Oliver said there would be a next time, and he was right.
His letter arrived on the morning of Wednesday, April 7th, 1994. Seeing his tight, spiky handwriting was like seeing his face at the other side of a busy restaurant. The same sequence of reactions -- delight, shock, confusion – and the reflex to dissemble. Spies at some formal function of the ruling Junta, presenting a neutral glance as they’re introduced.
We actually did run into him at dinner a few years ago. Some little downtown restaurant, after a show. Oliver was dining alone at the next table. It turned out he had been to the same play the night before – the Charles Durning-Kathleen Turner revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Harlan quoted the doctor’s line about wishing he had a pill that could make people disappear.
Thousands of restaurants, dozens of plays … twenty tables. And there he was, picking at a salad without even a paperback novel or a sketchbook to hide behind. I put on my clandestine social smile while we all exchanged small talk. I thought of my mother, applying her make-up before going out for the evening, saying, “I have to put my face on.”
I remember we agreed that Durning made the perfect Big Daddy. We wound up laughing. Oliver’s Kathleen Turner impression was spot-on. A perfect little soap bubble moment, too fragile to touch. It made me sad. That lovely friendship, lost forever.
I finally opened Oliver’s letter just before lunch, long after Harlan was gone for the day. My hand was shaking so badly I tore the elegant Crane ecru stationery. The English stamps told me instantly that something was up. Oliver hates England and never goes back unless he has to. “Marriages and funerals only, my Dear” he told me once. In this case, his father’s funeral. He’s the executor of the estate, which is quite complicated, with “numerous greedy cousins squabbling over the remnants”. Oliver is the oldest of three children. His sisters never left Oxfordshire. Oliver has always handled the family’s financial affairs, co-signing loans for his sisters, securing a nursing facility for his mother when she lapsed into late stage Alzheimer’s, and on that trip selling off various properties and managing the disbursements. But it was “a dreadful slog” and he couldn’t wait to get home. His sister Pauline had found a haven with local Evangelical sect; Dorothy stuck with the bottle. He had very little to say to either one of them.
At the end of the letter he said, “The only real family I have left is the one I chose.”
By which he meant me.
He wanted to see me when he returned to New York the next month. But it was impossible. I remember my feeling at the time was … things die and deserve the dignity and respect of being left alone. Digging them up is morbid and ghoulish. I thought of The Monkey’s Paw, reading that old story to Robert when he was eight or nine years old and him crying out “Don’t do it!” when Mr. White wishes his dead son Herbert back to life.
From the mouths of babes.
I avoided him for weeks. It seems like that would be easy in a city of seven million people spread out over more than thirteen thousand square miles, but New York is famously a cluster of small towns, and the art world is one of the smallest and most claustrophobic, like some little hamlet in Maine where everyone knows you’re pregnant because you stop buying tampons at the local drug store.
There were parties I refused to attend because I knew Oliver would be there, openings I avoided because his presence was guaranteed. Harlan caught on quickly. “Go if you like,” he said about some fundraiser for the Met (Oliver is on the Board), “Talk to him. Normalize things. I’m fine with it.” But I could tell he liked it that I kept my distance. I think he enjoyed punishing both of us.
Maggie Barudsky knew it was true.
She invited me to lunch at Le Cirque. It can be a brusque and hurried experience dining there, but Maggie was great friends with Sirio Maccioni and had apparently helped him pick his new chef. I hadn’t eaten there since the glory days of Daniel Boulud, but Maggie assured me that Sylvain Portay was a worthy successor. And indeed the food was wonderful, from the truffle risotto to the lobster with chanterelles and artichokes. Still, the food was the least memorable aspect of the meal.
When I arrived Sirio showed me to the table, a prime one in the center of the room, the old room with the sepia paintings and pale wall paper and forest green upholstered chairs. It’s all different now of course, but the restaurant had the elegance of a private club in those days. It didn’t matter, I was given less than thirty seconds to enjoy the atmosphere. I saw Maggie’s table before I had taken ten steps in to the room. Seated across from her was Oliver Graeme.
My lungs closed, I wanted to turn and run, but the ambush was perfectly executed. Every eye in the place was on me. Fleeing would turn a simple meal into a scandal.
“Oliver,” I said, sitting down. “What a pleasant surprise.”
He took a sip from his water glass. “I should have thought more like, what an appallingly discourteous shock. Don’t be alarmed. Your face is a perfect mask. It’s only your eyes that give you away.”
Maggie’s face was stern. “Harlan gets everything. You get nothing. I’m sick of it.”
“I’m sure he’s with a girl this very afternoon! That Lithuanian girl he’s been painting. Lina. While you sit home alone and avoid your friends. This has to stop, darling! It’s making me insane.”
I looked from one to the other, those two calm patient loving faces. Then I gave in.
“What’s good here?”
We talked about London (“Drab and provincial as ever”), our new President (“Tiresome philanderer”) Oliver’s favorite new Asian fusion restaurant (“Vong – who knew an Alsatian could make such sublime Thai food?”) and The Children of Men (“I have a weakness for P.D. James”). We talked about Robert and Hotchkiss and the dance I was working on for Meredith Monk. We talked about renovations at the gallery and the Draconian new building codes, and Maggie’s planned trip to Milan for the Prada show.
As we were leaving, Oliver slipped me one of his cards with an address in Brooklyn on the back. “I want you to meet me there, if you can arrange a convenient time.”
There was no point acting coy any more. I just smiled and said, “How about tomorrow?”
The address was on Berkeley Place, in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, just off Eighth Avenue with a charming view of the Grand Army Plaza, whose trees were just coming into leaf in early May. Its marvelous Soldiers and Sailors Arch dwarfed the one in Washington Square Park I had grown up with. I had never even seen Prospect Park before that day, which seems strange now, even to me. But I grew up in Manhattan, and for coddled Upper East Side kids Brooklyn and the Bronx might as well have been separate countries with their own languages and customs. They were rough dangerous territories back in the sixties – and remain so to some extent, even as the twentieth century fades. Among the row houses on Oliver’s street, some looked derelict, some were in the process of renovation; one had recently been gutted by fire.
I found Oliver standing on the steps of his four-story brownstone, hastily putting out a cigarette, as if I didn’t know he smoked.
He hugged me, we are exactly the same height, and pressed his lips to my neck. The touch of his mouth brought me home. How can something be so exciting and exotic and yet so consolingly familiar at the same time?
“Thank you for coming,” he said.
He gave me the tour – the antique paneling and the bright modern kitchen, the newly sanded hardwood stairs and the big loft on the top floor that he used for painting. “I bought it so we could have a place to meet,” he told me. He must have noticed the look on my face, because he hurriedly added, “Don’t worry, my dear. When you leave me for the last time, I’ll sell it and make an outlandish profit. This is going to be one of the great neighborhoods of the city in a few years.”
We wound up in his bedroom on the third floor, and in his bed. A clandestine adulterous assignation … and yet even lying thrashing naked under his sheets, with his head between my thighs, it didn’t feel wrong. It was a continuation, like taking next step in a dance, remembering the lost name in an anecdote. We simply picked up where we had left off. He had always been a gentle, meticulous, single-minded lover, determined to wring every last spasm of pleasure from my body and not particularly interested in his own. That hadn’t changed but I came to understand it during those long afternoons in Brooklyn. In our happiest days, Harlan had craved my body. Oliver worshipped it.
Not that my middle aged flesh deserved his adoration! Please, I know better than that. But he would never let me deflect a compliment and the luxury of submitting to that lovely pure unwavering reverence made me happier than I’d been in years. How many years? Well it had been six years since our time in California. The better part of a decade.
Of course it wasn’t all sex and long lunches and strolling through Prospect Park. We fought sometimes, Oliver’s stubborn silent stoical attack so different from Harlan’s bellow and bluster.
The worst one happened the day after Meredith’s company premiered my pas de deux, “Solo”. Perhaps based on my marriage, it was an unusual dance for two in which the performers essentially ignored each other in ever more extreme ways until colliding near the end of the piece. I thought it was funny; so did Meredith. But the rehearsal period had been fraught and taxing. I was physically unable to demonstrate many of the movements I had designed, and I could tell the dancers, particularly the man, Jerrol Jenkins, viewed me with poorly concealed disdain. I was an interloper, a dilettante, fiddling with a form I had never mastered. Poor Jerrol died of AIDS a year ago. He could be cruel but he was charming and funny as well. He loved the celery stuffed with herbed cream cheese I brought to a late rehearsal -- my mother’s recipe -- though he claimed I was trying sabotage him with fattening foods. “Weaponized vegetables!” he said, taking a third stalk. His only reading matter was comic books but he had a sharp eye for the absurdities of super hero life. “Would Iron Man win an iron man race?” I heard him ask one afternoon. “There’s a swimming section! He’d sink like a stone and rust on the bottom.”
He was just as withering about me and I complained to Oliver because Harlan wouldn’t listen. Then the reviews came out and I was heartbroken. I took his silence for solidarity until he stood during one of my arias, and walked out of the room.
I followed him around the house, and finally badgered him into talking.
He blurted it out: “You would believe anything anyone said about you! As long as it was sufficiently insulting and defamatory. It’s unbearable.”
“They said terrible things.”
“They hurt me.”
“Sticks and stones.”
“Words hurt. They do.”
“Because you’re weak.”
“I -- yes, I suppose ... I don’t --”
“And it’s more than weakness. Everyone is weak. Everyone has a breaking point. I don’t judge you for that.”
He looked away. I could see he regretted talking.
“What then? What?”
“Very well.” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I despise your utter lack of self regard. You have no ego! You scarcely exist, you have no independent existence! You are whatever some scribbler calls you. If that woman at the New Yorker said you were great, you’d be strutting about like a peacock. But she called you a fraud so you are inconsolable. Who am I talking to?” He touched my forehead with a fingertip. “What’s inside there? Is anyone home? Or is it just empty rooms full of newspaper clippings and soggy tissues? You should go. Tell your troubles to your husband. It’s his job to listen.”
I left but I never said a word to Harlan. I called Oliver several times but his answering machine picked up. No cute outgoing remarks, just a curt “Speak.” So I did. He never returned the calls and it was a week before I could get back to Brooklyn. I took a cab, climbed the stairs. I had a tipsy moment of cowardice, like a drunk who stands up too quickly. But I knocked. I heard footsteps and tensed myself for the chilly English reception he had been bred to deliver.
He opened the door and took me in his arms. “I’m so sorry. Can you possibly forgive me?”
I spoke to his chest. “I’m here.”
He stepped back. “Please – come in. I have coffee on the stove.”
I followed him into the kitchen. He placed the Chemex and a sterling silver cream-and-sugar set on the table. “Two percent milk and half decaf coffee. Just the way you like it.”
“You’re right,” I said. “I shouldn’t pay attention to those people.”
He took a sip. “I’m the same way. Perhaps that’s why I find it so disturbing.”
I made the little laugh that comes out almost as a sigh – more of an announcement of a perceived absurdity than a response to a joke. “You’ve never gotten a bad review in your life.”
“Only from your husband. But they sting.”
“He’s just jealous.”
“Precisely what I always tell myself. A paltry rationale.”
“Some people don’t read reviews at all.”
“That requires a different brand of fortitude, I suspect. And a certain deficiency of imagination. I’m sure you could invent far worse things to say about yourself than some critic could devise.”
“Probably.” I drank some coffee. It was perfect, as always.
He was staring at me. “I wish sometimes you could see yourself as I see you. But then you would be truly insufferable!”
“I’d like that.”
“Indeed you would! But that will never happen, so let me offer you this small consolation instead. You will receive dozens of bad reviews in your lifetime, if you keep working, if your career lasts long enough. They’ll spank you for staying the same and dismiss you for changing, praise your worst work, pan your best, flatter and flense with equal gusto. Well, I say -- fuck them all. Pardon my French. Or rather my 16th Century German. The two impostors.”
“It’s from a Kipling poem my father always quoted. I had to read it at his funeral. He loved his Kipling. ‘White man’s burden’ and all.”
“I don’t think I know the poem”
“Then you were never an English schoolboy! The bit in question goes like this –
If you can dream, and not make dreams your master;
If you can think, and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same…”
“Then what? If you do all that?”
“Ah. That’s the crux. Here’s the last quatrain:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds worth of distance run
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it
And – which is more – you’ll be a man my son!”
I laughed. “I bet he hammered you over the head with that one.”
I laughed. “I bet he hammered you over the head with that one.”
“Quite so. And I believe Kipling himself was the only artist who ever qualified for full manhood in my father’s eyes -- with the possible exception of Paul Nash, who had the decency to fight in the First World War.”
We were silent for a moment, then I lifted my cup in a modest toast. “The two impostors.”
“May we despise and ignore them forever.”
We gulped the last of our coffee, and then he took me up to bed.
I’ve been thinking all morning about the Bennington Caper, as Oliver called it. Our great secret, our final tryst. He had arranged to teach a master class during the summer session at the college, and the school had found him a charming little house in town. He had never visited Vermont before – no one knew him, and he was looking forward to a six weeks of anonymity, artisanal coffee and long walks in the leafy countryside.
We were having breakfast in the big sunny kitchen when Oliver suggested the idea. It was brazen and outrageous but we had gotten bolder over time. Harlan often stayed out all night, supposedly working at his studio and sleeping on a cot there. I knew if I managed to get home by nine or ten in the morning, I would be safe. Once he arrived home before me and I simply lied – I told him I’d risen early and taken a walk. He was shockingly easy to fool. I suppose he wanted to believe me, and I doubt he wanted to compare notes on our extra-marital activities. But I was tired of skulking around, and these easy spring mornings made me long for an unfettered life with Oliver. I was missing California, and I told him so.
He set his coffee down. “Come with me to Vermont.”
“For the whole summer?”
“It’s Robert’s last year of camp. And Harlan will scarcely miss you.”
I shook my head, the way you do when you have water in your ears. But the idea had gotten in there. “It’s impossible.”
“I can’t just go. I’d need some kind of cover story.”
“That’s easy. You’ve been talking about following the various dance festivals around the country literally for years – The American Dance Festival in Durham, the Boise Dance Festival, Jacob’s Pillow.”
“I don’t understand.”
“My dear girl, that’s your cover story.”
“No, no, that wouldn’t work. It’s a lovely thought but …”
“You don’t seriously think he’d check up on you?”
“He wouldn’t have to. He pays all the bills and sees all the credit card receipts.”
“But you wouldn’t have any.”
“Ah. I see.”
We left it at that, but Oliver talked the problem over with his favorite co-conspirator and early the next week Maggie Barudsky caught up to me at our health club. She paced along beside me on the next treadmill, striding much faster but getting no farther, one of the small satisfactions of walking in place. In the real world she’d would have had to slow herself down, accommodating me, or I’d come around a bend in the path and see her standing impatiently, tapping her foot and taking her own pulse.
“I’ll go to the festivals,” she said after a few minutes, not even out of breath. I was panting and the lactic acid was making my bones ache.
“You’d – what? Why?”
“I think it would be a charming way to while away the summer.”
“No you don’t! Dance bores you. I’ve seen you fidgeting. And you hate to travel.”
“Well, it’s not my ideal vacation. But I will keep an open mind.”
“Besides, how would that even -- ”
“I would take your credit card, and spend your money and no one would be the wiser.”
“But … it’s – you’d have to explain … I mean, where would you say you were going?”
“My mother took a fall and broke her hip. I went to Chicago for the summer to take care of her. I’m an exceptionally dutiful daughter.”
“Would Alfred believe that?”
“Probably not. He’s seen me with my mother! But it doesn’t matter, darling. He’s in on the scheme. He will lie like a tax lawyer if the cause is right.”
We got off the machines, toasted each other with the awful spinach, beets and spirulina smoothies the club served in those days. And the pact was sealed.
The house was weathered barn board with a stone chimney, on Harrington Road near the Walloomsac River. It was a drive into town and a drive to the campus. Oliver had found a used VW bug and enjoyed cruising in it, rattling across the covered bridges, exploring twisting empty roads that curled up into the mountains like smoke.
Oliver’s schedule was light, so we had plenty of time to play house, cooking out of Julia Child, adding a rug or a wing chair from the local antique store to the sparse furnishings, sleeping in, taking Sunday breakfast and the Blue Benn diner. It was terribly hot that summer and we slept naked under the old sheets in the upstairs bedroom with the windows open and the fans pushing the humid air at us. We had students over for impromptu dinners and dined with faculty members from time to time, but for the most part we were on our own, and we liked it that way. The evenings seemed eternal and the days stretched out into weeks ahead of us, but we knew our time was short and we were loath to waste a minute of it.
I have to smile, writing this, thinking of some future art historian skimming these paragraphs looking for the revelations promised by a ‘primary source’ document, waiting for me to talk about the portraits.
Very well, Professor! I apologize for my girlish digressions.
It started with sketches. He sketched me all the time -- in bed, in the bath, cooking, walking the woods, working in the little garden at the side of the house -- wire-bound sketchbooks he flailed and flicked with his prized Utrecht pencils.
I didn’t know he was making paintings out of those studies until he took me up to his studio on the campus early one Sunday morning. A still, stifling day, with rain clouds building from the north -- July 21st, 1993. It would rain all night and most of the next week. But for the moment it was just falling barometric pressure and the tension of waiting. We were alone in the old barn. Saturdays nights were wild and the kids slept in.
Oliver had stacked the paintings against the long wall. He turned them and set them side by side for me, one after the other.
How can I describe the cascade of emotions?
The first was shock – simple horrified inexcusable Puritan mortification. I was … well, any professor who troubles to read these pages knows that I was naked in the most powerful of Oliver’s canvases and the raw erotic charge in what he referred to as the “bedroom tryptic” was overpowering, terrible, traumatizing. I felt betrayed, used, invaded. I was too angry to speak and I’m so happy, looking back, that I didn’t. Because my feelings changed as I studied the less sexually charged pictures, the kitchen paintings, the garden paintings, as I stood with the collection, surrounded by it, hidden as well as revealed in the deep forest, the secret clearing, of Oliver’s masterful unblinking regard.
Ultimately even the nudes shifted for me. They were liberating and at the same time humbling. He was painting me but he was painting something more, some female archetype that I represented for him. They were me and simultaneously more and less than my actual person. Oliver said to me once, “I despise love poems. They’re so impersonal.”
Those canvases were his poem to me.
And then came the realization that I was looking at a collection of incomparable late period masterpieces by a major Twentieth Century artist, a group of pictures that could dramatically reconfigure his reputation. And at the same time, I knew he was going to keep them private. No one was going to see them but me, because if anyone ever did our underground summer of love would become public property and small juicy scandal of it would wreck my marriage and ruin my life.
It seemed unfair, crazy, absurd. We fought about it. That was where our war broke out. I told him I didn’t care. I was going to tell Harlan the truth and leave him for good. The marriage was over anyway. If Harlan wound up humiliated, so be it. He deserved to be the public cuckold.
Oliver didn’t believe a word I said.
And at the height of the argument, with an uneaten dinner cooling on the dining room table, we heard a rapping on the front door. It silenced us and came again. Somehow we both knew who it was. My husband was standing on the welcome mat.
Harlan had found us.
Well, that was how it seemed at the time. Perhaps it would have been better if he had worked some miracle of forensic deduction and followed my well-camouflaged trail to Oliver’s door. The actual story was much simpler.
That weekend was our scheduled visit at Camp Killooleet. With me traveling all summer, Harlan had volunteered to go up for the day, meet the counsellors and campers and take a box lunch to Texas Falls. Hancock was just two hours north of Bennington and Robert, who had the return address on all the letters and packages Oliver had sent him, had begged his father to patch things up.
His plaintive, twelve-year old declaration: “I miss Oliver.”
His thorny, heartfelt question: “Why can’t you just be friends?”
Harlan had no answer, at least none he could sensibly offer to a young boy. So he agreed to the diplomatic mission and arrived in the early evening after a day of procrastination and soul-searching.
I didn’t know what he was doing there, or how he’d found the place or why he’d come. I knew one thing only: Harlan must not find me there. No drug dealer with piles of cash and heroin on the kitchen table a table and the police shouting “Open up!” could have reacted as calamitously as I did.
I grabbed Oliver, and said in an awful croaking whisper, “Don’t tell him I’m here!”
I fled to the basement stairs, but not before seeing the sad stoical knowing look on his face. He had just won our argument conclusively – action mattered far more to him than words – but he took no satisfaction from being proved right. I know that part of him had wanted to believe me. That was impossible now.
From behind the door, I heard Oliver offer to buy Harlan a drink in town, and a few moments later the screen door slapped against the frame. I stood with one hand clutching the glass knob until I heard the note of Harlan’s car engine fading away toward River Road.
I was all packed when he dropped Oliver off three hours later, having refused the obligatory invitation to stay the night. Harlan had reservations at the Four Chimneys Inn.
Oliver saw me with my suitcase and sighed. “This is better,” he said. “I prefer tragedy to farce.”
I slept on the couch, and the next morning he put me on the Vermonter at St. Albans for the trip back to the city.
Everything unfolded from that moment just as Oliver had known it would. I remained with Harlan, the two men have made stalwart if sporadic efforts to rebuild their friendship and have crossed paths awkwardly, touchingly, at the hospital. Oliver makes no effort to hide his visits to me here, we are well past any tinge of scandal now, but his Vermont paintings, like my time there that summer, remain our secret.
There is one small coda to this story. After a terrible fight that fall, I desperately needed to see Oliver again. I took subway to Brooklyn, and found my way to Berkeley Street. But Oliver was as good as his word.
The house had been sold.