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.”

“I’m sorry.”

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.”

“The abortions?”

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.

The Chill

by Richard Burgin

A man walks into a bar and decides that he will tell a joke beginning with those exact words–“A man walks into a bar.”– He feels that he’s really been a kind of crypto-comedian all his life and wants a chance to show it, if only to the people seated at the bar. Just before he opens the door, he realizes that he’ll let in too much cold air. He shuts the door before he even tells a single joke. Instead he takes a walk up Chestnut Street and thinks about his childhood as if the wind blew it forcefully into his mind. He remembers pulling his blanket up over his ears when it was cold and how he felt like he was in a tomb of ice.

One night when he couldn’t sleep because he felt so cold, he called for his father and told him his problem. His father opened his closet door and put three more blankets over him. When that still didn’t work, his father started telling him silly jokes one after another, like “Do you know why the basketball died? Because it was shot so many times.” He laughed after every joke his father told, and kept asking for more. Just before his eyes closed, he saw his father tiptoeing out of the room. It was perhaps his favorite memory.

“The wind lives in a seashell,” his mother told him at Revere Beach. “Put the shell over your ear and you can hear it talking.”

He did what his mother said and heard the wind.

“Does the wind have a family or does it live alone?”

She looked at him as if he’d asked the wrong question. He knew then that she didn’t know. That no one did.

His parents had let him go to the movies by himself in Boston. His house was only ten minutes away by streetcar but still he had the feeling of having taken a substantial journey, and because he was by himself, he felt both excited and a little nervous. It was late fall, and the wind blew leaves around the Boston Common. He knew he should take the subway home now but instead looked around at the vast green lawns of the park while dodging the leaves that occasionally flew toward him like little birds. Suddenly, he saw two teenage boys fighting a third who appeared to have a dog leash tied around his neck. Then a new figure approached him, older and larger with wild green eyes but vague features, as if his face were made of watercolors.

“Wanna take a walk with me?” the man said, holding a different leash.

He started running down Beacon Street as fast as he could without once looking back. Good thing he didn’t pick the park to run through as it was mysteriously empty except for the fighting boys and the man who was half-yelling, half-laughing at them.

The wind has its own sound but it’s also part of every other sound. The dinosaurs heard it –they just didn’t write poems about it, he thought. He remembered the way the sink faucets moaned in his parents’ cellar. It was a muted but oddly terrifying sound, like a devil choking. But one afternoon, when he was alone in the cellar, he heard it in a different way and didn’t run upstairs. Instead, he kept pulling himself wildly knowing that this time he wouldn’t stop until he exploded. He could feel it piercing forward like a hot wind building inside him. Then it spilled out onto the cellar floor. He stood over it, astonished, as if it were both dead and alive.

A man walks into a college talent show. He is a student living away from home who thinks he has a gift for making people connect through humor. He tells some mild sex jokes, some observational humor à la Jerry Seinfeld, but steers clear of politics and religion. Things are going pretty well until he starts to shiver. He becomes afraid that the audience will notice it and be distracted from his monologue. He begins to think more about his shivering than his jokes and starts to lose the audience. Later some of his friends tell him he was funny, but he knows they’re lying. It is the last show he ever performs in public.

Shortly after college, after he moved to Philadelphia and began working at an insurance company, he felt the chill again. It was as if it had been following him since his childhood and had finally tracked him down. He was returning from a restaurant when he felt it pass through him like a small, violent wind. Since there was a kind of wind tunnel near his apartment where he was walking, he didn’t think much of it, figuring it was something that would go away in a few seconds. But the cold persisted even after he walked into his lobby and paid his respects to the doorman. He self-consciously paced around to lessen the chill that seemed to have targeted him, especially his neck.

It didn’t get better in the elevator; in fact, if anything, it got worse. Fortunately, there were no other passengers, so he could press himself against the wall to try to create a feeling of warmth. Shortly, though, he realized that was only an illusion.

He wondered if anyone else felt it. The doorman didn’t look any different bent over his racing forms, but how often did he really look at the doorman in a careful way? So he couldn’t really evaluate the doorman’s behavior.

What about the people on the streets? Any unusual activity there? Again, he hadn’t noticed, but ever since he moved to Philadelphia by himself he’d followed his parents’ advice to look straight ahead and never make eye contact with a stranger, though, of course, almost everyone was a stranger.

He began using a lot of blankets at night and wearing a heavy shirt over his sweatpants, but it made little difference. It was as if, ghostlike, the wind had invaded a part of him just above the base of his neck, where it couldn’t be dislodged.

Soon he started seeing doctors. When he let each doctor touch his chill spot, or, more accurately, the chill’s ostensible port of entry (since he felt the coldness internally as opposed to on the surface of his skin), they told him they couldn’t detect any difference in temperature between his neck and any other part of him. He soon decided the doctors were as useless as rocks in the desert.

Then his dreams began, first about the doctors, then about the chill itself. In one dream he was running from the chill, looking over his shoulder at it as he ran towards his apartment. The last time he looked, he saw a face forming on it but he couldn’t recognize it. It didn’t really look like a human face and yet it was nonetheless strangely familiar. If he had a close friend in the building or even in the city or if his parents were in Philadelphia, of course, he would have screamed their name. He thought of the phrase “Life is a scream” as if it were skywriting made by an invisible plane. He pictured his doorman bent over his racing form. Everyone was always monitoring their luck. They had their luck, and he had his chill. He was running so hard now that he felt he was burning–burning and freezing simultaneously.

When he woke up and focused his eyes he was completely dressed, sitting on his couch, no longer sure if he had really been chased by the chill or if he’d dreamed it. He was breathing heavily, panting like an animal, slowly trying to retrieve his breath.

He called his friend Fennel on the phone who told him perhaps he needed to get online and meet a woman. Obvious advice, of course, but coming from Fennel, his best and only friend, it had impact–enough for him to join dating sites and to devote some free time each day to looking at profiles and sending out his own.

There was a woman named Vicky whose kind of cheerful aggression appealed to him– frankly, since he’d left home for Philadelphia, he’d lost some of his own. Also, her emails were kind of funny; perhaps she would discover his “inner comedian,” as he now thought of it.

She suggested a place in Rittenhouse Square he hadn’t heard of, but then, although he ate out at least one meal every day, he hadn’t been keeping track of any restaurant names. The place turned out to be lively and not too pricey– an excellent and considerate choice on her part.

She wore black designer jeans with a classy pink top. He could see she had a good body. She smiled and laughed a lot, but not too much. She seemed to have a lot of experience with quiet men like him. She worked as a legal secretary but wanted to write children’s and young adult books–maybe one day start a small publishing company of some kind. After a glass of wine, he admitted that he wanted to be a comedian and hadn’t completely given up the dream yet.

She thought this was “marvelous,” clapped her hands, and literally squealed with delight. Not since his mother had a woman reacted with such enthusiasm to something he said.

“You’re amazing!” she exclaimed.

Instinctively, he turned away. He didn’t want her to see that he felt he was in love with her already.

“You’re probably wondering why I haven’t said anything funny so far.”

“First of all you have–in a low key kind of way, and I like low key. And second, I know you comedians are often serious people who make comedy out of your pain.”

That seemed to open the door even wider and they began to confide more things in each other–especially her. She told him she was just starting to date again after a long relationship.

“That’s rough,” he said knowingly, although his longest relationship was scarcely a month. After two more glasses of wine he invited her to dinner.

“I’ve got an idea. My place is only a couple of blocks from here. Why don’t you let me fix you some food,” she said.

“No, I couldn’t let you do that.”

“But I’d love to. I have some Chinese and some really nice French hors d’oeuvres. Believe me, they’re too scrumptious–it’ll wreck my diet if you don’t help me eat them.”

He looked genuinely incredulous. “I can’t imagine you needing to be on any kind of diet.”

“Watch out, James, you seem to know how to really get to my heart.”

He laughed–he hoped not too loudly. When she said “heart,” he wanted to think of her soul; instead he pictured her chest that covered it. Yet apparently he’d escaped detection (after all, he shouldn’t think of her as a mind reader), and she still seemed eager to take him to her place.

Her apartment was orderly and feminine, and the colors of the living room matched well. It was lit just brightly enough to be romantic, he thought.

She motioned to a sofa and they sat down together. They spoke for a few minutes and then she suddenly kissed him and said, “Food can wait a little while, can’t it?”

He felt she was borderline drunk and that it wasn’t fair but who was he to resist her. He pictured Fennel, the closest thing he had to a sibling, telling him he was a fool to resist her.

They kissed relentlessly for a minute or two. Soon clothes started to fly off like leaves in the wind. She told him to sit on her carpet, then she slid up to him, put a hand on his head, and pointed him down to her genitals. Meanwhile, she was moaning in an oddly musical way. The singer and the comedian, he remembered thinking, as if they were a stage act.

He felt she had an orgasm in his mouth, though he couldn’t be certain and was afraid to break the spell by asking. Meanwhile, he was getting erect and a little sore in his knees so he got up to enter her.

“Stop! What are you doing?” she half-screamed at him.

“Oh, don’t worry, I have a condom.”

“Worry? I’m not worried, I’m not doing it is what’s happening.”

“But I thought–”

“Don’t think. Just listen. I’m not ready for that.”


“Yeah, ‘Oh,’” she said, clearly mocking him. “I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt, otherwise you could be charged with raping me.”

She was staring at him. There was an odd tattoo by her vagina but he couldn’t read it without staring at it and he certainly wasn’t going to do that. He forced himself to look at her eyes. She seemed a little calmer now.

“I’m sorry there was a misunderstanding,” he said.

“Yeah, so am I. You better get your things on now and leave.”

For a long time he thought about his ill-fated date with Vicky. Finally, it hurt a little less every day to remember, as Fennel had predicted. But then the chill returned, albeit briefly, not in his dreams but in his waking life.

There is always a way to reassure ourselves, he thought, hence the saying “Where there’s life there’s hope.” In his case, he thought that the chill happened much less frequently in his apartment, yet of course when he thought some more about it, he had to concede that might not really be the case, that even if it did happen less frequently in his apartment, when it happened it was often unbearably intense–so that the next time he felt it, he went out in the night as if he had no choice. He thought that if the chill were in his home then he was essentially homeless. Your home is the death of choices, he thought.

He walked a block and a half into Center City with no sign of the chill. He even undid the top button of his winter coat (which he wore although it was already early spring). He was struck by how bright and festive the city looked. Every place was intriguing and strangely filled with charm. He tried to stay calm and rein in his tendency to romanticize things. Things weren’t more beautiful than before, he told himself. He was simply able to appreciate them more because the chill wasn’t chasing him.

Another block passed. People seemed to be smiling at him–what was he to make of that? He decided, superstitiously perhaps, to stay on his same route at the same speed heading downtown through Center City. He would not undo another button, though he was tempted to, and would continue to look at his city with both admiration and trust.

But then, like the first signs of a toothache, he started to feel the chill again, and before he could walk another block it was already gnawing at him.

He broke into a trot then, soon deviating from Center City. A moment later he turned left onto a side street and ducked into a bar breathlessly, where he sat next to a thin blond man in a black T-shirt and black cowboy hat.

A man walks into a bar quasi-hysterical, he thought, and doesn’t know whether it’s worse to talk about what happened or keep it to himself.

“Hey, pardner,” the cowboy said, turning slightly towards him and in the process almost making eye contact. “You OK?”

“Sure. Why do you ask?”

“You look like you just seen a ghost. Other than that, no reason.”

The cowboy was smiling although he couldn’t tell the color of his eyes, only that they were part of a smile in progress. He forced himself to laugh strictly to be polite to the cowboy before realizing that now he’d have to say something at least remotely true about his general condition.

“Well, I guess you’re right.”

“Yeah, I thought so. Are you shivering because it’s cold or ‘cause it isn’t?”

“It just hasn’t been the best night of my life.”

“Sometimes you gotta fish for a long time before you feel any kind of tug on your line.”

He looked hard at the cowboy in the half dark of the bar and thought maybe he really was a cowboy. The way the light in the bar was, the cowboy’s head seemed still and strangely suspended, like the work of a taxidermist.

“This your first time here?”

He felt his heart beat as if the chill were already hovering nearby in the bar.

“Why? You come here often?”

“Yeah. That’s why I asked you if you’ve ever been here before. I figured I would have noticed you one time or another if you had.”

Was there something extraordinary about this place, he wondered. He noticed then that it was entirely populated by men, some of whom were being overtly affectionate. Oh that, he thought. He’d have to make it clear to the cowboy where he stood on the issue.

“Sure. That makes sense,” he mumbled.

“Care to dance?”

He wasn’t even aware that there was music.

“No thanks, I’m a little tired.”

He didn’t feel like getting into the fact that he was straight. He saw a quick image of the boys in the park and their wild-eyed master.

“Sure, I get it, I’m a little tired too. Truth is, I’m exhausted.”

“Why’s that? Hard day at work?”

“Wasn’t work so much as what happened after work.”

“Oh. Feel like telling?”

“I did some running. Serious running,” the cowboy said, looking at him incriminatingly.

“I admire you guys who stay in shape like that. Yeah, I really admire you runners.”

The cowboy held up his hand in protest. “I didn’t say I was a runner. Never said that.”


“Just that I was running today.”

“Where to?” he asked, immediately thinking he was being uncharacteristically nosy. Maybe escaping the chill had affected his behavior.

“I was running after someone, tell you the truth.”

Of course he wanted to know why but he held his tongue. For several seconds they sat in silence.

“Bet you want to know, don’t you?”

“I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t, would I?”

“I don’t know. There are so many different opinions about what makes someone human these days.”

“I hope in any group discussion on the matter I’d get voted in?”

“To what?”


“Oh. You never know about things like that. People are so. . . slippery.”

He smiled, not sure if he should laugh or not.

“Anyway,” the cowboy said (he noticed that his Western or pseudo-Western accent had temporarily disappeared), “I was actually running after you.”

He stared at the cowboy intently and then turned his head away as if he’d just looked too directly at the sun.

“What do you mean?”

The cowboy smiled thinly while a series of peculiar expressions seemed to fight for supremacy on his face.

“Can’t say it any more clearly. Hasn’t anybody ever run after you before?”

His immediate temptation was to say no but then he thought about that man in the park back in Boston.

“But why would you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Run after me? Did you think I’d dropped my hat or something?”


“I mean, you don’t even know me, so why would you run after me?”

“I didn’t say I knew you just that I ran after you. Did the other people who ran after you all know you?”

A valid point, but one he didn’t feel like pursuing. Maybe the cowboy was only acting out some fantasy, or making some kind of avant-garde pass at him. It would have been much easier to have just danced with him.

“I seem to be making you uncomfortable,” the cowboy said.

He shrugged.

“I’m going to use the men’s room for a minute, but don’t worry, I’ll be back, and we can talk some more about this.”

“Sure,” he said, as neutrally as possible.

He was afraid to look in the direction of the bathroom, afraid to see the cowboy moving or perhaps in some way to see only the wind. Maybe the cowboy thought he was someone he knew. If he saw either of his parents in Boston he’d run after them. Perhaps that’s what happened to the cowboy.

But that line of thought balanced against the cowboy’s behavior wasn’t really reassuring. It was preposterous and simply an unrealistic conclusion to reach. Wasn’t it more possible, since he’d already asked him to dance, that the cowboy was trying to intimidate him in some way that would impress him, that he simply wanted him sexually? He himself had lived long enough to know that people of all kinds were capable of acting that way, though he had never been that aggressive. His night with Vicki was proof of that. He was always the pursued and never the pursuer.

He got up from the bar then and walked to the door. Fortunately, he hadn’t bought a drink yet so he wouldn’t have to be delayed by paying for it.

For a block, he walked at full speed, then broke into a run. He didn’t hear or feel anything but the sound of his running, the strange music his shoes made on the sidewalk. He remembered as a kid trying to outrun a dog that eventually bit him. He always thought he could have avoided the bite if he’d just run a little faster.

Colors streamed by him like water as he ran into the wind, his eyes tearing like little windblown ponds. He had no concept of direction. Soon, it was like running into a blizzard. For a long time he ran this blind blizzard run, then finally he saw his building tall and proudly monolithic like a fortress at the top of a hill.

The doorman gave him a funny look as he walked by but what did it matter? People could only really judge you if you let them.

When the elevator came he was ready for it. A woman from his floor who rarely talked to him felt an impulse to quasi-acknowledge him with a nod which he happily returned. It was strangely reassuring. There was no ensuing conversation but that was OK, perhaps better to protect the moment which words so often destroyed.

A muted chill crept somewhere between his neck and left shoulder but it wasn’t freezing. Now it felt more like a cool spot in a warm desert.

When he got inside he went directly to his room. On the bureau were two 5” by 7” silver framed pictures of his parents. In one his father was wearing shorts that showed his hairy legs. He was smiling at him. His father had even taken his glasses off for the photograph. In the other picture, his parents were kissing while he sat in front of them, no more than three years old, playing in the grass. He thought of calling them but they were probably already in bed. Instead, he sat on the edge of his bed and stared at his parents. It was odd to stare at them but it was also calming. A moment later he realized the chill was gone, and then, with all his clothes on, he lay down for a minute and fell asleep. When he woke up he felt he was in a warm green park shaped like the yard of his childhood, a shining blue sky overhead. Peace is temporary, he thought, but always blessed.