Monday, May 09, 2005

First Night

Emily, a beautiful Brit with wavy, blond hair, came to the opening party. We sat on the floor of my little house, and when she bent her head, I noticed auburn and copper strands mixed with the blond. She was teaching 17th Century literature at a college and was surprised that Milton sold so well to undergraduates—especially Paradise Lost and Areopagitica, where the brutish patriarch argues for freedom of the press.

The night before, this house was a jangle of roofless angles. Eight architects and builders with tool belts strapped sexily around their hips, sawed and hammered and nailed. I was amazed by their ability to transform ideas into solid forms, even though I knew that’s what architects and builders do. I collected fallen screws and slivers of wood, swept saw dust into billowy piles that looked like cottage cheese. The workers stayed up all night, catching naps, picking at chicken, hummus, salad, and cheese. Amy and Joo, the two women in the crew, were slender, watchful, young. Another night, I shared a taxi with them to Manhattan. They said they had more opportunity to experiment in their small firm than they would at a larger place. “We’d have to sit all day in a cubicle designing recessed lighting for bathrooms,” Amy said.

I had not written during the past seven weeks, because my mother had become seriously ill and needed my care. The thing about writing (as with sex) is that when I’m not doing it I forget how I exist in it. So I was getting to know the architects, who mostly worked with wealthy clients. Building this house, they were taking a walkabout of sorts—playing with concepts of privacy, proximity, voyeurism, and visibility they would ordinarily not be able to implement.
In the thing we were creating, I saw three experiments tucked into each other like Russian nesting dolls. There was the arching scheme cooked up by Morgan Meis, president of Flux Factory, who wanted to see what would happen when writers focused on writing alone. He liked rules, imagining that limits would help him finish a piece of work. The project curtailed the time we could spend away from our desks and our access to email and phones. The next experiment was the houses we would live in, and then there were the fiction pieces we would produce. Morgan wondered if the novel had run out of things to say and ways of speaking or if it was still breathing. The month, well, it was a chunk of time. Who would be willing to do this for more than that and where would the money come to feed them?

I told Paul Davis and Mauricio Salazar, the architechts designing my space, that I would be their lab rat. Maurizio has a sensual mouth and wears his emotions on his skin. Tall, sinewy Paul appears to have been drilled in the fine points of tact. They asked what I wanted. I said a cool, dark, quiet place to sleep and for working no sound or movement. This in a side show/dormitory? I could see them thinking.

The Salazar Davis office is in a high-rise in the garment district, half a block from the coat manufacturing business my father owned when I was young. The partners and their three associates work in a large, open space. They see each other, hear each others’ conversations. The office is surrounded by tall, unshaded windows, and across is another building, 50 yards away, where people stare at computer screens, talk on phones, and wander around desultorily. One snowy day in March, Mauricio pointed across the way and said, “They don’t know us and we don’t know them but in a sense we share our lives. We’d like to build a house that would allow people to see you and interact with you in ways you wouldn’t necessarily know were going on. They would watch your silhouette through the walls, and you would see bodies passing like ghosts. We’d like to design spaces for visitors to slither into, where they might glimpse a part of you at work. We’re wondering how that would feel to you and the visitors and what a house like that would look like.”

When I told my friends I was going to live in a box for a month with two other writers who were also living in boxes and that we would share premises with 15 or 20 young artists and graduate students who lived communally in Queens, they stared at me with confusion. I discovered Morgan’s ad (it ended with “no kidding) on Craig’s List. The thought of escaping from my life slid into me like a splinter. A few days later, I emailed Morgan, and he called. He said he was finishing a dissertation about Walter Benjamin and that he also wrote fiction. He was wry and speculative. I thought he could help me learn to bend.

I watched snow fall past the windows at Salazar Davis and spied on the unknowing figures across the way. My mother was in the hospital recovering from open-heart surgery and a stroke. Would she recover? What state would she be in when I entered the box? When I thought she might die, I was surprised that I cried. I did not think we loved each other, but life was full of surprises. I told Maurizio and Paul, “Have fun with your design. I will adapt.”

After my friends left the opening, I felt adrift. My house was beautiful, with its vaulting wall that looked like the prow of a ship, its tunnel passageway for visitors, its roof-top aerie where I could survey the gallery below. “We turned the visitors into rats,” Mauricio reassured me about the finished design. I was honored by the effort spent in getting it up, but the work had gone down to the wire, with people sweeping floors as reporters arrived, and there hadn’t been time to do much on the interior. Missing were steps leading to my bed and to a space beyond it, where I placed my yoga mat. There was no place yet for clothes, books, and bathroom things. I stuck pushpins into the wood studs lining the walls, hung clothes on them, and arranged books on the baseboards.

Officially, the experiment had begun. What would I write? My mother’s health wasn’t critical at present, though it was still rickety and she was on my mind. Maybe a comedy about a daughter’s envy of her mother’s beauty and what happens when she steals her mother’s ring. The writers were supposed to sign in and out on cards when we left our houses. I thought the rules were silly, but I wanted to bend.

Hunting for food, I found Fluxies in the kitchen milling around the sticky table, cracking open peanut shells, and swigging Rhinegold from bottles. These hive members were young enough to be my children, but I felt like their new kid. I scrounged up a hunk of iceberg, a pear, and tuna in a bowl.

On a couch, I cut the pear. Emily wandered by, and I invited her to my house. We plunked on the floor. She circled her knees, clad in plaid pants, with her arms. She’d nearly finished her first novel which had been a thrill to write. It was about the photographer Edward Steicken and the surveillance photos he’d taken during World War I, also about the arrogance and heedlessness she felt fed that war. She looked out at the world, not herself, qualities that struck me as useful for a novelist. That wasn’t the way I described myself. Phillip Roth and Martin Amis were novelists. I was a prose writer with a portable voice.

Emily asked what I’d been writing, and I said that before my mother got sick I’d started a comic collage about loving men and hating the sexual double standard. She sighed, saying there were times she wished she didn’t love men, imagining life would be simpler for her in the unfair world. “Here are men, getting a better deal, surrounding you, reminding you of what’s been placed beyond your reach.” I offered that the advantage of disadvantage was that it heightened awareness of privilege, although I admitted I’d never gotten over the shock of two judgments. “Every time I encounter sexism, it’s as if I’ve never heard of it.” We kept talking. People drifted into the night.


At 6:17 PM, Blogger Stefany Anne Golberg said...

A great start...

At 9:06 AM, Anonymous MATTHEW ROSE said...

Hi Laurie,

We met years ago. Heard about your project from way over here in Paris. Best of luck,

Matthew Rose


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