The Book of Mirrors
For most Americans, 1987 was the year when the stock market rose sky-high only to come crashing back down, the Iran-contra affair continued to rock Ronald Reagan’s chair in the White House, and The Bold and the Beautiful began to invade our homes. For me, it was the year when I fell in love and found out that the devil exists.
I’d been a student at Princeton for a little over three years, and I was living in an ugly old building on Bayard Lane, between the art museum and the theological seminary library. It had a living room and an open kitchen on the ground floor, and upstairs there were two bedrooms, each with an adjoining bathroom. It was only a ten-minute walk from McCosh Hall, where I attended most of my English courses.
One October afternoon, when I got back home and entered the kitchen, I was surprised to find there a tall, slim young
woman with long blond hair parted in the middle. She gave me a friendly glance from behind thick-framed spectacles, which lent her a simultaneously stern and sexy air. She was trying to squirt mustard from a tube, without realizing that you first have to peel off the tinfoil seal. I unscrewed the cap, took off the seal, and gave the tube back to her. She thanked me, spreading the yellow paste over the jumbo hot dog she’d just boiled.
“Hey, thanks,” she said, in an accent she’d brought with her from the Midwest and that she seemed disinclined to shed merely to keep in step with fashion. “Want some?”
“No, I’m fine, thanks. By the way, I’m Richard Flynn. Are you the new tenant?”
She nodded. She’d taken a hungry bite of the hot dog, and now she tried to swallow it quickly before replying.
“Laura Baines, pleased to meet you. Did the person who lived here before me have a pet skunk or something? The stench up there’s enough to make your nose hairs drop out. I’ll have to repaint it, anyway. And is there something wrong with the boiler? I had to wait half an hour for the water to heat up.”
“A heavy smoker,” I explained. “I mean the dude, not the boiler, and not just cigarettes, if you get my meaning. But other than that, he’s a nice guy. He decided overnight to take a sabbatical, so he’s gone back home. He was lucky the landlady didn’t make him pay the rent for the rest of the year. As for the boiler, three different plumbers have come over to fix it. No luck, but I still live in hope.”
“Bon voyage,” Laura said between bites, addressing the erstwhile tenant. Then she pointed at the microwave oven on the counter. “I’m making some Jolly Time, and then I’m going to watch some TV—they’re showing Jessica live on CNN.”
“Who’s Jessica?” I asked.
The microwave pinged to let us know that the popcorn was ready to be poured into the large glass bowl Laura had extracted from the depths of the cupboard above the sink.
“Jessica McClure is a little girl”—li’l gal—“who fell down a well in Texas,” she explained. “CNN is broadcasting the rescue operation live. How come you never heard about it? Everybody’s talking about it.”
She put the popcorn in the bowl and signaled for me to follow her into the den.
We sat down on the couch, and she turned on the TV. For a while, neither of us said anything, as we watched events unfold on the screen. It was a mild, warm October, almost entirely lacking the usual rain, and calm twilight was creeping along the sliding glass doors. Beyond lay the park that surrounded Trinity Church, dark and mysterious.
Laura finished eating her hot dog, then took a handful of popcorn from the bowl. She seemed to have completely forgotten about me. On the TV screen, an engineer was explaining to a reporter how work was progressing on a parallel well shaft, designed to allow the rescuers to gain access to the child trapped underground. Laura kicked off her slippers and curled her feet under herself on the couch. I noticed that her toenails were painted with purple polish.
“What are you studying?” I asked her finally.
“I’m getting my master’s degree in psychology,” she said, without taking her eyes from the screen. “It’s my second. I’ve already got one in math from the University of Chicago. Born and raised in Evanston, Illinois. Ever been there, where folks chew Red Man and burn crosses?”
I realized that she must be two or three years older than me,
and that daunted me a little. When you’re that age, a three-year difference seems like a lot.
“I thought that was Mississippi,” I said. “No, never been to Illinois. I was born and raised in Brooklyn. I’ve only ever been to the Midwest once, one summer, when I was fifteen, I guess, and my dad and I went fishing in the Ozarks, Missouri. We also visited St. Louis, if I remember right. Psychology, after math?”
“Well, I was reckoned to be a kind of genius at school,” she said. “In high school, I won all kinds of international math competitions, and at twenty-one I’d already finished a master’s degree, getting ready to do my PhD. But I turned down all the scholarships and came here to do psychology. My MS helped me get into a research program.”
“Okay, but you still haven’t answered my question.”
“Have a little patience.”
She brushed the popcorn crumbs off her T-shirt.
I remember it well. She was wearing a pair of stonewashed jeans, the kind with several zippers, which was coming into fashion at the time, and a white T-shirt.
She went to the fridge to fetch a Coke, asking me if I wanted one. She opened the cans, stuck a straw in each, and returned to the couch, handing me one.
“The summer after I graduated, I fell in love with a boy”—she pronounced it buoy—“from Evanston. He was home for the holidays. He was doing a master’s degree in electronics at MIT, something to do with computers. A handsome and apparently smart guy, named John R. Findley. He was two years older than me, and we’d known each other vaguely in high school. But a month later he was stolen from me by Julia Craig, one of the dumbest creatures I’ve ever met, a kind of hominid who’d learned to articulate around a dozen words, to wax her legs, and
how to use a knife and fork. I realized that I was good at equations and integrals, but I didn’t have the faintest clue about how people think in general, and men in particular. I realized that if I wasn’t careful, I’d end up spending my life surrounded by cats, guinea pigs, and parrots. So that’s why I came here, the following fall. Mom was worried and tried to change my mind, but she already knew me well enough to understand that it’d have been easier to teach me how to fly on a broomstick. I’m now in my last year, and I’ve never regretted my decision.”
“I’m in my final year, too. Have you learned what you set out to?” I asked. “I mean, about the way men think.”
For the first time, she looked me straight in the eye.
“Not sure, but I think I’ve made progress. John broke up with Godzilla after just a few weeks. I didn’t answer his calls after that, even though he’s been trying to get in touch with me for months. Maybe I’m just picky, you know.”
She finished her Coke and put the empty can on the table.
We continued to watch the rescue of the li’l gal from Texas on TV, and chatted until almost midnight, drinking coffee and going outside into the garden from time to time to smoke the Marlboros she’d fetched from her room. At one point, I helped her carry inside the rest of her stuff from the trunk of her old Hyundai, which was parked in the garage.
Laura was nice, she had a sense of humor, and I realized that she was very well read. Like any new adult, I was a seething mass of hormones. At the time, I didn’t have a girlfriend and I was desperate to have sex, but I remember clearly that in the beginning I never thought about the possibility of getting her into bed. I was sure she must have a boyfriend, although we never talked about it. But I was disturbed in a pleasant sort of way at the prospect of sharing a house with a woman, which was
something I’d never done up until then. It was as if, all of a sudden, I was going to have access to mysteries that had previously been forbidden.
The reality was that I didn’t like it at college and I could hardly wait to complete my final year and get out of there.
I’d been born and raised in Brooklyn, in Williamsburg, near Grand Street, where homes were a lot cheaper than they are nowadays. Mom taught history at the Boys and Girls High School in Bed-Stuy, and dad was a medical assistant at Kings County Hospital. I wasn’t working-class, in other words, but I felt as if I were, given the blue-collar neighborhood where I lived.
I grew up without any major material troubles, but at the same time, my folks couldn’t afford a large number of the things we’d have liked to have. Brooklynites were interesting to me, and I felt like a fish in water among that Babel of different races and customs. The 1970s were hard times for the city of New York, and I remember that a lot of folks were dirt poor and violence was widespread.
When I arrived at Princeton, I joined a few academic societies, became a member of one of those famous eating clubs on the Street, and hung out with the amateur actors from the Triangle Club.
In front of a literary circle with an exotic name, I read a number of the short stories I’d written toward the end of high school. The group was run by a vaguely famous author, who taught as a visiting professor, and its members vied with one another in torturing the English language to produce meaningless poems. When they realized that my stories were “classic” in style and
that I was finding inspiration in the novels of Hemingway and Steinbeck, they started viewing me as a freak. In any event, a year later I was spending my free time in the library or at home.
Most of the students were from the East Coast middle class, which had had a big fright in the 1960s, when its whole world seemed to fall apart, and which had educated its scions in such a way as to prevent the madness from ever being repeated. The ’60s had had music, marches, the Summer of Love, experimentation with drugs, Woodstock, and contraceptives. The ’70s saw the end of the Vietnam nightmare and the introduction of disco, flared pants, and racial emancipation. So I had the feeling that there was nothing epic about the ’80s, and that our generation had missed the train. Mr. Ronald Reagan, like a cunning old shaman, had summoned up the spirits of the ’50s to addle the nation’s brains. Money was demolishing the altars of every other god, one by one, preparing to perform its victory dance, while chubby angels with Stetsons perched on their blond curls chanted hymns to free enterprise. Go, Ronnie, go!
I found the other students to be snobbish conformists, despite the rebellious poses they struck, no doubt in the belief that this was demanded of Ivy Leaguers as a kind of vague memory of previous decades. Traditions were a big thing at Princeton, but to me, they were nothing but playacting—time had emptied them of all meaning.
I regarded most of the professors as mediocrities clinging to a fancy job. The students who played at being Marxists and revolutionaries on their rich parents’ money never tired of reading doorstops like Das Kapital, while those who thought of themselves as conservatives behaved as if they were the direct descendants of that Pilgrim on the Mayflower who, perched on top of the mast and shading his eyes against the sun, had shouted,
Land! To the former, I was a petit bourgeois whose class was to be despised and whose values were to be trampled underfoot; to the latter, I was just a white-trash kid from Brooklyn who’d somehow managed to infiltrate their wonderful campus with some dubious and undoubtedly damnable aims. To me, Princeton seemed like it was overrun with hoity-toity robots speaking with Boston accents.
But it’s possible that all these things existed only in my mind. After I’d decided to become a writer, toward the end of high school, I gradually built for myself a gloomy and skeptical vision of the world, with the inestimable assistance of Messrs. Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth, and Don DeLillo. I was convinced that a real writer had to be sad and lonely, while receiving fat royalty checks and spending holidays in expensive European resorts. I told myself that if the devil hadn’t reduced him to sitting broken and weary on the dung heap, Job would never have made a name for himself, and mankind would have been deprived of a literary masterpiece.
I tried to avoid spending any longer than necessary on campus, so on weekends I usually went back to New York. I’d roam the secondhand bookshops of the Upper East Side, watch plays at obscure theaters in Chelsea, and go to concerts by Bill Frisell, Cecil Taylor, and Sonic Youth at the Knitting Factory, which had just opened on Houston Street. I used to go to the cafés on Myrtle Avenue, or cross the bridge to the Lower East Side and have dinner with my parents and younger brother, Eddie, who was still in high school, in one of those family-run restaurants where everybody knows one another’s name.
I passed my exams without effort, nestling in the comfort zone of B grades, so that I wouldn’t come up against any hassles and would have time to write. I wrote dozens of short stories
and started a novel, which didn’t make it past a few chapters. I used an old Remington typewriter, which Dad had found in the attic of a house, repaired, and given to me as a present when I left for college. After rereading my texts and correcting them time and time again, I’d generally toss them in the trash can. Every time I discovered a new author, I’d imitate him without realizing it, like a chimp overwhelmed with admiration at the sight of a woman in red.
For one reason or another, I didn’t enjoy doing drugs. I’d smoked weed for the first time at fourteen, during a class trip to the Botanic Garden. A boy named Martin had brought two joints, which five or six of us passed around in a hidden spot, with the feeling that the murky waters of criminality were dragging us into their depths for good. In high school I’d smoked again a few times, and also got drunk on cheap beer at a couple of parties in shady apartments on Driggs Avenue. But I hadn’t found any pleasure in getting high or drunk, to my folks’ relief. In those days, if you were inclined to stray from the straight and narrow, you were more likely to end up stabbed to death or killed by an overdose than to find a decent job. I studied hard at school, got top marks, and received offers from both Cornell and Princeton, accepting the second, considered more progressive at the time.
Television had not yet become an endless parade of shows in which various losers are forced to sing, to be insulted by vulgar hosts, or to climb into swimming pools full of snakes. American TV shows hadn’t transformed into tales told by an idiot, full of sound and laughter, signifying nothing. But nor did I find anything of interest in the hypocritical political debates of those days, or in the off-color jokes and B films about plastic-looking teenagers. The few decent producers and journalists from the
1960s and ’70s who were still in charge at the TV studios seemed awkward and as uneasy as dinosaurs spotting the meteorite that heralded the end of their age.
But as I was to discover, Laura liked to get a nightly fix of junk television, claiming that it was the only way her brain could achieve a kind of stasis, allowing it to classify, systematize, and store all the stuff it had accumulated during the day. So, the fall of the year of our Lord 1987 was the period when I watched more TV than ever before, finding a kind of masochistic pleasure in sitting slumped on the couch beside her, commenting on every talk show, news story, and weekly drama, like the two caviling old-timers on the balcony in The Muppet Show.
She didn’t tell me about Professor Joseph Wieder straightaway. It wasn’t until Halloween that she mentioned that she knew him. He was one of the most important figures teaching at Princeton in those years, regarded as a kind of Prometheus who’d descended among mere mortals to share the secret of fire. We were watching Larry King Live, and Wieder had been invited on to talk about drug addiction—three young men had died of overdoses the day before, in a cabin near Eugene, Oregon. Apparently Laura and the professor were “good friends,” she told me. I must already have been in love with her by then, even if I didn’t know it at the time.