Saturday, September 1, 2012

Letter to Oliver Sacks

A few nights ago, when I was lying in bed reading a novella by Georges Simenon about the transformation of a boring man who lives on autopilot, doing only what's expected of him, without any self-consideration whatsoever, I whiffed the loveliest cologne; or maybe it was aftershave. The scent was distinctly masculine, prickly, deep and warm. At once arousing and comforting.

I was drowsy, enjoying the fragrance while engrossed in the text--Act of Passion is the English title, but the French translates literally as Letter to a Judge--when it occurred to me that something must be terribly wrong.

My bedroom is romantic and feminine, bordering on virginal, with a strictly tranquil sensuality. The room is large and spare but surprisingly cozy: the hardwood floor is covered by an enormous, old oriental carpet whose sweeping, pale pink background is filigreed with sky-blue and golden arabesques that perfectly capture the mood of a late-summer sunset. There is a huge, old fairy tale mirror I especially like because of the curvaceous lines of its frame, which is a glowing, dark-blond wood. The long, loose curtains, a muted Vermeer-blue,  feel as stiff as raw silk, but if I opened the window I would expect them to billow.

Who could have been in my room? No one--no man--just me alone night after night. Perhaps it was the laundry soap. I sniffed at my pillows and closed my eyes, allowing the weight of my head to sink into the soft feathers. My last thought as I drifted off was that it wasn't impossible to recreate, I could still buy myself a bottle of aftershave and use it as room scent.

In the morning I was embarrassed, as if I'd been caught masturbating. Yet the idea of substituting the scent of a man for a flesh-and-blood man was not easily dismissed.

The next night, I continued to read my book in bed. The docile Alavoine had awakened, finally, to his brutal passion for Martine, an ordinary girl who happened to be a total stranger. She was a blank slate; actually her passivity was a bit like how Alavoine had been up to that point. Martine could have been anyone at all, really, except for her extraordinary quality of submissiveness. She was equally as receptive to his closed fist as to his tenderest caress. After they made love, Martine lit a cigarette.

Over a decade ago, I gave up smoking so I'm very sensitive to the odor. I don't like the way it impregnates my clothing and hair, the way that toasty, thrilling scent turns rancid so quickly. At that moment, cigarette smoke filled my nostrils, distinctly cloying and choking, as I lay on my bed. A few weeks ago, I'd seen my neighbor's teenage son blowing smoke out of his bedroom window, which is across from mine. The boy was probably at it again.

I sipped from a bottle of water on my bedside table before turning off the lamp. In the sudden darkness, I panicked. I thought I made out a tall, familiar silhouette. I still dream of him now and then. He always wore a denim jacket that smelled of Marlboros, and because I had thought I loved him, all those years ago, the smell had excited me. That smell of smoke on my pillowcase was like his deepest kiss. It was soothing to remind myself that we hadn't loved each other, after all, as I found out long ago that he had died in a motorcycle crash.

The closed book was still in my hand as I pressed my cheek into the pillow and inhaled. My mouth was a little open, like a fish. You know how sometimes you can only see something in your peripheral vision, something you can't catch when you look directly? I was doing that with the odor of the smoke. Eyes closed, not thinking of anything in particular, only breathing shallowly: then he was in the room with me.

When the alarm rang at six I had already been awake for an hour, feeling perfectly refreshed. I tried to recall the strange dreams I'd had, but all that remained was a lingering physical sensation of shame (and pleasure), which I eventually traced to the little game I'd played the night before. It was silly, really. It wasn't love, it wasn't him, but it was disturbingly real. Surely there could be no harm in a casual fantasy.

Tonight I sit at my desk, in front of my favorite mirror, having finished Act of Passion a few minutes ago. The end did not exactly disappoint me--shall I give it away or do you know it already? In order to erase any distance between them, after tirelessly pursuing the details of his lover's life from before they met, Alavoine violently delivers Martine from herself so they can be together safely and completely; which is to say the climax was a murder-suicide. The lovers live on through the judge, to whom the book is a confession, and so through us as readers. Put another way, Alavoine's spiritual faith in the immortality of their transcendent love is realized in the ritual of storytelling.

No, I'm not disappointed, yet I suspect the protagonist could have attained his ideal, impervious union with less fuss, and certainly less criminality. He never needed a flesh-and-blood Martine in the first place; he proved that by killing her.

Might not a fantasy-Martine have sufficed? More than sufficed! Fantasy-Martine would have given him everything, tailored to his design. She could never fail. No crime, no divorce, no disruption to his outer, day-to-day automaton existence, but the self-directed transformation of his inner being would be complete.

Like it or not, human beings are unreliable, even with the best of intentions. Physiologically, psychologically, emotionally, we are barely there for ourselves most of the time, let alone for others.

My minor acts of passion--because my fantasies are transgressions rather than crimes--are relatively harmless. I don't commit murder. On the contrary, I give life.

The problem tonight is that I smell neither aftershave nor cigarette smoke but chocolate. At least I thought it was chocolate, rich and dark and sweet. But I'm sure now it's hoppel poppel, a special treat my father used to make for me when I was a child, and which his mother had made for him when he himself was small.

I find myself sitting here at my desk, an antique rosewood table with brass lion-claw feet, before my reflection in my favorite mirror, and simultaneously sitting here and now at the very kitchen table of my childhood. I feel his proximity, even hear the spoon's clopping as my father, long gone, beats the yolk of four eggs in a coffee cup with sugar and a generous splash of Benedictine. Of course it must be the neighbor boy banging on something, yet it's exactly that hollow, cozy rhythm I recognize from childhood.

I'm slightly embarrassed to tell you this--you, a world-renowned neurologist and psychologist who has published numerous esteemed case studies, such as "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat"--but none of us successfully separates our fantasies and misunderstandings from our day-to-day life.

I lived with my ex-husband for many years, both here and abroad, and the more we knew about each other and our different cultures the less we seemed to understand each other--the less we liked one another. Isn't the idea we have of 'knowing' one another and the possibility of being in an 'authentic relationship' a little presumptuous? It presumes first that we can know ourselves and next that we can know the other. Intimacy, really, is probably nothing more than assumptions based on random clues, our desires and fears. I had once believed I loved the man in the denim jacket, and now I'm just as certain I did not love him. Which is more true?

Although I am neither physician nor philosopher, I submit to you, with all due respect, that an invented character is no less real than you or I.

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