He’d felt it slipping away with every passing week. He only had another three months, four at most, to amount to something. Striding, sliding almost, in a frenzy of purposelessness down the street, he looked straight ahead, eyes narrowed, clutching groceries bought in panic, nothing he could actually eat (a lime, some broccoli). He needed to get back and sit at a table, clear it and clean it, then sit at it, straight-backed, focused. It was this tedious necessity of going out, buying produce, eating, which was holding him back. And then all the endless cleaning, and the sudden fear of what would happen if he did not speak to other people for days on end. Would he forget how the world was? He’d stopped reading the news. He knew nothing. He paused, contemplated in the cold, then walked in to a small convenience store. He needed table polish.
Reaching up among the oils and sprays, he knocked down a row of air freshener and sent the cans spinning round the aisle. He may even have done it on purpose. He was becoming obsessed with his own theater. When he walked into public places, he’d raise his eyebrows, look about, sigh, rarely focus on anyone or anything in particular, and snatch a notebook from his pocket to take something down. A couple stood in the queue ahead of him. They looked bored by their purchase. He could not take his eyes from the man’s beard. The way it hid his face disgusted him. The couple argued over who was supposed to be paying. He gripped his hair and stared in horror at the week-old pastries behind the glass counter. He was wasting time. He should be making a start, getting down to it. He handed the cashier a fistful of hot dimes.
Back in his apartment, he sprayed the table with polish and put his back into rubbing it as hard as he could, knocking scraps of half-written scenes and discarded dialogue to the floor. He was relieved to be alone again. These necessary trips out exhausted him, and he’d been staying up later and later, doing nothing to achieve his goals—snatching at books, lounging, allowing himself to become absorbed in technical manuals. (All his electronic devices—TV, stereo, fridge—were broken). He fell to his knees and began to polish the floor, circling lightly round the same patch, as if following a minor stage direction in a colossal opera. The trouble was it was so hard to record everything he saw and still have time to see it. He could not keep up. Dialogue conveyed so little. He needed to get at what people meant, not what they said. And there was so much deceit and dissembling about it was impossible to track anything. He’d been studying how people deployed objects, how slyly they moved them about, implicated them even. He’d seen a play once where a whole scene hung round the inconvenient placement of the pepper pot on the table …
A loud buzzing suddenly set his skeleton vibrating. He held his breath, riveted by the sound, unable for a second to identify what it signified. Looking from door to clock, he experienced the strange sensation he was waiting in space and time for his mind to locate memory. He felt he was being required to account for himself in some way. All morning, in fact, he’d been assailed by this writhing pressure, as though he were about to meet with someone who expected something of him. His agent. It must be his agent. The feeling was unmistakable! He only ever called a cab when he was having lunch with Eleanor. He’d explain everything to her.
Outside he looked up and down the street for a cab driver, but there was no one, except a postman asking him to sign for a package for someone at a different address. He looked up at the sun, signed for the package, and set out for the restaurant by foot. As he walked, his thoughts became loose and expansive. Passing a block of freshly constructed offices, or apartments (he could not tell which), he reflected on the city’s landscape. Its insistence on the present, he said out loud, warped perspective. One’s achievements were always being totted up, day by day, visibly, almost. He began to run.
Exhausted and dressed to pit himself against the cold, he entered a hot, crowded restaurant. The hostess at the door asked him to repeat his name three times. Settling on a name in her book that was not his, she asked him to follow and then expertly cut her way between the busy tables toward a raised section at the back where she waited by his place. Her haste, her clothes, her entire bearing, he thought, conveyed her distaste for being, even momentarily, allied with him. He inched between chairs, knocking coats off and picking them up, and then had to wait while some tourist, or photographer, or artist, took pictures of the vacuum-packed coffee bags lining the walls.
Lodged hotly in his seat, he shrugged off of his coat, but could not remove his sweater because he had nothing beneath it. He began to pore over the menu, suddenly realizing how hungry he was. He had not eaten since the morning of the day before. The menu was endless. You can have anything, anything at all, it might have said. He felt as though he were being gassed from the inside. He ordered a pot of coffee to keep himself alive.
He tried to ignore the conversations around him. His hearing was getting better with age, he was sure of it. A droplet of sweat tickled as it ran down his back. They had met here once before when it had been a Lebanese restaurant years ago, and the same problems had dogged it then. Noisy, infernal, impossible. He remembered how they’d discussed the future of theater, shouting back and forth, neither having much to say, forced to repeat loudly one banal observation after another while chewing on enormous chunks of sizzling lamb. He wiped his brow with a corner of the tablecloth and poured himself another coffee. He’d noticed how peculiarly strained and nervous her eyes were, which had made him talk a lot while not looking at her. They had nothing obvious in common, perhaps not even an interest in his work, but a certain sympathy had existed between them. She knew there was no play to discuss and he knew she knew, but she’d kept on meeting with him, neither of them saying a word about what was not.
A steaming tray of meals went past, inflaming his appetite. His tongue was fat, burnt, tormented with caffeine. He asked for some bread, but the waiter seemed reluctant to give him any. There was nothing for it but to take the untouched breadbasket of the diners who had just departed to his right. He consumed one roll after another, carelessly spilling crumbs down his front. The restaurant was beginning to clear. He watched two women exchange brittle hugs, business cards, final assurances. They were virtually limping as they left, he thought, hunched and stiff. How quickly humans began to die; even walking became cumbersome after childhood. He rolled up the sleeves of his sweater. The heat was overpowering. He was surprised to see a fire burning in the corner. Perhaps he should order some ice cream. He was sure to be finished by the time she arrived. He caught the eye of a waiter, who he saw glance sideways at the hostess before coming over to take his order.
He’d been in love with Eleanor for a couple of hours once. They’d met in a bar mid-afternoon so that he could show her a synopsis he had written, but before either had referred to it, they had drunk too much wine for it to seem relevant. He thought how they both suffered from the same thing—a debilitating mixture of relentless personal ambition and annihilating universal perspective. She’d talked a little about how she had ended up as an agent. It was just an approximation of what might be important, she’d explained. She was for certain things and against certain things, and she’d decided she was for writers, so this was the best way she could think to back them. Then, as if it were a natural extension of the same discussion, she’d asked if he’d known that 99.9 percent of all species that had ever evolved on the planet had become extinct. Was this her now? He gobbled down his ice cream and put the empty glass under the table. There was woman with the same long, auburn hair giving her coat to the hostess. He put his hand in the air to signal to her when she turned, but then he saw a delicate, gold-chained handbag swinging from the woman’s wrist. It could not be Eleanor.
The waiter came over and asked when he was expecting his guest. He explained she was always very late and decided to order a few more dishes. Looking at the menu, he became dizzy and desperate again. He began picking items more or less at random in a fit of indecision and appetite. The waiter, now obliging, returned with two of the dishes quickly. He devoured the small plate of ribs and started on the bowl of creamed potatoes. Where was she? Perhaps she’d gone home first. Even so, she lived close by. They’d gone back to her flat for tea after they’d met in the bar that afternoon. They’d drunk cup after cup, leaning in toward an electric heater, even though it wasn’t cold, and talking about marriage (she was married then). There was possibility in every crack of the conversation—she was charming, flippant, playful—but quite suddenly she’d backed away, piling platitudes about love and relationships on top of their conversation until he couldn’t bear it anymore and stood up to leave, irritated by her cowardice, or, worse, thinking it possible she might actually believe the platitudes she’d buried him in. As he’d put on his coat to go, he’d noticed her observe his clothes and uncut hair. Then she’d added, quite needlessly, some comment about how he’d never understand because he was too caught up in misplaced hatred. She’d mumbled it and he’d pretended not to hear, and left. The episode had ruined their friendship, or alliance, or whatever it was. He’d had to stop seeing her. He’d fired her as his agent within a month, and a year or so later he’d heard she’d moved to Philadelphia to work as a curator …
He stirred from this last thought, snagged and confused. His mind seemed unable to find traction in the present. He looked about disoriented. His table was piled with dishes and the photographer was snapping him from strange angles. There were only three other people in the restaurant. Eleanor was not coming. She did not even live here.
“The restaurant’s most satisfied customer, I think, sir. Looks like you are eating for two. Can I have your name and job title?”
He was being terrorized by his own mind. He had fashioned this cruel scene, this meeting with himself, as some sort of reckoning.
“It’s for the caption. What do you do?”
He suddenly saw himself, a miniscule figure poking up from a table raised on this dais at the far end of the restaurant. No one expected anything of him. It was the opposite of what he had thought. The photographer was now standing before him speaking. He pulled himself closer to the table and looked fearfully up at him.
“If you give me your card, I can send you copies, if you’d like.”
He glanced sideways at a plate of sea bass, then, shaking his head, he whispered that he had nothing to show, no cards. He wrote plays; he was a playwright.
“Ah! I don’t get to the theater often. Where are your plays on? I’d love to come see one.”
He burst from his seat and ran to the restroom.
Standing at the sink, he felt a flash of rage. He splashed his face with cold water to extinguish it. He could not even be sure what it was that had angered him so much, the sneering photographer, or Eleanor’s insinuating remark. His hair was dripping onto to his clothes and water ran through a tear in his trousers. He felt a deepening panic. He did not understand what he was doing here. He looked about for another person who might corroborate these fears, or guide him. The room was still, but someone was staring at him in the mirror, an expression of faded outrage on his face. He thought to speak, defend himself, but he became transfixed by this man’s appearance. The eyes were arid, yellow, almost, and pricked by blood vessels. The hair was mauled and matted, and there was a small bald patch above one ear where it had been pulled clean from the scalp. He looked down at the water swirling in the sink, but could not bring himself to turn round.
When he looked up again the face was still there, unforgiving, relentless, oozing reproach. He felt a rippling in his stomach and leaned deep into the sink thinking he might vomit. This was it. This is how it felt. He’d finally lost his footing, fallen hostage to his long habit of failure. The tiny lights mercilessly concentrated on the mirror felt as though they were piercing him like searchlights. He thought of all the coffee he’d drunk and all the food at his table. He couldn’t possibly pay for any of it. He’d have to go out and explain himself. They’d make him clean dishes, or perhaps he’d have to go to prison. He deserved it. He closed his eyes, then immediately opened them again: “The photographer!” he exclaimed, “I need evidence!”
Leaving the bathroom, he glanced furtively about, scanning the restaurant for witnesses. He imagined himself in court—the photographer, the hostess, the bar man, all testifying to the difficulties that had assailed him. The photographer must have a whole reel of film chronicling his desperation—they’d see that it hadn’t been possible for him to tell what he what he was doing. Suddenly he caught sight of a familiar face among a newly arrived group to his left. It was the flaccid, moist face of a producer he’d once approached with an idea for a sitcom. He’d taken this man out for four meals, pretended to share an interest in oriental masks, suggested a good tailor, learned every corner of his psychology. But it was impossible to get him to concentrate on anything. The whole thing had been a crusade of suasion and pain, which had come to nothing. He couldn’t let this man see him like this being thrown from the restaurant. He’d have to get back to his seat, eat some of the food, order more, outlast him.
The dishes on his table had multiplied, but he was surprised to see everything had been pushed to one side and arranged in some sort of pattern or display. A few of the plates were elevated. He noticed his book under a plate of squid, and a rolled up napkin pushing up the back of a plate of mozzarella and tomato (now dripping onto the table cloth). Everything looked richly deliquescent. He stepped back to admire the effect. This must be the work of the photographer. But perhaps there was a little too much green toward the front, he thought. He reached out to remove a plate of spinach.
“No! Leave that!”
It was the hostess who hated him. She was rushing toward the dais.
“Excuse me … . Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. I think we’ve got it just right now, though.”
He saw that she was holding his coat, which seemed to be covered with some sort of gravy.
“Your photographer’s just switching lenses, and then I think we’re done. You’ve both done a great job, though. We had no idea. Thank you for putting so much thought behind it.”
He did not know what to say or what was expected of him. He feared he was supposed to shake hands, write something down, affirm something. But he had wasted so much time. He needed to get back, tidy his papers, check on progress. He came to a decision. Grabbing one of her hands, he half-bowed, then took his coat, glanced over at the producer, and left.
As soon as he entered his apartment, he took off his clothes and stood naked in the bath, waiting for it to fill. As the water rose, he became aware of grazes prickling on his legs. He could not recall banging and scraping himself so much. He studied the sensation, eased by it, until he felt a gentle bobbing at his ankle. He looked down and saw the canister of table polish. The rag he’d been using was molded over the side of the bath, its dry contours loosening in the steam. He nudged the canister forward and watched it become fraught under the tap, observing, with admiration almost, as it resisted the onslaught. The rising water was starting to boil his feet and shins. He spun the cold tap on full and sat on the edge of the tub, propping his feet on the opposite side. A luxurious sense of possibility came over him as he watched the doubled stream. He’d shave, clean his nails, brush, floss, scrape back his hair.
Standing neatly in the middle of his apartment, he was surprised to hear a faint purr of electricity coming from his broken stereo. The sound impressed upon him the dreadful stillness of his apartment. As he looked about, the room seemed to fizz with its own essence, making him strangely aware of himself as a cluster of cells within it. He could act or not, the impact either way would be immeasurably small. He listened to the continuo of car horns, arguments, scraping, banging, and clattering outside. It did not escape his thoughts that while he paused, beyond the apartment, across the whole city, everyone else was industriously getting on with it. But he felt fortified in his isolation. And because he did not know what else to do, he sat down at his desk and began to transcribe some notes.