I scribbled a hasty note, regretful, to the point. Fourteen pages, sharp as knives. I refuse. I don’t feel good. The date is inconvenient. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Then I stopped and sat rigid as a sphinx. Henry was my dearest friend. It was brutal not to mitigate such severity. Not many people count in one’s life. A fool slams doors. Who knows, given the vicissitudes, where a man has to grovel tomorrow? I sprang forward and said as much. I told him his company was more precious to me than my own. I’d love to come to your dinner party, I said. Nothing short of atomic holocaust can prevent it. You’re a man of genius and personality. You give life to my life. But refuse, I must. To be frank, Henry, it’s impossible for me to come. You are a person who doesn’t like me. Why? I could say this or that, but who knows his own deficiencies? Who? We know each other too well these days, but who, who among us knows what the others know? The mystery of self lies here, Henry. There in the hearts of others. Consider how often we’ve laughed at a mutual friend and said, That’s just like him, or. You know Ahab would do that sort of thing. Yet the man himself, Henry, does he say these things? No. He goes his way, grinning, tipping his hat, waving to friends on every side. He goes ass out in the eyes of the world. I flew to the mirror. ripped down my pants. I flew back and said, Henry, I read books, I go to the movies, I look constantly in mirrors both literal and figurative. But do I see anything? How could I? I’m not my friend. I’m not Henry. I’m Phillip, Henry. Your friend. I could say things about you that would make your nipples pucker. As for your invitation let me say I am delighted to accept it. I reread the note, chucked up laughs like the clap of big buttocks, and flushed it down the bowl. The one I sent was a stream of polite, innocuous drivel. Twenty-five pages. Pleasing to hear from him, I said. I confessed that I loved to get letters, especially invitations. For just that alone I was grateful to him. I wished so much I could come to his dinner party. Nothing I’d rather, but I had stomach cancer and had to pass it up. Some future date perhaps when they cut out my stomach, etc., etc. I was sitting beside the phone nibbling dexedrine when he called.
“I just read your letter, Phillip. Woo, what a letter. I’m sorry you’re sick.”
“My feet are like sea shells, Henry.”
“Sea shells. Curled, hard, I walk bonky, bonky.”
“Phillip, you’re not the only one. Every time I lose touch with a friend something terrible happens to him. I could go on and on. I hate letters.”
“Mine was impulsive. I’ll never write you again.” “I hate to walk in the street, Phillip. I might meet some friend about to kill himself I sneak everywhere. I wanted to talk to you, by the way, about our dinner party. And now look. I intended to say a few words to make you change your mind. This is what I get.”
“Months of silence, Henry. Things happen.”
“I couldn’t leave well enough alone. Besides, Marjorie insisted. ’Call Phillip. Call Phillip,’ she said. Such a trivial matter, one night, a dinner party. The truth is, Phillip, there aren’t many people in one’s life who count. I could ask seventy or eighty people for that night, but how many of them would be you?”
“I was going to kill myself that night.”
“Are you saying you won’t come?”
"But I'll come."
“I knew you would. I know you so well, Phillip. You have no convictions.”
I laughed. He did, too. Nee, nee, nee. Behind him some-where Marjorie clapped her mouth. Nee, nee filtered through, female, insidious. Henry snarled. I did, too. Footsteps hurried away and I knew there was going to be trouble. From a distance Marjorie screamed, “I laugh, I pee and I don’t care who knows it.” Henry said, “I’ll call you back, Phillip.” “Just tell him to come,” she screamed.
I quivered all over. It was excruciating to bear such knowledge. The private life of a friend is to be dreamed about, never known. I went to the bathroom and stepped under a hot shower. Wax coiled out of my ears like snakes. The phone rang again. “Henry,” I said, “didn’t you call earlier?” I picked up the phone. “Henry,” I said, and he said, “Then we’ll expect you, Phillip.”
“It wasn’t of course a little while ago.”
His voice was hard and mean. I remembered he could be that way and shook my head.
“You know me, Henry.”
“Of course, of course, but I’d as soon you stayed in your rathole downtown if you don’t feel like coming.”
“Just tell me when.”
“Next Wednesday. Six-thirty. Perhaps you can’t make it at such a wild hour?”
“It’s perfect. One of the best times. It gives me pleasure just to think about it.”
“You ought to hang up the phone and masturbate.”
“Don’t be silly. I’ll just open the window.”
Nee, nee we laughed. I grinned and shook my head. I remembered how witty he could be.
“And another thing, Phillip. It’s not crucial, but I want to say it.”
“I know about you and Marjorie, Phillip.”
Don t say it.
“Makes no difference. We’re civilized people, not Victorians. What’s finished is finished, no more, void. What remains is friendship. Our friendship. Even stronger than before. I hope you feel the same way. That’s how Marjorie feels.”
“That’s how I feel, too, Henry.”
“Then there isn’t anything more to be said about that. Am I right?”
“Are you absolutely sure? I don’t like to leave things unsaid, Phillip. They always come out one way or another.”
“I know, I know. Henry, I get boils on my neck when I leave things unsaid.”
“Good, then you understand me. Next Wednesday, Phillip. Six-thirty.”
Nee, nee we laughed and said goodbye.
Dinner with them was out. Furthermore I wouldn’t eat a thing. Not that night and not until that night. The idea just came to me. I didn’t struggle to establish thesis and antithesis. It came BOOMBA. Real ideas strike like eagles. A man who loves premises and conclusions loves a whore. I wouldn’t eat that night and not until that night. That’s how well he knew me. Not at all.
I ran about my room until I got sleepy and then spent the night whirling in bed shrieking curses. At dawn I was sitting up with two fists of hair, cool as a buddha. Dinner with them was out. The idea gave me shivers. Fat ran off. Bones lifted under the skin. I went and leaned against the refrigerator door. Hours passed, the day, the night. I leaned with the insouciance of a hoodlum or a whore. I gazed down at my feet. Gaunt, sharp as chicken feet. The objective principles on which I stood. The first line of a poem came to me: “Bitter, proud metatarsals.” I smelled chicken salad and cream cheese, but didn’t move until I ripped open the refrigerator door, grabbed handfuls of salad and cheese and flung them out the window.
“Ya, ya,” I shouted, “food is out.” My hand seized a frozen steak and flung it into my mouth. I swallowed. Instantly, I became depressed. The steak was in. Like a virgin deflowering I sank to the floor. The steak worked grimly inside. I wanted to make it stop. My stomach churned like the back of a garbage truck. Arteries sucked. I had the steak in my neck, thighs, fingers, toes. But all right, I thought. I’ll journey to the end of the night like St. Augustine and the Marquis de Sade. The more things are different the more they are the same. Immoral is moral.
I went to the nearest restaurant, a fish house. It made no difference. I ate a cow, I’d eat a fish. I ordered lobster Leningrad and a plate of mixed crawlers, flung everything inside and chewed in a deliberate way. In my mind I said, “Yum." The waiter refilled my bread basket. I grunted, “Thanks.” People like me, he said, made his job meaningful. I told him I understood food. He nodded:
“May I watch?”
“Please,” I said.
He stood beside my chair and put his hand discreetly on my shoulder. His mouth moved with mine. When I finished he smiled and asked if I enjoyed the meal. I rubbed my stomach and winked. He nodded in an appreciative way. I leaped from my chair. We embraced. “My name is Phillip,” I said. He said he could tell. I squeezed money into his hand. He protested. I refused to listen, squeezed more, snapped up the menu and shoved it down into my crotch.
Days passed. The dinner party was only hours away. As it drew closer I couldn’t repress what Henry had said. He knew I was going to come. He knew me so well. “But you were very wrong,” I said. However wrong I could indulge the idea that he was right. I indulged it: “You were right.” The idea gave me pleasure. The pleasure of an infant. Something turned, poked, smelled, very known. I hobbled out into the street and walked among strangers to intensify the pleasure. None of them knew me. I went to a liquor store and bought wine, red and white, to express my contempt for Henry’s dinner. A bottle of Armenian khaki was on sale. I bought it, too, then left and bought flowers. Around midnight I stood outside Henry’s door. It was open, welcoming the night. There were seventy or eighty people in the house. I knocked. Henry came running. “Someone’s at the door,” he yelled. “Phillip. What a surprise.”
I leaped backward into the darkness. He leaped after me and caught my arm. “Come in, come in.” He took my wine and flowers and flung them into a closet. “We had a little dinner party.”
“I already had dinner. Thanks for inviting me in, Henry. I can’t stay.”
“I’d rather not talk about it. It’s nothing personal.”
“But Phillip, I want to talk to you.”
“Let me continue for a moment. Then I’m going back to my rathole. I appreciate your invitation more than I can tell you. You believe me?”
“Don’t say of course. I really mean it.”
“I do, too, of course.”
“Don’t say of course, Henry. You mean a great deal to me. You’re my dearest friend, the only one I have. It kills me not to come to your dinner party. But I can’t. Let’s not talk about it, all right? I don’t ask a lot of favors of you.”
“Will you have a drink?”
“No. In fact, look, don’t even pour it into the glass.”
I snapped up the bottle and swallowed. People were every-where, standing, sitting, talking, smoking, drinking. It was a brilliant crowd. The women had nice legs. The men looked as if it didn’t matter. I felt a bit out of place because I didn’t know any of them. Henry touched my elbow. He spoke very quietly, very slowly, and as if we were the only ones there.
“Phillip, I do want to talk to you.”
I was thrilled by the intensity of his voice.
“There’s nothing to talk about at a party,” I said.
He shrugged. “You’re right, Phillip.”
“What do you want to talk about?”
He shrugged again. It was very like him to do that when he had a lot on his mind. “About? You’re hungry for topics? I want more than to talk about. I want dialogue, Phillip, not topics. I don’t want to talk about a thing. Things crap up talk.”
“I agree. Now I’m going, Henry.”
“But I’ll listen for a minute if you like.”
“Can you listen for a minute? Don’t say yes if you can’t.”
“I’ll listen for a minute.”
“Phillip, I’m going out of my mind.”
“I couldn’t tell you in a million years.”
“It’s been good talking to you, Henry.”
“Wait, Phillip. I want to tell you a story. Not a story, a parable.”
“It represents my connection with the elemental life. Nothing else. Not art, not politics, not history, not anything but the elemental life. The truth is, Phillip, I don’t give a damn about anything else. I’m talking about love.”
“I know. I can tell.”
“Of course. Phillip, listen. The first time Marjorie and I went out we went to a movie. I don’t remember what was playing. At any rate I put my arm around her and my hand fell on her breast. She didn’t say anything. She trembled. At first, Phillip, I didn’t notice where my hand had fallen. Then I felt her trembling and I noticed. I trembled. I was a hand. She was a breast. I don’t have to tell you what a trembling breast feels like.”
“Don’t tell me.”
“I’ve gone too far now to stop.”
“No more about the breast.”
“If I stop I’ll be like Satan floating in space or Macbeth on his way to stab Duncan. Imagine if they had stopped. They would have felt like creeps. It’s the kind of thing, Phillip, you have to get over with.”
“Get it over with. You trembled, she trembled.”
“I was a hand. She was a breast. One day, not much later, I touched her you know where and said, ’You tremble.’ I told her I noticed and wondered if she noticed. More than that I wondered if she noticed that I noticed. Never in my life was I so sincerely concerned about anything. It was a feeling. Do you follow me, Phillip? I knew immediately it was a feeling. Clear, authentic, like you standing here this minute. You’re standing here, right? Nothing less. That’s how this was. Nothing less.”
“I see. What happened?”
“Phillip, I could spring up on her like an Irish setter and she wouldn’t notice unless I called it to her attention.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Say what you think. Say whatever you think.”
“You lost your connection with the elemental life, is that it?”
“You could say that.”
“At least you have dialogue, Henry. Where’s Marjorie, by the way? I don’t see her anywhere.”
“Do you see that door? Go through it, you’ll find her.” I looked at the door. It had a quality of shutness. I looked at Henry’s face. It had the same quality, something vertical and shut, like the face of a mountain. Impassive, forbidding, beckoning, irresistible. Susceptibilities in my hands and feet became agitated.
“I won’t go through any doors, Henry.”
“I wouldn’t have talked about this with anyone but you, Phillip.”
“I’m flattered, but not another word, please.”
“In that room, Phillip, in the dark, in a corner...”
“I’m leaving now.”
I glanced away. He glanced after me. He arrived, I was gone. I turned back and looked him directly around the eyes, a swimming look. He tried to pierce it but wallowed. His eyes flailed for a grip but I widened my focus. “Phillip,” he cried,
“go speak to her. Tell her my love.”
“Ech,” I said. “I knew it would come to this. Tell her your-self. I’m going.”
“Go. You have no right to go, but go. I’ve told you everything. Take it. Throw it in a sewer someplace.”
“Be reasonable. What can I say to her?”
“Don’t play stupid. You and she had plenty to say to each other before I came along. Say anything, just make her come out or let me come in.”
“You owe me this. I’ll never feel it’s over between you unless you do it. Make her call me in there.”
“What if I can’t?”
“Then I’ll know what it means and I’ll kill you. To me the connection between love and death is very close.”
His hand clutched my elbow like the claw of an angry bird.
He walked me to the door.
“Henry, what can I do?”
“You know what.”
He opened the door and shoved me through it. The door shut and I was in such darkness that I staggered and swayed. The sound of clinking glasses and talking trickled in after me, but I felt no relation to it. I was steeped, immobilized, wrapped up tight as a mummy. I was without head or arms or feet and my brain was suspended like a cloud. “Marjorie,” I said. My voice whooshed away. No answer came. I crooned, “Marjorie, it’s Phillip.” A hiss cut the dark and there was a rough scratching like scales on rocks. “Marjorie,” I crooned again, bending slowly until my hands touched the floor. “It’s Phillip. I know you’re there.” I was on my hands and knees, whispering, urgent and conspiratorial. I leaned forward and put out my hand, letting it drift into the blackness like a little boat. I heard breathing. My hand drifted into it. My eyes bulged. I leaned after my hand, saw nothing, but smelled her very close and felt her heat on my face. The hiss came again. My hand drifted further into the darkness, my fingertips quivering, quickening to the shape, the texture, the person of Marjorie. There was a slash. My hand snapped back.
“Don’t try that again, jackass,” she said.
“My hand is bleeding.”
“Henry has a lot of friends out there, Marjorie. Why don’t
you step outside for a moment and slash them up?”
“Give me your hand.”
“Give it to me. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
My hand drifted forward. She took it in both of hers and licked it.
“Feels all right.”
I started to draw my hand back again. She hissed, clutched it tightly. I dragged. She wrapped herself around it, shimmied up my arm and hung from my shoulder like a bunch of bananas. She whimpered in my ear, “Phillip, I’m miserable.”