by Richard Burgin
By Richard Burgin
Lately, whenever I get up at night (for the usual reasons), I’ve gotten into the habit of writing down a line or two that spontaneously occurs to me as soon as I wake up. When I first write them down, these phrases often seem shockingly revelatory, but in the morning they invariably lose their impact and make only a small kind of private sense.
Opening my notebook, I see that last night’s entry was no exception. More babbling about time and death and infinity. As if that weren’t bad enough, I remember that Elle won’t be coming today to do any cleaning or cooking, and feeling unusually lazy and hungry, even by my standards, I decide to walk to Hooperman’s, a small Jewish delicatessen about a five minute walk from where I live. It’s still warm enough, even though it’s November in St. Louis, to sit at one of the tables outside where I can eat my brunch and temporarily feel more connected to the world.
While I’m sipping my coffee and eating my corned beef on rye, the oddest thing happens. A very expensively dressed women in black high heels and a purple blouse walks past me into the store. She has exquisitely coiffed hair and expertly applied makeup (not something you see too often in St. Louis) and looks like she was plucked from a Park Avenue dinner party in New York, directly into Hooperman’s. Of course I thought of Olympia, who did live on Park Avenue, whereas I always lived on the Upper West Side among the struggling writers and perpetually arguing intellectuals though I, myself, was a mere commercial photographer who kept his serious artistic aspirations largely to himself.
How did I meet Olympia? At a party in her honor in Sutton Place, where I had a kind of intermittent friendship with the host, Stephen Ivers, with whom I went to college back when it didn’t matter that his parents were ten times richer than mine because in college everyone believes they’ll eventually become wildly rich and famous. Stephen invited me essentially so I could photograph his event for very little money, which I still very much needed. There would also be many wealthy people from the art world, he assured me. He made it seem foolish or perverse to pass up such an opportunity.
Olympia, herself, was one of the more widely photographed women in the world and was almost as rich as she was famous. She’d also owned a lot of art though how many were gifts, how many paid for, was a subject of debate. She’d already inherited millions from her businessman father when he died, which she more than doubled as a Broadway producer, and then in her middle age (though no one ever thought of age as something that happened to Olympia) she went to Hollywood and produced several hit movies that made her considerably more money. There was a rumor that she was a silent partner with Stephen Spielberg in forming DreamWorks, but that was never completely confirmed.
Olympia was generally regarded as a kind of Renaissance tycoon. Many wondered that with her dark-haired beauty and extreme charisma (that she displayed on a plethora of talk shows) she didn’t act in movies herself. At times, it truly seemed she could do anything. But she also knew her limits. Perhaps her most indisputable gift, actually, and I say this without a hint of sarcasm, was as a creator of dinner parties where her exquisite taste in décor was only matched by her chef’s culinary creations. She was also regarded as an innovator for her unpredictable guest list and daring seating arrangements that often resulted in new deals of consequence being made before the evening ended. There were always famous show business people at her parties, but there would also be distinguished lawyers, scientists and writers—everyone from F. Lee Bailey to Woody Allen to Gloria Vanderbilt to Edward Albee. Olympia was a skilled conversationalist and a world class flatterer with the unfailing sense of just how risqué a joke to tell and, above all, how to act unfailingly interested in what her guests had to say.
Finally, Olympia was supremely gifted at cultivating the media (some of whom always attended her parties) so there was always a good chance that even her smallish dinners would be written about in the social pages of the largest newspapers, which people read then. (Television and the internet have since ushered in a different kind of less gentle gossip.)
Although Olympia had her share of controversies in both her private and public life, she never drank or took drugs, which made people admire her more, and because she was disciplined enough not to complain in public, people invariably sided with her and wanted to go to her parties even more. For many it was the social highlight of their year and, I suppose for many of them, one of the defining experiences of their lives.
I was putting away my camera toward the end of the evening when Olympia, whom I’d barely spoken to before, approached me.
“Marty, I’m so glad you could come. I adore your photographs. I’m just speechless with admiration.”
Having never received a compliment like that from anyone even close to her stature I was rendered pretty speechless myself.
“Marty, I wonder if, when it’s convenient for you, you could take a few more shots of me in my home. The publisher of my new memoir has been hounding me for some ‘personal images.’ You know, to compliment the text.”
“Of course, I’d be honored,” I said, immediately regretting how florid I sounded.
“Marvelous,” she said, flashing her most characteristic smile, the one always associated with a new success. “Then it’s settled. And by the way, I’ll make us a little lunch, if that’s alright.”
Then she gave me her card, and we agreed to meet three days later.
As soon as I was out of the building, I ran three blocks before getting a taxi, just to control my nervous energy. Then, ecstasy at my social coup was replaced by anxiety. I didn’t know what to wear; I didn’t know what to bring (beside my camera). I wouldn’t know what to talk about, either. Later, I sought council from my friends, whose advice widely varied. She had mentioned something about a bite to eat. Should I bring a bottle of wine?
Of course, too, I had read and heard the rumors about her amorous adventures with people who photographed or wrote about her, (sexually she was said to be quite wild) yet I didn’t let myself think too much about what she might want from me, beyond the shoot. It was just not the type of thing that happened to me, not that I was unattractive, just a bit unaggressive.
Finally, the grand day arrived as I entered her home—more like a palace than a townhouse. In the light of day, it was easier to see the intimidating photographs (all with tributes to her) of all the dignitaries and celebrities that lined the hallways. There was Elizabeth Taylor, Tennessee Williams. There was Brando and Arthur Miller. I think Olympia both enjoyed and sympathized with my situation as she poured me an exquisite Grey Goose vodka cocktail with a twist of lemon. The drink helped as did her fairly steady stream of compliments. She said she wanted most of the shots in her bedroom. After a few more minutes of conversation, we went there first.
Play it straight, I said to myself. If anything happens she must make the first move.
But did I want anything to happen? Clearly I’d love to have her as a friend, but beyond that I couldn’t imagine.
Though not overly large and more comfortable looking that one might have imagined—her room was imaginatively decorated as purple, orange, and red somehow co-existed harmoniously. There were none of her photographs on the walls, but I did notice two wooden dolls on her bed, one boy and one girl, each about 10 and dressed as if going to school. I assumed they were hand carved in Switzerland or some other Scandinavian country. They were beautiful dolls but had a strange, almost overly sensitive expression in their eyes, as if they were young actors in an Ingmar Bergman film. I was going to ask her about the dolls, but she looked a bit concerned when I mentioned them, so I never discovered their origin. Later, I noticed that they were always on the bed table when we made love but never when she threw her parties.
“Well, I think we’ve taken enough shots,” she said, looking me straight in the eye.
“Yes,” was all I could manage.
“Would you like to spend any more time with me?” she said, lightly. I noticed she was wearing her purple blouse. It was as if she suddenly came into focus as a beautiful woman, no matter how old she actually was.
“Sure. I’d love to.”
“Would you like to go to the living room or stay here?”
I hesitated, as I often had when my mother would ask me a tricky question.
“Personally, I’d like to stay here,” she said, “especially if we could lie down.”
A moment later she shut off the lights, and we began kissing. A state of half-darkness was de rigueur for Olympia to make love. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the bed, the two dolls sat together as if conspiring.
When I got home and invariably thought about last night, I felt strangely happy, energized, even proud. But true to my worrying nature (that my father correctly told me I’d inherited from my mother), I began to see negatives and started to worry. There was not only the vast difference of fame and wealth between us but she was considerably older than me as well. The very thing that made our relationship possible (the fact that I was much younger than her, which made her desire me) also made it inconceivable. Her age was something we never mentioned, as if it were something that only happened to other people. But other people did discuss Olympia’s age, though mainly to marvel at how young she looked. She’d obviously had some world-class work done on her face so people naturally wondered who and where and how exactly it had been accomplished, as if it had been a kind of sacred miracle. To a certain kind of rich person, the doctors who could do that were only a step from God themselves.
Like so many things in life, our first days were the best. We talked much more easily—she about various celebrated people, me mostly about my family. I remember enjoying that Olympia (unlike my mother, who was a world-class monologist) listened to me and even remembered the names of people I told her about as well as their roles in my life. Still, the central thing in our relationship was sex, where she was extraordinarily giving and adept in her own way, (especially considering her age) definitely a kind of innovator, at least in my modest experience.
I told very few people about Olympia, instinctively, feeling she wanted it to be private. One friend I did tell actually shook my hand and said “congratulations,” as if I’d just gotten a great review in The New York Times.
In those first few days, our relationship quietly amazed me. I was grateful; I was touched; but I always thought about her age, could never forget it though she looked beautiful and 20-25 years younger than she was. Still, the number repeated itself in my head like a mantra.
“Darling, I love you in bed,” Olympia said one night on the phone, “but this has got to be more than that.”
I knew what she meant, of course, but said nothing.
“We need to start seeing each other more than once a week, sweetheart, don’t you think?”
“Of course,” I said.
A short time later, we started going to expensive restaurants for dinners that she quietly paid for by slipping me the cash for them just before we left for her place. Meanwhile, I continued to be her guest at all her dinner parties and accompanied her to various events ranging from art openings at the Met, to Broadway shows, to parties thrown by some of her endless stream of eminent friends. I was socially inexperienced, certainly by her standards, and once left her alone too long at a wedding reception in the Hamptons for which I was bitterly scolded by Olympia. Being alone for any length of time always seemed to terrify her. There was also the issue of my limited and therefore repetitious wardrobe. I remember that Olympia tried to partially remedy that situation by gifting me with an expensive sports jacket, cashmere sweaters and a black and gold romantically inscribed watch. Again, I was touched. I was enjoying her on many different levels, but her age continued repeating itself inside my head accompanied by a strange sense of guilt. Neither of us ever talked about it. I sometimes felt like telling certain people at the parties who occasionally gave me skeptical looks that virtually all my past relationships were with age-appropriate women who weren’t multimillionaires either and that I was drawn, like most men, to women who were younger. Moreover, I’d had an essentially good relationship with my mother, though she was admittedly somewhat possessive of me and that I was, when all was said and done, a healthy heterosexual hoping to find a serious partner with whom I could eventually have a child.
Meanwhile, as I was having these thoughts, time was passing, and I was also getting older but without the cash to “halve” my own age as Olympia had. I hated myself for thinking about her age all the time, (How disappointingly bourgeois of me, I thought.) especially since I knew I had strong feelings for her of some kind, yet I couldn’t help it. And so I continued my New York social life with her as her, by now, absurdly undistinguished constant companion. My name began to appear occasionally in the notorious Page Six of the Post. Worse of all, chatting with Norman Mailer or Dianne von Furstenberg excited me in spite of the ultra liberal, almost Marxist way, I was brought up my by idealistic father.
“Are you being faithful to me, darling?” Olympia suddenly asked while we were lying in bed (next to her dolls) watching TV in the half dark.
“Of course,” I said, lying in a fairly convincing way, I thought.
“Well, I know how men are, and you’re such a sexual person that I guess I’d understand.”
“But I just told you I’m being faithful. Are you?” I said in an anxious voice that surprised me.
“Of course, sweetheart, I love being faithful to you. I think monogamy is a beautiful thing.”
I didn’t bring up, of course, the celebrated love triangles she’d been a part of, although those were years in the past.
“If I’d met you 15 years ago you wouldn’t give me the time of day,” I said.
“Of course I would. That’s a ridiculous thing to say and also quiet cruel, darling.”
“Olympia, we both know it’s true.”
“I would definitely give you the time of day and a lot more besides. Want me to show you right now, darling?”
I really didn’t “cheat” on Olympia much, and never with anyone that could lead to anything serious. When I told one woman that I knew Olympia, she seemed more interested in her for the rest of the night than in me, even after we had sex. I think there was a naïve or silly part of me that was fascinated that someone as renowned as Olympia could be cheated on by such an obscure being as me. But it wasn’t just that. The age thing was always there, too.
In bed, she often allowed me to be the dominant one (which excited both of us) as we explored numerous fantasies. When it was time for orgasms, however, ours became a largely oral arrangement. (Intercourse sometimes hurt her and so we eventually abandoned it.) She was, however, superb and open to all kinds of experiments as long as they happened in the half dark (which I quickly realized was her one admitted vulnerability, namely what she considered the slackness of her flesh) and so she used lighting and silk robes wrapped at strategic angles to camouflage it. It made for a little awkwardness but nothing serious. Besides, I was having all kinds of intoxicating taboo sex with a world-famous woman (and fame ultimately trumps age, especially when the older woman looks and often acts so much younger). I sometimes thought that famous people are more alive than the rest of the species because they’re the people the masses focus on so much. It’s odd to watch so many people giving over their time (the only asset they really have) to vampiristically following the lives of the stars, the expensively created and very expensively maintained “beautiful people” as they used to be called.
When we were alone in her apartment (she actually owned two in the building, but the street-level one was strictly for business) we often ate Chinese food or sometimes simple dishes that she cooked. We talked a lot about our pasts, then. She talked of her famous husbands (she’d had four of them) and her regret that she never had a child. I talked about my family, my always-traveling father, my sister, who I now rarely saw, and my mother who I saw too much, I suppose—at least Olympia thought so.
Once when I was drinking Grey Goose and talking about my mother, I started to tear up a little and Olympia got alarmed. Strong expressions of emotion that didn’t take place during sex alarmed her.
“Darling, please stop,” she said, putting her hand on my knee. “You have me now.”
I looked at her long fingers. I was struck by how thin they looked and how old. That was one part you couldn’t get work on to look younger, and so it was like they belonged to a different person, these aged pianist’s fingers that looked 25-years older than the rest of her. Yet they felt oddly comforting on my knee as if they’d always belonged there. Later, she told me how she’d been abused in two of her marriages. It was a heart-breaking story.
“I love you,” I heard myself say.
“I love you, too, darling.”
I was going to say some variation of if you met me 15 years ago, you wouldn’t give me the time of day, but I didn’t. (I knew it was true, anyway, and so just let it be.)
*** *** ***
Since I liked to watch sports or political talk shows and she old movies or reality TV shows, (one of which she had co-created or co-produced,) we often watched TV in separate rooms. Once, thinking she was lonely, as I was, I walked into her room. Her TV was on mute and her bed table light was off. I soon realized she was asleep. At last, Olympia alone and unprotected, unless one counted the dolls now positioned on her bed table that seemed to be guarding her. I gave in suddenly to a powerful urge to study her face up close and slowly approached her in her enormous bed. For several seconds I watched her sleeping face, now free of makeup. Her eyes were closed, but her face still looked lovely, though older, of course. I was fascinated, as if I were viewing a sacred exhibit in a museum.
Suddenly the bed table light went on as if her dolls had warned her.
“What are you doing?” she said, folding her hands over her eyes like a bird folding up its wings.
“I just came in to visit you.”
“You were staring at me, weren’t you? Did you take a picture, too? Others have, you know and then sold them.”
“God no. It was nothing like that.”
“Don’t ever do that to me again. Sneaking up on me while I was sleeping.”
“No, of course, I promise I won’t ever do that again.”
“I can’t bear it when people do that to me. That’s why I’ve stopped sleeping next to men. I thought we had an understanding about that.”
She turned, still covering her face. “I thought I could trust you but obviously not.”
“You can trust me.”
“So, did you get your money’s worth?”
“What do you mean?”
“Was it too terrible what you saw?”
“No, of course not. You looked beautiful.”
“You won’t get nightmares tonight?”
I laughed a little, “you looked beautiful. You really did. You always do.”
Finally she turned to face me, holding out her arms to hug me. “Oh, I can’t bear to be angry at you—you’re far too lovely a boy.”
At 40, it was the first time I’d been called a boy in years, and I kind of liked it.
“You must swear on your mother’s grave to never do that again,” she continued. “Knowing how important she is to you, I’ll know you’ll mean it.”
“I swear…on her grave.” (Although, my mother was still alive.)
“I’m sure from what you’ve told me she wouldn’t like it either.”
It was our worst fight, though not our last one. She sometimes correctly accused me of subtly flirting with a few of her younger female guests at the parties though she once sat in the back seat of a limo kissing and fondling a powerful director she’d once produced a movie with, while I just sat silently next to them trying to look at the street but for the most part failing.
When we finally got home (meaning her home, of course) I said, “You have quite the double standard, don’t you?”
She laughed one of her stage laughs.
“Do you mean in the limo?”
“Yes, I do.”
“That made you jealous?”
“I did feel a little neglected.”
She forced out another fake laugh. “But darling, he’s 81-years-old. You can’t be jealous of him. We kiss just as a kind of joke now, an act of kindness on my part.”
“He’s extremely powerful, famous, and wealthy.”
“But sweetheart, so am I. You’re being ridiculous. Now come into my room. I think I know just the cure for you.”
*** *** ***
“Darling, I’ve been thinking about your career and what can we do to get your work known by more people.” She was referencing to the work I secretly considered my “art.”
“There’s no magazine that will publish them and no newspaper, either,” I said, matter-of-fact.
“But sweetheart, you mustn’t think so small. Your photographs are too good for any magazines. They belong in a gallery. In Lee Withkin’s or Castelli.”
“Leo Castelli’s gonna have a show of my neo-realist work? Are you serious?”
“Yes, why wouldn’t he?”
“Because he’s the king maker of the avant-garde. Ever heard of Pop Art? He discovered it or was the first to showcase it.”
I looked at Olympia who appeared to be figuring something out.
“Well, maybe not Leo, though I always thought he rather liked me, but I’ve thought of someone else who’s just as good as Leo, if not better. Someone who owes me a favor.” (Olympia’s term for someone she had sex with.)
“Who’s this?” I asked, not believing her plan, based as it was on long-ago sex, with a socialite would amount to anything in an increasingly cash-needy art world.
“Just leave it to me, darling. I’ll take you there,” she said with quiet conviction. Except during sex she wasn’t one to raise her voice. She didn’t exactly take me there, but she did get me a kind of show. She found a respectable gallery owner uptown who agreed to a show of “Selected Works from the Collection of Olympia.” I was moved and bought her a scarf and an expensive necklace (At least expensive by my standards. I had always been determined to spend as much money on her as she did on me. I wouldn’t take advantage, I vowed to myself.)
The show featured seven of my works and also, as I expected, a much larger number of photographs and paintings of her friends from Annie Leibovitz to Robert Mapplethorpe. She said it was the gallery’s idea to feature so many works about her to give the show “thematic unity.” It was probably true but despite being dwarfed by such celebrated company, I was very grateful though I received only a mildly enthusiastic mention or two in the review, that mostly centered on Olympia’s “fabulous career.” (No one seemed to notice the fact that she had merely bought the art, not created it.)
As she had done with such skill in the past, Olympia had the uncanny ability to appear to be doing you a favor while actually benefiting more from it herself. This was extremely evident at the party she threw for the gallery. Though I was supposed to be the guest of honor, everything soon centered around Olympia. Shortly thereafter, I began to realize that my desire for her was waning. Part of it was her ever more frequent mood swings. As it was near Thanksgiving she blamed the dreaded holidays. The mood swings often occurred right after her parties, as if she were crashing from a drug and sometimes they culminated in quiet crying. Other times, in rages directed at various show biz rivals. I began to see her less and less as a vibrant spirit and more as a prima donna or in today’s parlance as a self-pitying diva. She was asking me less and less about myself, and when I answered a rare question about my life she seemed to be paying only perfunctory attention. Also, she wasn’t only looking older, she was clearly getting older, too. We still had sex, but not as often or as well.
I had been with Olympia over three years now and was getting older myself and began to think virtually every day about how I could extricate myself from her and return to my anonymous life as a low-level professor and moderately accomplished photographer living among my brethren in the Upper West Side. Someone who had a gallery downtown and who knew about me and Olympia offered me a show centered around “The Private World of Olympia.” My prime role, I surmised, would be to solicit art from her innumerable friends, which the gallery owner assumed I knew. Even if I did know many of them, it was an entirely superficial knowledge (I being more of a curiosity to them than anything else) and at any rate, I was now too proud and angry to accept the premise of the show.
Meanwhile, Olympia, who never liked Christmas, despite its accelerated social schedule, was complaining more than usual about “the horror of the holidays.” One night she told me why. Olympia had always wanted a baby (I knew that before I met her) but only one of her husbands was willing. While watching the news on TV, she’d just found out that that ex-husband had suddenly died. She was lying in bed, in her purple silk bathrobe, head up on three satin pillows, holding her favorite dolls up while she continued to stare at the TV, though the news item was no longer on.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, taking her hand.
She released hers after a few seconds. It felt cold like a mummy’s.
“I can’t believe Christian’s gone. He was the love of my life.”
I had heard her say this about at least three of her husbands. I didn’t think she’d seen Christian in at least ten years. He was only a minor actor in the movies—the least successful of her husbands which, it was rumored, was why they’d divorced.
“Christian was right,” she cried out, “why didn’t I see it?”
“Right about what?”
She looked at me as she’d never looked before, and I realized she wasn’t acting.
“We could have had a baby. He wanted one, too.”
I nodded, feeling especially stupid.
“I had so many chances and yet I didn’t do it. Instead I had three abortions,” she said, almost yelling as she held out three of her long, thin, fingers as if each were a chance or a child.
“Now I’m old,” she whispered. But because she whispered it, I wasn’t sure she’d actually said the word “old.”
She got up from the bed, and I followed her out to the living room.
I did my best to comfort her that night while I listened to her memories of Christian mixed in, like one of the masterful salads her chef made, with fantasies of herself as a mother. She described herself walking in central park with her little boy and girl “because,” as she said, “she always wanted one of each.”
“It’s funny,” she said to me later that night, “a mother is all I really wanted to be. And Christian saw that, he saw what was really inside me.”
I looked at her, standing by photographs she must have recently hung of Judy Garland on one side, Switty Lazaar on the other. It was hard to picture her sans her show business life.
“And for that crushing insight, I punished him horribly.”
For a moment she looked at a newly placed photograph Richard Avedon had taken of her.
“Of course. I felt such guilt about it, which people felt in those days. In my sillier moments, I used to worry that people thought I was frigid.”
“Frigid? You? Hardly.”
“Yes, but people might have thought so with four husbands and no children.”
“What would being frigid have to do with it?”
“That I wasn’t having sex because I didn’t like it, which is why I didn’t have any children. Don’t you see? I heard people gossip about it at parties.”
“You heard it.”
“Well, my spies did. You must always have spies when you’re well known in New York. Anyway, later as the press got freer…”
“You mean more vulgar.”
She smiled, “yes, more vulgar, they began to write or at least imply that I was infertile, when nothing could be further from the truth, of course. You have to understand, it was a different time, then.”
“No, not so different,” I said, softly, though secretly I agreed with her.
“Abortion was an unspeakable sin—it was regarded as nothing less than murder. And yet I did it for my husbands. They said it would ruin my career if I didn’t but what they really meant was their careers. Christian alone loved me for who I really was or could be, but I destroyed that, too.”
“Because he was too young and handsome. And I was jealous and people told me in one way or another, that he was only after my money. Someone is always after something, aren’t they? Of course I don’t mean you, sweetheart,” she added, in a strangely brittle voice. “But, fool that I was, I believed them because of my own ridiculous fears. Well, maybe not so ridiculous. People have always been after my money. Anyway, I felt I had to cheat on him to leave him. When he found out he cried like a baby and then took an overdose.”
“Did he die?” I asked stupidly.
“No, he was saved! But are we ever really saved? He lived all these years later and now he’s dead anyway. Though he did manage to finally marry and have three children, which is more than I can say.”
I used to think Olympia was like a fortress. Now I started to see gaps in her construction, some of which time itself had created.
We talked on into the night, not even turning on a light. Later I noticed that the dolls were gone, and I actually never saw them again.
…Something became still more profoundly different between us now. It was as if she no longer felt the need to act pleasant around me or to act at all. Was she still mourning Christian or perhaps was deeply regretful that she’d exposed herself to me. Was I, after all, the right kind of person to do that to? And if I were did it mean that in some way she needed me, perhaps in her own way was in love with me, something she feared as much as me. The possibility of that was disturbing, also the possibility that in some way, which would never be good for me, I might love her, too. I closed my eyes and pictured myself always escorting her to parties or museum openings, events at which I’d either be pitied or ignored. The next thing I knew, I was phoning my mother (who Olympia always said I worried about too much) and talked to her for a very long time. It was shortly after that I began pursing teaching jobs, however lowly and humiliating they might be, and would up taking one as a visiting lecturer at a junior college in Missouri.
I was very lonely that first year and didn’t expect to hear from Olympia (who was furious that I left New York) but she started writing and then calling me and eventually surprised me by flying out to visit. It seemed especially odd in a way since she’d only come to my apartment in New York a handful of times. There were reasons for that, however, just as there were reasons why she would only visit me in Missouri once. Despite my hiring a cleaning service in each state before her visits, there were too many amenities (Olympia called them “basics”) missing in each place. I.E.I didn’t have enough chairs—and no comfortable ones—my desk was buried under a chaos of papers, nor did I have much concept of a sofa and my kitchen in Olympia’s words was “like an undeveloped country.”
Still, her visit was far from a disaster, and I was glad for it. We did have one fight, shorter but also more bitter than we used to have. We also had what I considered essentially successful sex though we only did it once and found excuses that seemed relatively convincing why we couldn’t do it more often. I was surprised, at the end, when she asked me to visit her in New York, surprised, too, that I thought I saw her fingers tremble. It was obvious that I’d had to go and I insisted that I pay. Less than a week later she sent me tickets for the following week along with a new watch. This meant I had to buy her at least a bracelet, which nearly broke my bank account.
Nothing terrible happened during my New York visit, either, unless one counted her typical traumas endemic to her social circle. As usual, I stayed in the background at the parties though she seemed to enjoy showing me off in a physical sort of way. She no longer introduced me as a photographer or even as her collaborator (though, it’s true we’d collaborated on very little.)
After I returned to Missouri, she continued her habits of sending me clips from The New York Times with a brief note attached saying, “I thought this would interest you.” Often they were articles centered around the need for young adults to break away from their parents and not only physically but economically and to a degree emotionally, too. Apparently, Olympia thought I was still too close to my mother, though I was now three thousand miles away.
Time passed and I began to feel more at home in my job. (I was destined to be a steady but unspectacular professor.) Olympia and I still called each other once or twice a month. We always said we loved each other on the phone, yet I often felt we were like two actors playing the part of lovers whose affair was already over hundreds of nights ago and was now as absent as her dolls that were still hidden or perhaps lost but, in any case, missing, and which she never talked about again. (Once I dreamed they were in a bed with us and we were all waking up together, but I never told Olympia about the dream).
*** *** ***
…The elegant shopper finally leaves Hooperman’s holding a shopping bag, her jacket unbuttoned. I find myself turning to see her purple blouse. I also wanted to see her face, but she was wearing dark sunglasses. Now I felt a sense of frustration, though at my age, frustrations never last too long, except our frustrations at time itself, perhaps. A month ago my mother died, while Olympia, to judge by the social pages she occasionally still sends me without comment, is still going strong. Sometimes, I get the feeling that Olympia will live forever as she herself predicted (albeit half jokingly) several times. I used to think my mother would as well. Come to think of it, I never really pictured myself dying either. Now that my mother has died, my feelings about all this have changed, and I know that Olympia and I will also both die, though in very different ways with very different people near us. She with many famous people around her, of course, me with just my sister, if she’s still alive, and a college or two from my university. (I never married or had a child.)
Still, I marvel that Olympia and I are both alive (which sometimes puts a smile on my face) and that for awhile, at least, we managed to share an adventure that for some reason life decided we should go through together, or as together as people like us could ever be.