First Susan Sontag: way back 30 years ago, a few seconds ago, my girlfriend was a…do I say? am I breaching thin confidentiality? or like everything else, are enough people dead, that it doesn’t matter? It won’t for this, but will for other parts.
As my young son says when I tell him a story, though none yet like this: begin again. If only I could.
My girlfriend then — Louise — in those early 80s, she was in the ballet, a performer, a dancer, one of the best in the world, a secret alcoholic and eventual drug user — I didn’t knew about either till after we divorced — I was naive about that one thing, and perhaps a few more.
At this time of Susan Sontag, Louise was a key member, an incredible athlete in a dance company, performing avante garde opera all over the world: Berlin, Paris, London, Tokyo, the Brooklyn Academy of Music — before Brooklyn became the center of artisinal everything. As an aside: no nostalgia for old New York is worth anything; that old bit of Brooklyn was still a dangerous place and not in the ‘you should have seen this 10 minutes ago when I moved here, you had to walk 7 blocks for a Gowanus Cod Taco, and now — delivery!’ no, that old Brooklyn, my old Brooklyn, was the Brooklyn of unlit subway cars when finally they came, bodies in the gutter, burnt out buildings, and vibratingly dangerous neighborhoods not to set foot in. That’s an old New York story still going on. But I digress.
Louise, Lou, her famous troupe: it was headed by an austere choreographer; and in what was our pattern, Louise was pounding on me to change, to improve. In this newest barrage to renovate our loft, my waterfront studio; and so instead of doing my own work, my life, my commerce, my trade, I hired the only drunken Texas assholes I could find — to help me tear the roof off, to scavange replacements for the 15’ tall broken windows, to install sprung wide board floors, skylights, a less spartan kitchen, though the fiery range suited me just fine, and various other things. I was in over my head, the Texans gone after I stole back my tools, guitars, and artwork; the confrontation required me to swing my 4’ piece of rebar, — note for the curious — wrap both ends in leather for a better grip. It was a rough neighborhood.
That winter was atypically frigid and with the roof partly open and many windows off, snow fell in; we had drifts in our living space, and though I was making good progress, we had a coal stove that burned hot, and I was loving the adventure, my Louise didn’t like coming home to it. I usually had a romantic dinner waiting, I worked as a cook then too, yet she was coming back later and later, and told her people why; they were taken aback by this different kind of art life, as if there were a universal template. So her austere cipher of a choreographer offered us 2 months of living in her Soho loft, since she was in Paris for the winter. And so off we went, into Manhattan.
I’d go back every day to work on our place, and at nightfall, would bike or take the train back to the still somewhat barren Soho. The borrowed loft of the cipher could be slightly decoded from her home; it was a mark of something to let us stay; she was very close to Louise, they both were secretive and complicit it seemed, but in what? their work? no, something else I didn’t discern then. The choreographer had insisted on meeting me again which was reasonable; and I felt honored she had offered her home. It was mostly me going to be there anyway, which she understood; she was used to being taken care of and sought it out; and it made her as comfortable as she could get, to see that I was a caretaker; that I was giving Louise the lifeblood she needed; that was their commonality; and that I would take care of her spartan un-needful loft. The choreographer was astute; I was not.
Louise would usually be gone if I was there, and I’d be asleep when she’d come in late, after whatever living she was having in her late night art life; she’d be asleep when I left early the next morning. It was not going well, nor did it ever.
And one day, as I left, I found a note on the table inside the entrance to the loft, with a galley copy of Philip Roth’s, Zuckerman Bound, which was being published the next year, the note saying, ‘I know you’ll like this’. That was a delightful change, a small thaw. I started reading it that night, and fell asleep; Louise came in and was asleep when I left. I left her a note on that same table by the entrance, thanking her, and saying we should coordinate schedules, she left me a note saying that she’d like that immensely, but her work schedule was tough, we went back and forth with a few endearments, I thought the ice was melting, and indeed it was when she left me a note saying that she had booked us the table by the fireplace for that Friday night at Savoy, an intimate fine romantic restaurant where I’d always wanted to take her. I was ecstatic that she felt she could swing that for us — a huge gesture.
I said to the hostess I was meeting my girlfriend at that table by the fireplace, and she looked at me questioningly as I strode past, and there was Susan Sontag sitting at my table. Of course I recognized her, and said nicely that my girlfriend had booked us this table, she replied emphatically and haughtily, that she herself had booked this table for that evening and I was mistaken. I was in my 20s, self assured and reasonable — I am none of those now — and turned to the hostess who had followed, to help sort it out; the 2 of us walked back to the front of the restaurant, where she said, in fact Susan Sontag HAD booked that table, and there was no reservation from my girlfriend on that day, or any subsequent day. This all prior to cellphones of course.
And I went back to apologize to Susan Sontag, and she was very gracious as I made some comment about how I must have gotten the restaurant name wrong, and I pulled out my note to check to see what I had misunderstood, but it said Savoy, and Susan Sontag made a noise, because of course SHE had written that note, and then she said wildly, ‘sit down, why do you have this, who are you’, and she looked around a little bit distractedly.
Unsure, I explained my girlfriend and I were having a rough patch, we were living in a borrowed loft a few blocks away, and then Susan Sontag started to laugh, and we figured it out; and I laughed as well, doubled over, and Susan told me to sit down and have dinner with her as we both had no place else to be.
I had been trading love notes with Susan Sontag. Susan Sontag and the choreographer whose loft we were in, were gradually entering a romance; Susan Sontag had keys and was dropping off messages and a gift of the galleys, not knowing that the austere cipher was gone for 2 months. I hadn’t noticed the slightly different handwriting, it was close enough, because why would anyone have access to this most private person’s loft? why would anyone but the 2 of us be able to put a note out for each other? and a new Philip Roth book? tailor made for me; as well as Savoy, and careful endearments.
Susan Sontag was pleased to talk to me, a well read youngster, an artist, who had read her work; and was intersted in hearing about what it was like living in the loft of her new love — their romance didn’t last either. She liked my untutored urban way, and wide reading; and gave me lots of advice and information, which I still draw upon, some of which included to wait until I was past 50 to tell this. And a reading list, some of which I knew, most of which I didn’t.
We had a delicious meal and she figured out that I could cook and read and build things, and that I could talk and ask her questions and laugh and keep my mouth shut in a particular New York manner, and I could see her filing that away. We knew we’d see each other again through the women that couldn’t love us and we said we’d compare notes after and we did.