New York in June was a place to visit, not a place to live in, but it was the place where Fielding had first fallen in love and he was held to it as to the scene of a disaster. Time gives poetry to a battlefield, or some equivalent modern-day gathering at the rim of the awful, and perhaps these St.
Hubbins’ girls were like little flowers on an old rampart where an attack had been repulsed with heavy loss many years ago.
He had been free for four years. Emma had told him so.
She was gone now, the connection snipped. Even postcards, letters, the silver thread that might have bound them, no longer accepted. And yet he did not feel free at all or lucky or footloose as Dr. Gary said he should. But he had tried.
He had even believed her about the freedom, and when she left for Los Angeles after college had driven himself to the edge of experiment with a new haircut. He had left the good computer job at AOL/Moviephone for the one at the Jefferson Library and cashed in his stock options. He had moved from his parents’ large apartment in the East Seventies to two small rooms on Bethune Street, Pickwick Apartments, where Emma had grown up. And he’d been amazed in his freedom how little he really needed. In those first six months he canceled his magazine subscriptions, stopped taking his vitamins, accepted no invitations. Took himself down to an imaginary line of only what was needed. The screenplay was abandoned (the one that would work like alchemy to make universal myths out of the wounds and boredom of childhood) and a journal begun, the journal abandoned and a systematic program of reading begun, the reading abandoned and a program of television watching begun and adhered to, leading to Fielding’s understanding that what was needed was a point to his existence. In forty-eight months he had made himself a tabula rasa, with nothing to do and no one to do it with. All right, he had said, a perfect place to start. He would learn everything from scratch. Your life is your invention, isn’t it? You make it up, ha ha. He was free, wasn’t he? But to be free meant to be tortured and ridiculous. He went now among the unemployed, the plotting young, the bench maneuvers of the old and stately, and sadly contemplated the pigeon life before him on Perry Street. Elderly women and shorthaired terriers assessed him without approval.
No rules, no constraints. He no longer even had habits he could depend on. After a childhood of healthy living, he discovered in himself cravings for cheap food: fast-fried chicken and cupcakes. Not even real cupcakes, but the kind that approximated nothing and were squashed in the packet when one bought them, icing and plastic wrapper tasteably fused from months on the shelf. In the past he had cared about what he drank. Now he drank Rossi or Boon’s Farm, and by the jug. Jug or box wine with everything: pretzels, nachos, oatmeal. Oatmeal was one surprise, for dinner, with box wine and cupcakes to follow. Fielding was smoking, too, Rothmans or Viceroys. And for exercise only the pacing around his room between “bouts of creativity,” later only the trips to the bathroom during commercials on daytime TV. He might have supposed his body-at twenty-six-would object to this life. But it just went on, trustingly, systematically poisoned, slacker but not heavier, and without the warning signs one would have expected to see. Not even a heart murmur to tell him this wasn’t the way. If there were rules as how to live, his body wasn’t aware of them. Or so it seemed.
Yet he remained obstinate, sure at the bottom there was a certain order, a stopping place, something that was part of him that was not a surprise, and that under the dust storm of shifting circumstance there was something sound inside him that knew what was right and would give his life its meaning.
“Why does man imagine he is made for happiness?” some TV pundit asked him at four A.M. as he sat over his bowl of cornflakes.
“Because he is!” Fielding shouted back. And there he voiced surprisingly loudly his remaining conviction, the last and deepest instinct he felt still able to count on.
That was a year ago, and by the current summer he might not have whispered as much. He had taken his life so far down he’d forgotten the original purpose of the descent.
Through the summer heat he lay under the cheap air-conditioning, drinking iced Baro lo and refusing to answer the phone. Deprived of any obligation of cleanliness or sobriety, he succumbed in a haze of game shows and old movies. He might even have imagined himself content, certain that things would change, that he was going through some stage necessary for rebirth in the autumn. One night in June he had risen from his bed, dressed in his socks and underpants, and gone to the bathroom, still chuckling over the comedy of a soft-drink commercial. Looking through himself in the mirrored cabinet, he had heard noises coming from inside. Opening the door slowly, like part of some horribly scripted commercial himself, he had seen his own razor blades, worse, heard them, singing like any one of the glittering pixie pop stars he’d fantasized about all year. Cavorting and dipping and trilling, like mermaids in the shallows, they had sung to him: “Come, come to me.” They were not, Fielding knew, referring to the stubble, but the whole package. They were offering an answer.
Now he was simply searching for the bottom, his bottom, The Bottom, it didn’t seem to matter. The future was coming; the herald of its gaudy carousel lights already visible out past the barren moons of the self. He would be instructed then, presented with the proper rulebook of the game’s last half.
To pass the time, to turn the time into a turn of entertainment, he had taken to loitering outside lower Manhattan’s private day schools. Early blue afternoon is an erotic time, the end of a school term an erotic season, and the air outside St. Hubbins’ that particular afternoon was electric with sex like ozone after a summer storm: everyone sensed it, even if they couldn’t name it. Fielding felt his nostril flare like a stud’s at the nubby tight sex of them, flustered and pinkscrubbed, giggling and moist, tugging their skirts down over dimpled white knees. The urgency of desire surprised himthe mere nearness of young breasts and buttocks as hard as new pears enough to arouse him and make him think first of the rubby sweet friskies of Music Television, then of Emma Brown.
So he thought of Her and the viridescent planets of her eyes and the disarming crinkle of her smile and the untamed cowlick at the crown of her red head and how she sometimes smelled of fresh french fries and then he looked for the Girl-On-Crutches.
Always alone, she’d come in her clumsy waddle out onto the avenue late in the day when the crowd of fifteen-yearold girls with bright lipstick was ebbing. And the boys, of course, lighting their cigarettes in the wind, knew her by sight, that small pale face appearing vampirishly at 3:30 or 4, but found her more easily ignorable than Fielding did, aware in an elemental way perhaps that even if one bothered to approach her, there would be no response.
He felt he could see the terrified mouse that was her mind, running round and round, searching for an exit. And yet, in her silence she seemed an ally. That privacy of hers became his shrine. He had only to cross to where she was, touch and free her. And then, Fielding saw again beyond this desire, an image of the barren, futile end of it. But already it was too late because he wanted her. He had lost his freedom.
After a while, he began to feel a peculiar kind of contempt for his own lust and the springy fresh nymphs who inspired it-but anger eluded him. He had no anger to bring to bear, only love, love for the graceful and gentle, something like a guardian’s love, something akin to father-love. And this was only natural given that these young ladies were the same age Emma Brown had been when Fielding first fell in love with her. Perhaps it was still too early to recognize that each visit—sometimes to St. Hubbins’, sometimes Village Community School, Little Red, Bank Street School, even Friends Seminary on Sixteenth Street (where he and Emma themselves had gone)-each repetition of this act was merely a reenactment of that first kiss in Stuyvesant Park one bright windy afternoon ten years ago.