Excerpts of my fiction in English / Deutsch / Home
I met a lot of people on my trip down the West Coast. I never met your average pervert, just specialists, guys willing to look beyond the horizon of commonplace fantasies to try out new possibilities. Johnnie was right: many of them were looking to see where pleasure would take them, exploring the limits of sensation and desire to see if there’s anything on the other side. And when their search failed them, they ended up in a religious cult. But what about the women? What did they want? At least they’d managed to surpass even the febrile perversions of certain male authors—men who would holler with envy, gripping the bars of their cage, while others would surely turn in their graves if they could see what these women had done to this innocent girl!
* * *
The witch says: “For women, the root of all evil is sentimentality and the pleasure men and women feel! But now I ask you this: What makes the perfect woman? Is it those accentuated feminine curves of hers? Let’s cut the crap and just come out and say it: Those women with rounded bodies on TV end up with diabetes. And before long the fillers they inject into their butts get metabolized! All it does is feed their illness. And then they’re left with the skin hanging off their bones. Is a woman perfect because she always thinks about her outfit, her makeup, and if that’s not enough, goes in for nips and tucks and Botox? Is sweetness of temper and true inner beauty a real alternative here? No! She’s got to stay rational, be firm!”
* * *
Carl and I walked down the hill, past cars parked on the side of the road. The air wasn’t particularly good but it could have been worse. Despite all the parked cars, there was still plenty of room on the curbside. He was wearing one of those T-shirts of his that had gone gray in the wash, his eyes shaded behind dark sunglasses, his hair done in such a way that it didn’t fall over his face. He looked kind of stringy since he’d stopped playing football and now only did endurance running, but his shoulders were still as broad as ever. I took a look at him from the side as he bent down to do up his laces. Bending forward, a button from his fly popped off and rolled down the sidewalk. We got in his car and drove to Beverly Hills to buy him a new pair of pants. While there, he bought a matching shirt to go with them, and picked up the shoes from the store on Rodeo Drive so there wouldn’t be any need to go back to Beverly Hills to change anytime soon.
On the way back, people stared out their car windows. Outside a pizza place, two men in pinstriped suits were sharing a salad, their ties tossed over their shoulders. They were on a quick lunch break.
“That’s what I like about Hollywood,” said Carl. “There’s no such thing as nine to five. The screenwriters work on their script for a year, and when they’ve sold it, they take the next year off. And the director who picks it up has just got back from taking a year off himself.”
Seeing the “walk” light turn green, a lone jogger sprinted across the four-lane boulevard in front of us, just making it to the other side before the traffic steamrolled ahead again. Carl wound down his window, not thinking twice about emptying the contents of the ashtray onto the road.
* * *
By the time I reached Sunset Strip, it was already dark and the lights were on at the Tower. Parking attendants were waving glow sticks to direct the approaching limousine traffic; the staff had placed empty champagne buckets at the edge of the road, staking out a parking space for a tour bus with tinted windows.
The Tower rose into the sky outside our window like a monolith, like something from another time, when men still swanned around with complete self-assurance, the days of John Wayne and Rio Bravo. Back in those days, they would still get up to hanky panky in and around the Tower.
There was a story in the paper about a man who was too spooked to leave the house since it had gotten so hot. He could no longer keep his eyes on the road ahead of him because all the women had taken to walking around in skimpy shorts. It was unthinkable that he should have to look at them. His only alternative was to stare up at the sky instead, but he worried about falling down an open manhole or getting run over by a school bus.
I woke up in the middle of the night, the moon shone brightly into the empty apartment, a thin thread of spittle was drooling from the corner of my mouth. As I looked across to the empty terrace, my eyes landed on a snow-white deer halfway up, on a ledge of the Tower’s facade. I thought again of the Rocky Mountains last fall and the white stag that no hunter dared shoot, showing that there’s a germ of superstition in all of us.
We were making our way up Mount Evans, still a long way off the rocky summit and the wind almost swept us off the trail. It would die down and then start howling again. We leaned into gusts as they stripped the leaves from the trees. They danced through the air in rapid flight before gathering at the foot of crevices to become one with the earth again. Maple whirligigs whizzed through the air—tiny tornadoes spinning their propellers, giving the miniature flying machines lift. Enjoying the ride, they took longer to reach the ground.
The wind sped up the onset of winter, for a cold front came in its wake that left the trees bare. Our backs strained under a heavy load: we were carrying our tent, sleeping bags, the camping stove. That’s when we saw the stag cross our path up ahead. He hadn’t seen us because we were downwind. At the edge of the forest, the stag glanced back one last time, he was so white, even his antlers shone white in the pale light. A second later, he had disappeared into the undergrown.
“I wonder if he knows he’s different?” said Carl. “Do you think he can see he’s white?”
“What do you think, Carl?”
* * *
“The art scene and the surfers used to gather here and talk over the bleating sound of early free jazz. They were handsome, blond and tanned—naturally—and dressed in bellbottoms and they would discuss the surface treatment of their slick sculptures, without it ever occurring to anyone that there wasn’t a single woman among them. This place reeked of machismo too.” Johnnie grins and leans over the table, claiming the space as his, stroking the tabletop with his big hands. He probably ended up being a performance artist, not a painter, because his hands couldn’t sustain delicate brushwork.
“Well, now all you see here are ordinary-looking folks staring at a screen,” I say.
He nods in agreement: “It took fifty years for even average Joe to grow his hair long and pluck up the courage to get his ear pierced.”
The screen shows cops trailing a car in close pursuit. People cheer the speeding car from the sidewalk. The top closes, arching around the fugitives like a protective bubble.
“Back when I was a student, our teacher took off all his clothes and slathered mayonnaise all over himself, as if he was applying body lotion. He wanted us to record him taking a bath in mayonnaise and ketchup, while pretending to have sex with hot-dog buns. When he finally got out of the tub, he pulled a stocking over his head and told us to get undressed as well. He jammed his penis into every kind of hole imaginable that he came across in the walls on campus and then he clenched his dick between his legs and leapt onto the table and danced like a stripper would, right in front of us. My little leap from the window looks dull, frankly, by comparison. I’m hardly up there with the avant-garde.”
A look of pain suddenly flashed across Johnnie’s face. Talking had evidently reminded him of the wound on his mouth.
“It’s weird seeing yourself from the perspective of the work of art. Especially when ‘the art’ consists of mutilating yourself so you finally appeal to some rich collector’s taste. The only way you can top an act like that is by filming yourself committing suicide. Topping yourself—nothing tops that. That’ll be the next big thing. But even that’s been done already. Shoot me if I’m getting too morbid: but it’s impossible to be creative anymore in this town.”
Johnnie looked dejectedly at the ground, his initial euphoria has all but vanished.
“People here are always looking for the next line to cross. But what if there’s no one left to shock? The quiet life is no alternative: the idea that being content with your lot is the closest thing to true happiness. You know, sometimes I think: Am I really able to experience as much pleasure as I’m supposed to?
* * *
“Which support group are you attending today?”
* * *
Without taking my eyes off the animal, I stride over to the balcony. The stag stands rooted to the spot. I climb over the railing, shimmy down the wall, cross over the street, and start climbing up the side of the Tower. Before I can get a hold of the stag, a window opens above my head and a smartly dressed man peers out.
“Hey! What are you doing there?” he yells.
“The stag!” I reply, and climb in through his window.
It’s Leland A. Bryant, Hollywood’s star architect of the twenties, the man who built the hotel.
Leland lights a cigarette.
“I’m glad you like the stag,” he says, “Come with me, there’s more for you to see.”
Leaning out the window and looking up the side of the Tower, we catch a glimpse of paradise.
“Adam and Eve happy together, surrounded by animals and plants. The serpent nowhere in sight.”
Then Leland points down: “Down below, on every street corner, nothing but noise. People screaming at each other, fighter jets plummeting, a warship buffeted by high waves. In the midst of it all a great tower piercing the clouds. The Tower of Babel.”
He flicks his cigarette out the window while the tip is still glowing.
I turn round and look back inside the room. A cow and a dappled gray horse are standing in the corner.
“This suite belongs to John Wayne. The cow’s there because the guy likes fresh morning milk. And the horse is just his way of getting to work. After his third marriage, he’ll retire from the movies.”
Leland and I leave the room and walk into the hotel hallway. We stroll down the corridor.
Huddled outside one door are five brunettes wearing only frilly bras and suspenders, smoking.
“Howard Hughes’s apartment. The new interns.”
Two doors down, we hear the busy scratching of the nib of a fountain pen. Leland motions to me to be quiet. “Truman Capote. It’s just dawned on him that Fifth Avenue isn’t the only place where love is measured by the carat.”
We walk down a few flights of stairs to the Tower Bar. Propping up the bar is a man with blue eyes and glistening pomaded hair. A young woman in a sailor outfit, her hair done up in a bob, is hanging onto his every word in silence. I take a closer look and see her platinum-blond hair is frazzled.
“Bugsy Siegel. Who can resist him? With those brutal good looks and thrilling low-life tales? The woman with him? Jean Harlow.”
I watch people ordering drinks at the bar.
“This will be my last nice hotel.” He sighs. “We’re already making plans for the rise of Hooverville, shacks on the edge of town for your average American. But, if I understood the president correctly, all that America needs is a good big laugh, every ten days or so, isn’t that right?”
* * *
I’m still not sure if it’s all just an act, if Helena thinks she’ll be seen as weak and can turn that weakness to her advantage, or if it really does get too much for her, and her fainting spells are real.
Helena combs her hair back tightly. She clutches her hair over her head before tying it into a high ponytail. She looks good. She has smooth, flawless skin. While not particularly tall, her body is well-proportioned. She almost always wears her light blond hair in this high pigtail—her signature style. Standing up at a sharp angle, it pierces the air. She has exhausted her assets. She uses her sex appeal skillfully, not just an object of desire but a person. If some men first see her solely as an object, she devours them.
“She fell asleep again last night at Delilah’s. She slumped over the table and knocked our glasses off the table. We had to carry her home,” says Lawrence clearly irritated, only to cluck his tongue with relish: “It’s not easy getting a handle on a girl like that. She was out for the count.”
Helena gives him a withering look and pulls her dressing gown tight around her.
Lawrence suddenly leans forward, squats, crawls onto the bed on all fours, and presses his head into her lap. Helena pushes him off. Gasping for air, he moans: “I can’t help myself….” She reaches for the tattered script and beats his head with it. Lawrence ducks, deflecting her blows playfully with his arms.
“But it’s you I love. It’s you I love!” he pleads. She gives him the briefest of hugs and then gets up.
I’m leaning against the doorframe, watching the two of them. Their kind of relationship isn’t for me, but I do see its similarities to my relationship with Carl.
The two of us follow Helena onto the patio. The patio runs the entire south-facing side of the bungalow. We sit down at an eggshell Eero Saarinen designer table with an ugly cigarette mark at my end. At the other end of the long patio there’s an Eternit ashtray.
* * *
“In this room, I started out just doing things that gave me pleasure. I got up to all kinds of things: Mahler’s First, races on the exercise bike, watching porn, eating the little oysters while staring at an Ellsworth Kelly. But now what really does it for me is color, just color.” Turner’s eyes roam the room. “Color lets me get truly absorbed in my work. I’m in control of my life.”
We continue walking down the hall.
After an initial burst of success, he chose to specialize just in color creations. His creations were meant for sports cars, designs for large fashion houses. But when they didn’t sell, they also landed in the hands of everyday manufacturers producing “fast-moving consumables,” which explains the subtle coloring of some products you can find in discount stores.
His eye is so highly trained that it can distinguish Red 65 from Red 66 from memory alone.
“You guys broke up?” Turner asks. “Remember when Claire left me?”
“How can I forget.”
“When I got home that night, she’d left. She ran off with this guy. One of the twins whose name sounds like a girl’s—Alma.”
* * *
We were at a party in Santa Monica in January. It was pouring down. The awning started sagging and there was a real possibility of it tearing under the sheer weight of the water. The pressure that had initially spread evenly over the indented sheeting was now deforming the tarp into a bulging parabola when looked at side-on. I stood as close to the side of the building as I could.
One of the partygoers was this guy in a dark silk shirt, open to the third button, his figure-hugging jeans clinging to a lean waistline and ending in a pair of black leather cowboy boots. As if he had just stepped off the set of a spaghetti western. Ever since Sergio Leone had gotten fashionable again, some Italian-American men had ditched their loafers for cowboy boots.
The man started talking to Carl. He was an inch or two shorter than Carl and the contrast made him look slight. A gold ring kept sliding down his little finger and each time he would push it up again. While talking, he made this casual Italian gesture with one hand, while the other remained on his hip. He had a Roman nose that only accentuated his already striking profile. Whenever he opened his small round mouth, his white teeth would flash at the room. His long black hair, combed right to the end of each strand, fell over the nape of his neck, curling slightly. It made me notice for the first time how short Carl’s hair was.
* * *
In the shade of a rock I collapsed to the ground, exhausted, and went to sleep still thirsty. Once the temperature dropped in the cool of evening, I got up and walked on. Dark clouds spread over the starry sky. Little did I know that those clouds weren’t clouds at all but plumes of smoke from a fire on the other side of the hills, smothering the stars.
That night the wind turned, dispelling the cloak of fumes for a brief moment and revealing the moon. The desert suddenly came alight, trees and cacti cast deep shadows, in the distance I could see a building: the prince’s hut.
* * *
“When we wanna go wild,” says one of the men on the truck, “we go to the pit.”
We drive through a hilly landscape in silence, into the desert. Everyone else seems to know the way. We stop at the edge of a dried-up water hole. You wouldn’t have any idea it was there just by looking at it from a distance.
We hang around, waiting for nightfall. The driver cuts the lights. Joe and a few young men slide down the slope. The rest of them stay in the back of the semi. Three camping chairs are set up for the veterans. The whiskey bottle from the driver’s cab does the rounds. At first I can’t make out what’s going on down there, but slowly, in the flickering light of a burning torch, I see how the men are stabbing more torches into the ground, making a circle, talking among themselves. One man crawls across the dirt, tying up ropes.
The people on the truck start getting impatient. They are shuffling their feet. I can hear their breathing.
Suddenly, with a loud whistling sound, a glowing-hot pinwheel shoots through the gloom of the pit, crackling silver stars follow, then green and red sparks that shoot up from the ground with a whizz; various-colored fountains tinge plumes of smoke.
Translated by Lance Anderson