I am at the Cape with Leslie, my lover of just over a year, but as I tell my friends, this is the one. We are visiting Leslie’s friend Kira and her daughter Rosie, an eight-and-a-half-year-old with whom I have fallen in love. Rosie is watching her Titanic video as she does every night. When Leonardo DiCaprio appears on screen she places her hand over her heart, cries, Leonardo, and hurls herself on the floor.
Kira is stirring minced garlic into a bubbly olive oil and butter mix. I inhale blissfully and phone my voicemail.
Um. . . this is April Kirkland. Um. I have some news I think you’d like to know. I hear the hesitation and think, Tally’s dead, the cancer came back.
As a teaching assistant in graduate school I was assigned to Tally, a young Doris Lessing scholar when nobody taught Lessing, the only woman I knew who always included books by women in her courses; for that matter the only one to mention the word woman. At first it made me uncomfortable. What was wrong with girl or chick?
April teaches with Tally. I try April’s number.
During the salad days of Berkeley feminism, April and I sat through a million meetings together, usually choosing opposite sides. After she came out as a lesbian, her politics shifted and she started apologizing every time we ran into each other—she seemed to like my old side better than her old side, whereas I wasn’t so sure. Not that I was wrong, but I was harsh.
April used to be tight with Suellen, the director of women’s studies: definitely the other side, though I’d admired her from the first minute we met and she said,Whenever I see a mother snap at her child in a grocery store, I make sure to smile at her sympathetically. Then she smiled beautifully, based on two kids of her own, a shy boy with piquant elfin looks, and a plump blond little amazon-in-training—in their twenties now. Or thirties? I admired Suellen but we never got close: too many opposite sides. Tally, of course, got along with every single person in Berkeley. Something about Southern charm.
No one answers, not even a machine.
– I’m afraid Tally died, I tell Leslie. I explain who Tally is. April. Suellen. Catching up new lovers is a fulltime job.
– No point worrying until you know. Maybe it’s good news. Some people like to break good news in person.
– Have we come to the point where the phone counts as ‘in person’?
When Titanic ends, Rosie is ready to rewind and start over, but we make a deal—if we can watch the documentary on Lou Reed that Kira taped, Rosie can watch Titanicagain. So there’s Lou, the androgynous sex object. There’s Maureen Tucker, girl drummer, there’s Andy Warhol, and there’s Sterling Morrison, the Velvets’ guitarist and my old buddy from City College. Ridiculously tall and bony, acne-pitted skin, stringy brown hair to his shoulders.
– Look, Leslie, I pinch her arm lightly. –Sterling and I took Greek History and Shakespeare together. We’d sit next to each other and trash the other students. We stayed up all night on speed, studying and smoking cigarettes.
– The same brand? Kira, a former smoker, knows enough to ask.
– Me Marlboro, him Viceroy. But after a while we merged.
– Ah, intimacy, says Kira.
– Once I went to see Sterling’s band at the Dom.
– Downtown, Leslie, a lifelong New Yorker, nods.
– He talked about his band in this offhand way, just fucking around, none of us can play except Cale, the Welsh violinist. I owned two skirts exactly alike, one black, one navy. I wore the black one and a sleeveless green sweater. It was winter but I was twenty and never cold. On the screen behind the band unfurled huge boring images of Nico, the Aryan vocalist who, Sterling said, was fucking Lou.
– It was great, I told Sterling Monday in Shakespeare. “Heroin,” “Waiting for the Man”—I didn’t do heavy drugs but I resonated to alienation—and the sweet absolution of “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” what every girl in those days yearned to offer the cynical, sneering, self-haters we all seemed to love.
– You liked it, he flashed a shy smile veering quickly towards a sneer. –We’re just fucking around.
Then I went to graduate school in California. I saw Sterling a couple of times when the Velvets came through. He was jealous: he wanted to go to graduate school.
– That’s ridiculous, I told him. – Everyone on the planet wants to be a rock star.
– I like scholarly journals, he insisted. – I like citations.
— Graduate school is addiction minus pleasure. All we do is pop tranquillizers and anti-spasmodics. The entire population of graduate school has colitis. We get tortured with triviality while the world is breaking apart in the hands of men with power and time to fuck it up.
We were sitting in the Velvet’s overheated hotel room in San Francisco. The band plus a couple of unidentifieds sat around stoned, watching TV with the color tuned wrong on purpose. Someone phoned room service, and after a while covered dishes appeared. Inside was creamed this and that, thickly sickly white.
Sterling gestured at the rolling tray tables. – We just stay in our rooms and order room service. Then we play and people scream. We can’t even hear the music, it’s all electronic. Sometimes we turn the feedback high just to bug the shit out of people.
He smiled the evil smile that had made my college best friend Emily melt to save him.
– Why do you want to bug them?
– Fans, he said., they’re so fucking stupid.
It’s Lou’s film and he is all over the screen, fleur du mal in drag, in leather, his face at once angelic and ravaged. Kids all over America head for New York to walk with Lou on the wild side.
– Why did you go to graduate school? Leslie asks me.
– School was the thing I was good at. It was my job.
– My Shakespeare teacher, Quinn. Sterling and I had him together. The first day of class he introduced Hamlet, where the guard says Halt; who goes? by explaining that guard duty in the army was the closest you got to an existential experience. Except for boredom, he added, after a minute. I loved that. Except for boredom. Then I saw him at an anti-war march. I wanted to fuck Quinn. Or be him, that’s really what I wanted.
A few years later I ran into Quinn, the Shakespearean-ex-soldier in New York.
– I see Sterling Morrison every so often, he volunteered, he’s in graduate school at—Stony Brook?
So Lou rocketed to stardom and the Velvets to—appropriately enough—underground cult status, and Sterling had his wish: valium, footnotes, the works. I came out as a lesbian and got fired from my first teaching job by a man who actually said he wanted someone in that position who he felt comfortable having lunch with. And this actually was not grounds for a complaint. I moved back and forth across the country with one demanding lover after another, writing, teaching part time, losing track of most of my old friends, especially the men.
There on the screen is Sterling in his early twenties, sliding his big hands up and down the guitar neck. To tell the truth it sounds good. My heart leaps cornily up to see him almost in the flesh after so long. When I moved back to New York a few years ago I’d see notices of Lou Reed performing. I kept thinking one of these days I’d contact Lou and find out where Sterling is. I always wondered if he turned out gay.
Interspersed with cuts of Lou, famous musicians and culture mongers comment about Lou, interview clips with the old band, John Cale, Maureen Tucker.
– Where’s Sterling? Why don’t they interview Sterling? I am growing miffed on his behalf.
Now here’s a clip from a Velvets reunion concert. Sterling at fifty, looking beautifully the same though older, hair shorter, scars faded. In his face the character of sharp bones, and across his chest, a text box: Sterling Morrison (1942-1995).
– He’s dead, I say, shocked and redundant.
– Explains the no interview, says Kira, but Leslie puts her arm around me.
– Sweetheart, she says.
– Who’s dead? Rosie asks.
– An old friend, see, the one with the big guitar. I always thought I’d track him down sometime. I always thought I’d see him again.
When the video ends, Rosie calls for more Titanic. Instead of coming attractions, this tape features Celine Dion singing “You Are Here in My Heart,” striking her breast as if we would otherwise miss its location.
I phone my voicemail: the high unmistakable voice of my best friend from those Berkeley years. It’s Donna, just calling to say hello. Like me, Donna returned from diaspora to Eretz New York. She just had her second bout with breast cancer, choosing, this time, a mastectomy.
I phone Donna, get her machine, leave a message, sit on the sofa with Kira and Rosie, watching Titanic. When the hot scene in the car begins, Rosie turns to us knowingly
–They ‘re S-E-X-ing, she explains, bigeyed with importance.
Before the iceberg, we take a food break, pasta slathered in garlic, and Rosie has hers plain with velveeta stirred in to melt.
I try April again, still no answer.
– Get a life, April. At least get a machine.
– She probably has a life, Leslie says, that’s why she’s not home.
Where the fuck is she? I’m remembering one particular women’s studies brawl, some skinny windowless classroom, a long table, and sitting around it. In addition to April and Donna and myself are maybe twenty women, all of whose political differences would fit in a matchbox, but we don’t understand that yet. Are we talking about capitalism or grades? At the head of the table, Suellen, the director, warns me to be realistic. She actually says, Grow Up, and I am about to hurl myself across the table at her throat. Years later I heard that Suellen had decided to be with men—perhaps an ecological trade-off with April, it occurs to me now—and she became a college dean, then the executive director of a well-heeled statewide non-profit. I was on unemployment for the fourth time and sniffed snobbishly at Suellen’s decisions.
–She’s not a mass murderer, Tally had teased. When Tally got school-marmish, her southern accent came on strong and her lips pursed humorously. I flash on Tally’s refusal to grade. Instead she typed comments for each student, a mini-letter signed Tally.
– It’s a lot of work, isn’t it? I’d asked dubiously.
– Well, I just realized a while back that trying to decide between a B and a B+ wasnot an activity worthy of an adult mind.
In the morning I head for the library where the librarian searches the internet for Sterling. All it says is he died of cancer; not even which kind. He had a wife and two children in Poughkeepsie. In a memorial article Lou Reed called him “the warrior heart of the Velvet Underground,” and I could just see Sterling’s mouth curve into a boundlessly mocking smile.
Then Kira drives me and Rosie to the beach, the bay side, to swim. We walk downhill to the water.
– Uh oh, Rosie says, – wedgie’s coming.
– What’s a wedgie?
– You know, when your bathingsuit or underpants get caught in your crack?
At the water I count to thirteen and jump in, the way I always do. Rosie does it, too. She is at that sponge age, when everything she sees offers possibility. She is already a strong, feisty swimmer. Even so, I circle back, stay close to her. We swim and giggle, we race each other with the dog paddle. We vie with one another inventing strokes: the pig, the camel.
After a while it’s time for Leslie to pick us up. We trudge back up the hill to a spot with bicycle racks, the only things to sit on.
– It’s not very comfortable, I say to Rosie.
– It’s not very comfortable, she repeats (and a few days later, when we walk by this spot she’ll say, Remember, it wasn’t very comfortable, and my stomach will clench with wanting Rosie to be my daughter. I’ll flash on my favorite postcard, a grief-stricken woman’s face from the genre of romance comics: I can’t believe it, her voice balloon says, I forgot to have children!!)
This time April is home.
– I thought you’d want to know, she tells me.
– Tally’s fine, April says. It’s Suellen.
– Suellen had a hysterectomy, April is saying, she was in constant pain. She thought about it very carefully and she decided to take her own life.
– Suellen killed herself? I cut in, flabbergasted.
– She was in a lot of pain, April says again. – She obviously had thought it through . . .
– I can’t believe it, I say again.
– She thought about it very carefully.
April and I do can’t believe-very carefully a few more times until I finally thank her for calling.
– I thought you’d like to know.
I sit there stunned, one minute? five? twenty? until the phone rings again. Donna, whom I love and have not lost. I tell her about Suellen.
– Where was she?
– I don’t know.
– Who was she with?
– I don’t know.
– Did she leave a note?
– I don’t know, I wail, embarrassed. – I was so focused on Tally and then Tally not being dead, I wasn’t thinking what to ask. I just kept thinking about Suellen’s kids.
– Me too. A whole life to live with a mother who killed herself.
I imagine Donna gripping the phone like the death-messenger it is, intimate compared with voicemail email TV internet faxes; at least one live person telling another about a third person whose life stopped. I imagine a camera, lens zooming back back back until it holds at its center the fat globe of Earth and all over the globe tiny people protrude, stuck by gravity, and they all hold phones through which they tell each other the familiar, shocking news of mortality. Then they hang up and keep walking on the tame side or the wild side, as if you always know which is which.