I'm Crushing Your Head

A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance

I persisted in my belief that Suzanne’s music was what made her beautiful, and that I loved only her songs, for almost a year. The idea that I could be attracted to Suzanne herself made no sense. For one thing I was still deep in mourning for Celeste, and for another I had, until recently, been planning to fly to Turkey to see Yesim Regenzeit, who was, by that point, I assumed, the mother of my child. My love for Yesim still existed, I hoped, but if it existed, it was buried under an impassable heap of rubble. On September 12 I’d canceled my ticket to Ankara (which was all I had to do: Yesim didn’t know I was coming); in the months that followed I sent search parties into the basements of my heart, calling out, is anything alive down here? But nothing answered. It didn’t seem possible that a new affection could be growing over the broken terrain of my grief, and it kept on not seeming possible, despite what after at a certain point I couldn’t not understand (did you follow that?) as David Rice’s attempts to set Suzanne and me up.

A few weeks after we first heard her play, David invited me to a Halloween party, thrown by friends of his in TriBeCa. I attended sans costume (“Sure, just go as yourself,” David said—but I was the only person not in costume), and sulked, medicated and despondent, until I ran into Suzanne (“David didn’t tell me you would be here!”) dressed as an iridescent butterfly. Beautiful wings, but I thought she looked like a character from Mexican television. I wanted to talk to her about music, but we ended up talking about comedy: Suzanne was an aficionado of the Kids in the Hall; cosmopolitan as she was about many things her taste in culture, and especially in comedy, remained defiantly, parochially Canadian. We pretended to crush each other’s heads with our fingertips. Three hours later David Rice still hadn’t shown up and I went home by myself, thinking nothing, thinking, I’m so tired these days. David called me the next day to ask if things had worked out and I had no idea what things he meant.

David and I went to hear Suzanne every week, and sometimes, afterwards, by what seemed to me pure happenstance—even though there were three hundred people in the room who would have given fingers or toes for the so-called happenstance to happen to them—the three of us went out together. Her boyfriend, it turned out, had broken up with her months ago, and although her music moved me as much as anything ever has, I thought I could understand why. Suzanne was—is—one of those people who stop in the middle of the sidewalk to tell you something. She was transfixed by squirrels and shadows and bits of plastic in the gutter, very much like a bird looking for shiny things to carry back to its nest. She was twenty minutes late for everything, for years she had been twenty minutes late for everything, twenty minutes was her number, she said, her displacement with respect to clock time. She had an old, sick dog named Euclides who she worried about as if he were a beloved grandparent. She was obsessed with finding out unimportant secrets: the name of her cousin’s boyfriend, the information encoded in the magnetic stripe on her MetroCard.

She was, for sure, not David’s type: he liked the slimly sheathed, the glittering metallic, the arch European. The night quickly came when he left the two of us alone after the show, and went off to court a TV producer named Ondine. Suzanne and I talked about the marble-statue-importing business, which, like everything else, was under a pall post-9/11. Shipments were held up in Athens while manifests were double-checked; customs officials in Rotterdam impounded containers; meanwhile shady numbers were calling her office, inquiring about certain possibly non-replica works which could, perhaps, be shipped from Damascus, from Kuwait?

We talked about how the world was changing, how previously obscure places and persons and networks were becoming prominent, like the butlers in British mysteries, which Suzanne professed to loathe. We wondered if the fact that our attention was focused on these new things meant that we were taking attention from other things which had once seemed important, and if so, what they were, and whether they would in turn pass into obscurity and become dangerous. We talked about attention and consciousness and the history of the telegraph, and also about the spirit world. Suzanne revealed to me without embarrassment that she believed in ghosts, she saw them all the time, in the streets, on the subway, hailing taxis. An old woman haunted the landings of her apartment building in Astoria. She wasn’t afraid of any of them. They were intent on their private business, like people lost in thought. But sometimes she did leave messages for them: questions she wrote on twists of brightly colored paper. The twists disappeared. Her questions were often answered.

I asked if that was where her songs came from and she said, “No, not really.”

“I’d love to see your notebook some time,” I said.

Suzanne blushed. “I don’t have one. I write everything on the computer, at work.”

“Who are your influences?” I asked.

“My cousin. My boss. Euclides. Do you want another drink?”

Suzanne’s patience with me was a little incomprehensible. I assumed she was moved by compassion, by pity for my loss: such is the egotism of grief. Incapable of feeling attraction myself, I couldn’t imagine that anyone else felt it either. But in December Suzanne invited me and not David to a dinner party with four of her coupled friends and a tough lasagna that we hacked at amiably and left mostly uneaten. We drank several bottles of wine and after the four friends went home I stayed to help Suzanne with the dishes. Our forearms touched.

“That was a nice dinner,” I said.

“I can’t cook,” Suzanne said irritably. “I just don’t have any sense of how ingredients go together, or how long you have to cook them, or how hot, or anything.”

“But you do,” I said. “You know how to put things together in your songs. Your timing is wonderful.”

“Ah, my songs.”

They mattered so much to me, I couldn’t imagine that, for Suzanne herself, anything could be more important. “You should make a recording,” I said.

“I am,” Suzanne said. “I go to the studio every weekend.”

“Oh? Do you have a producer?”

“Yes, yes.”

“When will it come out?”

“Hand me the dishtowel.”

We sat side by side on her sofa, a huge gray relic which looked as if it had fought in the Second World War, and finished the last bottle of wine. Euclides came out of the bedroom and sniffed sleepily at my feet. He licked my sock and sat down between us. For reasons I didn’t understand, Suzanne shooed him away.

“Really, you have a gift,” I said.

Suzanne shook her head. “I don’t.”

“Yes, you do. I think you saved my life…”

“I’m glad. Do you mind if I smoke?”

“Please, go ahead.”

Suzanne lit a cigarette.

“It’s interesting that you use the I Ching,” I said. “Have you heard of the science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick?”

“No, who’s he?”

Suddenly the combination of the smoke and the wine and the Xanax I was still taking made me nauseous, and I went to the bathroom and threw up. When I came out, Suzanne was standing by the window, looking worried. Over her shoulder, I could see Manhattan, shining innocent and monstrous under partly cloudy skies.

“Are you all right?” Suzanne asked.

“I feel dizzy,” I said. “I should go home.”

“You can stay here if you want. It’s a pull-out sofa.”

“No, I don’t want to bother you.”

“It’s no bother.”

“But you have to work tomorrow. Aren’t you going to the studio? Just remind me where the subway is.”

“Really,” Suzanne said, “you can stay.”

But the thought that I would get between Suzanne and the making, the recording, of her songs, that out of pity she would let me interrupt her work, was terrible to me. I wanted her to be completely an artist, which was the only way I could understand her—and, now that I think of it, it was also a way of likening her to Celeste, whose work as an artist I was only then starting to understand. “I’ll sleep better at home,” I said, tactfully—I thought—and untruthfully. At home I hardly slept at all.

“OK, I’ll call you a car.”

Suzanne went into the kitchen. She was one of the only people I knew in New York who still used the telephone mounted on her kitchen wall.

That, for reasons which I also didn’t understand, was the last time I saw Suzanne until months later, when she interrupted a conversation I was having about Atlantis.

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