada.”
“And Eugene, Davis, how is he?”
“He’s fine, I guess. He’s coming here, you know. With Mavis Bailey. You remember her.”
“Oh, yes. Did they marry?”
“But one day…I suppose they will.”
We walked up on the Park side into the Seventies until we came to a corner with a light. There we crossed and saw a street of houses—old, red-faced, probably boarding houses—or perhaps houses where dentists had offices. They were lit with a long arm of sunlight from the Jersey shore. I had friends up in the area and I remember someone saying that Marc Connelly had once lived in an apartment on the corner.
“What is this,” I asked.
“The street, Davis.”
“Is this what you want to show me, love? The street?”
“Part of it, Davis. Look. That one there. It’s mine.”
She pointed out a tall rust-coloured house on the north side. In front there was an iron railing and there was a sign.
“PIANO LESSONS—ACADEMY TO GRADE 7”
“Inside,” said Diana, “there are five pianos.”
For the first time, she smiled.
Then we went in.
All the rooms and the hall, downstairs, were empty—except that in each there was a piano, a chair and a bench.
“Upstairs is just old bedrooms, Davis. Don’t look. Come now into the kitchen. We’ll have a drink together.”
I followed her and in the kitchen we took our overcoats off and she poured us each a glass of scotch. I noted that she poured herself more than a double and that she drank it neat.
“Well, what is all this?” I said.
“I’m going to teach,” said Diana. “I will love it.”
The tone—the pitch—the gaze remained the same. Fixed.
“I will love it,” she said.
“And how did you manage it?” I asked.
“Oh, Diana. I’m sorry.”
“He left mother the house in Toronto and the island and some securities they’d held in tandem. Since I’m his only child and of age, he left all the money—all the actual money—to me. Mother has her own inheritance from her family and so Daddy left me his money. It was kind of him, Davis. It was very thoughtful.”
“And so you bought yourself a houseful of pianos?”
“But why New York?”
Her expression altered very slightly.
She poured herself another drink. I noticed now that she had developed a nervous habit that involved her hair. She would wet her fingers, absently, as part of any other gesture she happened to be making, and in the course of the gesture she would then wet the tip of the braid with her fingertips. It was a graceful thing, the way she did it, but once you had cottoned to it, it became annoying because you saw, then, that it was continually happening.
She did it while she poured her drink and while she answered my question.
“I went to Mexico,” she said.
I looked away. I did not really want to hear the rest, but I was curious enough to have to listen.
“Yes. I followed them. But I had other reasons. I went to study with di Luca. In Mexico City. But after I’d been there a month he told me that I should not expect to concertize…”
“Why, in heaven’s name? You were brilliant.”
She held up her hands.
“Too small,” she said. “I do not have the ‘ultimate extension’.”
She said that in quotes herself, and laughed ruefully. It made me angry.
“Who the Christ-all is di Luca, anyway? He’s only one man. One lousy retired pianist.”
“He’s the best, Davis. He is the best. He does know.”
“I’ve heard you play,” I said. “I’ve seen you. I’ve seen you play Liszt—I’ve seen you play Ravel. Where in the name of God do you need more extension than that?”
“Flexible—growing extension, Davis. The ultimate. No—don’t…” I had started to speak again. “It’s all right. It’s over. It never began. And so I will teach. And I will love it.”
“Stop saying that, for God’s sake.”
“I’m sorry, Davis,” she said. “But it’s the
She paused. She sat back in her chair, holding her drink. She lit a cigarette, touching her hair in the process, and then she said, “Anyway, after Mexico City I went to Acapulco.”
“I wish you hadn’t,” I said in a whisper. I don’t think she heard me, for she went right on talking.
“Of course, it was pointless. I didn’t see them. I don’t think I wanted to, but I did want to know. I saw Jean-Paul’s father. He winters there, you know. Straight out of a movie. He had a moustache and he was terribly, terribly French. I explained, more or less, who I was and he invited me to lunch. The long and the short of it is Jean-Paul is dead. After you came here—I don’t know when, exactly, we discovered Jean-Paul was taking dope. He needed it because of the pain. That metal plate—you remember.”
“Well, it began to press on his brain and it gave him great pain. And so he began to have morphine—or heroin—or something. God knows where he got it from, but he got it—probably through his father’s connections in Mexico. You know that his father is mysteriously rich. Well, it’s all in drugs. He’s not a criminal, but of course, in that world, I suppose there are criminal connections. And Jean took advantage of this.”
“Yes. Well. Now we know. I wondered about his colour, sometimes.”
“Well, that’s what it was. Anyway. Jean-Paul was taking these things and…well…”
Here she paused. I could tell that it was because she could not quite bring herself to mention Brett as casually as she would like to. Her face twisted and the nervous gesture happened twice, very precisely, before she continued.
“…and so, I believe, was Brett.”
Inwardly I sighed. It was hard to listen.
“He looked awful. Of course, after what you found them up to, Brett made no pretence at all. He looked it, he dressed it—he even began to talk like that. I don’t know—I don’t know, Davis. I don’t mind. He was beautiful. He was perfect. In every way. Oh, need I say more? I could understand. I could understand. I could understand. I…But he…he wouldn’t let me.”
“That was his pride.”