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1983-2015
tearing the rag off the bush again
The Norwegian by M.G. Stephens PDF E-mail
A full monte plunge into the stormy sea of sex and booze that once made life (or was it youth?) golden

THE NORWEGIAN

 

“It is on this moment of balance I must end: the strange moment when spirituality rejects ethics, when happiness springs from the absence of hope, when the mind finds its justification in the body.”

                        —Albert Camus

1.

What he did remember was her naked in a hotel room. She was blonde everywhere, curvy, and she called him to her side. He went there like a little dog, her terrier, she said, or perhaps he makes up that detail, as she did not talk, they did not talk but made love, every chance they had, over many years and partners, always in sleazy hotels, her naked, he said, and calling me to come to her, to come there by her side, my god, he said, I cannot regret any of it, thoughts of her rose up in me, he said, at home, at work, in bed, out walking down the street, until I rushed to call her, asking when we might meet once again, and she would answer that it might be possible in a week. A week! It was both a blessing and a curse. A week could be like an eternity. But then the week passed and she showed up, and they talked, and then went off. She undressed quickly, and they made love. Was there any love-making as good as theirs? He doubted it. He doubted if anyone ever made love the way they used to.

 

2.

Mickey Mack had taken his wife to the airport. They said goodbye. She boarded the plane and flew off for the next few months. Their children were with her. It was back in the Eighties. He was a young man still and the Norwegian was just a woman. They used to drink a lot together, and one hot summer night, he told her that he had air conditioning. Would she like to come by to cool off? She did want to cool off, she said. They walked around the corner from the bar where they had been drinking and went inside the cool apartment. He cranked up the air conditioning. They made love on the flimsy couch, the one that had to be thrown away shortly. It was like an addiction more than being in love. As soon as they finished, they had to do it again. This went on for a few years, and he couldn’t remember how it stopped. Before it stopped, Mickey Mack would see the Norwegian once a week, once a month, no more than that, and sometimes they would not see each other for a few months as her or his life intervened in the love affair. Then it began again, often after a poetry reading Mickey Mack Coole might give, and she was in the audience. He remembers a bar downtown. It was the oldest bar in the city. Afterwards, they drank. Then they found a cheap, sleazy hotel. He paid for it, the hourly rate, usually an hour or two was all they needed. She would strip off her clothes quickly, and so would he. They would have sex quickly, too, only later engaging in foreplay until, aroused again, they had sex, over and over, until one or the other was exhausted, then he dressed and went home to his wife and children and she went home to her own partner. Once, he found a good rate on a better hotel, and as he dressed to go home, she lay naked in the bed, as she had decided to spend the night there alone. I like hotels, she said.

3.

I can’t remember how that first cycle ended, but it did. One day I saw her out with someone else. If we met on the street, it was always warm and friendly. There were always promises to get together for coffee, to catch up, to read each other’s poems and stories. But we never did. One reason why we stopped seeing each other was because eventually I stopped drinking, and she was a big drinker. I was forty-two years old, and one day I stopped, not like that, I went off to a rehab. It was a slow process, taking me years to find my sea legs again. Whenever the Norwegian and I used to get together, we drank heavily. Drink did not seem to affect her, though. She would be okay after enormous amounts of vodka and beer. I would be drunk by the point she only seemed tipsy. Her composure stayed the same, and she remained stunningly elegant and beautiful in her unadorned way. She dressed plainly, wore no make-up, but she often hid her good looks by how she dressed or how she walked on the street or how she interacted with people socially. She had a way of being invisible when she wanted to be. But if you looked carefully, as I once did, it was obvious how stunningly beautiful she was. When she was naked, there was no one like her, everything seemed just right, and seeing her, it was impossible to think of anyone or anything else.

4.

Despite her simple, elegant beauty, she drank heavily, even to catastrophe. Once Mickey Mack came home from teaching at the nearby university where he occasionally taught an evening workshop, and she was sprawled on the floor of the entryway to his building, passed out. He got her awake and sent her home, and the next time he saw her, she had no memory of the incident. She told him that, as a child growing up in Africa, she had been raped. She said that she had difficulty forming lasting relationships with people. That is why their relationship was so exceptional. It had gone on for years, if unconventionally, on and off, months lapsing before they ran off to another cheap hotel in midtown. The last time he saw her was that night in the better hotel when she stayed on after he left to go home. It was after the performance of a play which he had written and which was being performed late at night in the basement of a midtown restaurant. They went off to the hotel. She stripped immediately. Seeing her naked brought it all back, the beautiful obsession for her. The Norwegian was like a drug. He could not get enough of her, nor could she apparently get enough of Mickey Mack Coole. After sex, they engaged in foreplay, then made love several more times. Mickey Mack was exhausted, crazy. As the play did not begin until midnight, it was probably seven in the morning when he got ready to leave. When he dressed and left the hotel, the street was already crowded with people going to work. He swore that he would give up drinking, but also he would stop seeing the Norwegian. At the end of his drinking, he was carrying on like this with several people. But once he stopped drinking, he kept thinking about the Norwegian the way a drunk thinks nostalgically of drinking after he or she put it down. He would be working for a newspaper on an assignment in the Far East, and he would think of her. He saw her naked, always naked, statuesque, and somehow perfect. She had her flaws, to be sure, but he did not see her excessively drunk or even drinking. He saw her as a dancer—and she was one—her legs strong and muscular. He saw her drinking the way dancer’s did, just as part of their aura, nothing to take notice of. He saw her face, fair but not too pale, her blonde hair, a slight scar on her face—that face without any make-up, and yet, as he always described it, somewhat inadequately—stunning.

5.

Years went by, each living their lives, not seeing each other, not even casually on the street, out walking in the neighborhood, shopping or going to the bakery. Mickey Mack did not see her again. The big change for him was getting sober. He did not hang out in bars anymore, much less go to late-night shows at the theatre. He tried to get his own life in order, to deal with the wreckage of the past, as his new friends called it. There was an inventory to take, amends to do. One by one, he spoke or wrote to people about his past behavior. He had thought of himself as a good person, and yet what he unveiled was anything but good after he got sober and went to counseling. He was not a bad person, like they say, but he was a sick one. Most of his illness was mental—how he perceived the world. He needed to learn how others perceived the world, as he had never considered those points of view in his own life. Everything was about him—about gratifying his immediate needs. A doctor once told him that he suffered from the phenomenon of craving, and he never forgot what that doctor told him. He smoked, ate, walked, read, wrote, talked, and even slept in regard to that phenomenon of craving. A writer once called his own addiction the algebra of need, and Mickey Mack Coole thought that the writer was writing about the same itch that wanted scratching. He had once met that writer downtown at a party at a friend’s loft. The writer was twenty or thirty years older than Mickey Mack Coole, and yet they seemed almost like contemporaries. He remembered the writer wearing a suit and tie and he kept his short-brimmed hat on during the entire party. The one oddity to his dress were his black, high-top Converse sneakers. The writer and Mickey Mack had even talked about wants and needs and how there was a great gulf between these two things. Wanting was insatiable, unfathomably deep, an endless pit. He was not sure what happened to the writer after that night. Mickey Mack knew that the writer had given up his heroin addiction, but he understood that he still drank heavily and did other things. Mickey Mack had tried to get help for himself, checking into the rehab for that entire summer, going to after-care for six months, attending meetings in his neighborhood. He was a changed man. He even tried to implement the new suggestions into his life. The idea was to admit that he was not in charge; everything was out of his hands. Gradually life settled down. He got used to this new routine, even began to like it a bit. Materially his life did not improve, in fact, got worse and worse. But this was not about material growth; it was about taking care of yourself. An inside job, one of his new friends called it. The teaching jobs disappeared. The newspaper work went. Yet he did not drink. It was a kind of miracle. Slowly his life improved.

 

6.

Five or six years passed this way, and I even managed to complete a book I had been working on for twenty years or more, back to a time before I knew the Norwegian. I believe it was that phrase and nothing else that reignited my obsession for her. One day I thought: I’ve been working on this project from a time before I knew the Norwegian. One thing led to another, as at first I simply thought, why do you call her “the Norwegian”? The woman has a name. She is a full human being. Calling her the Norwegian is disrespectful. It could be construed as sexist, your objectifying her, and let’s face it, that’s what you’ve done with her over the years. You actually know very little about the Norwegian, I thought, and then I castigated myself again. Stop calling her the Norwegian! She had a name. Use it. But calling her the Norwegian was the only way I could see her, if not naked, then as a fellow human being. She was the Norwegian, I thought. That is how I affectionately thought of her. But it was during one of these obsessive mental rambles about her that I looked up her name in the telephone directory and saw that she still lived a mile north of me in her tiny apartment near the old elevated train tracks. Perhaps it was time to make an amends to the Norwegian, I said. Yes, maybe it was time to make an amends. You had done that with just about everyone but your wife who kept reminding you that you had not made an amends to her. I often went up to the Norwegians neighborhood to buy carrot cake from the organic bakery there, and it was coming out of the bakery that I ran into her for the first time in almost ten years. We kissed and hugged and asked each other questions and said we must get together some time for coffee. I asked how her writing was, because she often wrote very good poems. At least I had admired her poetry when she showed it to me. The Norwegian was very modest about her own talents, and her poetry writing was certainly one of her talents. I remember that the meeting was somewhat awkward because she was with a man whom I presume was her partner. We did not exchange telephone numbers or make any plans other than to say that we should get together for coffee some time. I took the carrot cake to a nearby meeting for the other members, some of whom had anniversaries. The cake was meant to celebrate those landmarks in their sobriety. All through the meeting I thought of the Norwegian, how good she looked, how she had not changed a bit in the years since I had seen her last. She stood tall and erect outside the bakery, still the dancer. I sensed that we each wanted to run into the other’s arms, to embrace but not let go, to make love right there on the street, in front of everyone standing in front of the bodegas and the botanicas. I sensed that we wanted to become obsessive about each other once again. I completely forgot about making the amends and only wanted to get back to where we had left off ten years earlier.

7.

When the novel was published, Mickey Mack Coole gave a series of readings downtown, and one day he called the Norwegian to say hello and to tell her that he was going to be reading at the oldest bar downtown, the one where they used to meet and then went off to a midtown hotel. Would she be interested in coming to the reading?

            I don’t think that is a good idea, she said. I’m engaged to be married.

            There was a pause.

            It’s a nice idea, though, she said.

            Afterward, Mickey Mack told himself, well, at least she said it was nice idea. Later that week he gave the reading, and towards the end of the set, he saw her in the back of the room. She waved discreetly and he nodded back to her. Afterward, he couldn’t wait to say hello, to speak with her, to ask how she was. He hoped that she didn’t leave before he had a chance to say hello.

            People came up after the reading to speak with him, and he lost sight of the Norwegian. He thought perhaps she had left, and maybe that was for the better. He now understood that this obsession was just another manifestation of his overall addictive personality. It had nothing to do with love, and everything to do with trying to fill a bottomless pit that craved sex, drink, drugs, attention, gambling, anything to fill it. A theologian once told him that this hole was god-shaped, and he told the theologian to go fuck himself. The theologian walked away, his feelings hurt. Now he had to find him and make an amends to him too, because now he could see that the theologian was right.

            The bar thinned out, and he did not see her, but as he prepared to leave, she came over to say hello.

            I’m supposed to be at a dance class, she said.

            How are you? he asked, hugging her and kissing her on the cheek. You look so well.

            I’ve gotten fat, she said.

            No, no, he repeated, you look so well.

            I still work at the university, she said. The same job I’ve had for years, the same apartment, same partner.

            Still getting married?

            On hold, she laughed, as of yesterday. Issues.

            Oh, yeah, issues, he said, they have a way of appearing at the worst moments.

            But then her girlfriend whom she was with wanted to leave.

            Can we get together some time? he asked.

            She looked uncertain about that.

            I’m not sure, she said, but then said, maybe. Give me a call. Do you have my number?

            Are you in the telephone book?

            Yes, I am, she said.

            Then I’ll look it up, he said.

            But he already had her telephone number written down from that first time he had looked it up.

            When can I call? he asked.

            Anytime, she said, waving to him, going off with her friend.

            She was slightly tipsy, and she did not so much stumble, as dance around the chairs as she walked off towards the door.

8.

His marriage had not been good for years. For one thing, his wife did not think he had a drinking problem. But then of course he had been her drinking companion for the better part of two decades. She told him that he had lost his charm when he got sober, but he did not think that he was a very charming drunk. She had forgotten about him coming home from a tour of the play in Scotland and England, when he had gotten so drunk that he thought he was back there, stood in the middle of the night and began to pee on their bedroom wall, right next to the bed, thinking he was back in a British pub where the men peed on the men’s room wall that was a metal trough. How charming was that? He had not had a drink in over six years, which was a kind of miracle, he thought, and he was at a point in his sobriety where he wanted to make amends to everyone he thought he had harmed. This did not include his wife, for some reason, who still antagonized him for not drinking anymore, but it also included her because she was the one who regularly demanded that he make an amends to her, and then to tell her who he had affairs with, and when. When his wife drank, she did not so much drink for herself, as at him, or at least he felt as if that was what she did. He had heard it said that feelings were not facts, but he never understood what that meant. Feelings are facts! They are palpable and real, if not always accurate assessments of what really was happening. So he got it into his head that he had to make an amend to the Norwegian for his past behavior. He had never treated her well, he thought. He had made her an object of his desire, nothing more nor nothing less. She had always been this beautiful thing in his mind and, by extension, when they were together, beyond his fingertips. Even when he thought of the Norwegian, it was not as a human being but as his own personal sex machine. He had never once taken into consideration the complex nature of her being. She actually was a fairly complex person, had lived broadly in the world, traveled and seen things. She was well educated, a very good poet herself. When she spoke about things, her thinking was complex, never simplistic, and her heart was always in the right place politically and socially. He liked her taste in music and books, movies and performances. She regularly attended dance concerts. She was, like Mickey Mack, an avid walker of the city, adventurously going anywhere new, including to remote parts of the outer boroughs. He remembered all of these things about her as he thought to make his amends. That’s when he called her one hot summer night when no one was in his apartment, and she invited him over for coffee. He didn’t drink coffee late at night, but he still walked over to her place for a visit. As he walked uptown, he recalled their past encounters, the excitement of seeing each other, the passion to their love-making, the way her body lingered in his mind long after he had left her. Her own partner was away, she had said, and he had told the Norwegian that so was his partner away, and when he arrived at her apartment, she invited him in, giving him a mild peck on the cheek, no hug, no pulling him to a bed, stripping off her clothes, and having a go with him. They sat and talked. She had one of those French cafetieres, and made herself a very strong black coffee, so he knew that she was probably already halfway on her way to being drunk, so he did not worry about making an amend to her because she might wake the next morning and forget what it was he said. At one point in the evening, she did go into the other room to change, as her clothes had become soaked through with sweat from the temperature and humidity, and he was likewise soaked through but could not change. When she came back into the room, she wore the shortest skirt Mickey Mack had ever seen, and her top was very revealing, showing every curve of her body, including her breasts. He once knew so much about her breasts. She did not like them, she had said, and it was true that when they would first get together, her breasts sagged in a way that one might associate with an older woman, not a vibrant, young dancer. But her breasts were actually one of the nicest parts of her. For Mickey Mack, they were like barometers that read her emotions. Whenever she became aroused, her breasts would swell, it would seem, to twice their size, get hard and firm, and were anything but sagging. When she was aroused, her breasts were simply beautiful, and he could see through the sheerness of the top’s fabric that she was turned on. He wanted to go over to her and put his hands on her breasts and begin to kiss her. But now he was sober and such spontaneity did not come easily, not to mention that his conscience was sitting on his shoulder, reminding him that he came to the flat to make an amend, not to make love. Let’s go out and get some air, she said, I need another bottle of wine. So Mickey Mack went out with the Norwegian to find out if any place was open this late at night. Her neighborhood was very convenient, and only a block from her place, there were shops, and maybe one of them had a bottle of wine for her. But it was already much too late to buy wine, so she settled on a six-pack of beer at a bodega. All the men in the bodega looked at her prancing around the shop in her short short skirt and her revealing top, and they kept making comments about her in Spanish. Mickey Mack remembered that the Norwegian loved an audience, despite appearing to be quite shy, and she never turned down a chance to strut, to show off, to make men look at her, even if she had no interest in them at all. There were times when he found her exhibitionism refreshing and then at other times he was appalled by her behavior, turning himself into a judgmental, self-righteous prig. Long ago, in early sobriety, he had learned that his number-one character defect was self-righteous anger, and when he tamped down the anger, sometimes all he had left was a ball of self-righteousness. He had never known this about himself before. Perhaps it was all those years of Catholic schooling, but something made him prudishly self-righteous, and he was feeling a bit of that in the bodega as she strutted up and down the narrow aisles, looking for items to buy. Mickey Mack decided that he’d had enough and wanted to go home. He was hot and sticky from the weather and wanted to take a shower, to read a book, and go to sleep. The Norwegian settled on a six-pack of European beer, some Spanish crackers, and some cheese. They walked back to her corner, but Mickey Mack told her that he needed to get home, he was expecting an important telephone call early the next morning. Perhaps they could get together again soon. She put down her bag and wrapped her arms around his shoulder and forcefully pulled him towards her. She stuck her tongue in his mouth and grinded her crotch into his body rhythmically. It all came back in a flash. But then she stopped, picked up her bag, and walked off. He could see the cheeks of her ass sticking out from the bottom of the skirt and the defined curve of her waist underneath the halter. Then he turned and walked home in the hot night back to his empty apartment. The next morning he called her and said that because it was so hot, he was going to drive to one of the beaches in Brooklyn. Would she like to come along? She said that she did not have to go to work as it was the summer holidays for the university, and she had just bought a new bikini bathing suit which she would wear if they went swimming, but Mickey Mack was not intending to go swimming, only to sit on the boardwalk and let the sea breeze waft over him. They drove to Brighton Beach that morning and walked on the boardwalk amid the Russians playing chess, strolling, roller-blading, bicycling, and sitting around talking about God and humanity, the will to live and the thoughts of dying, of what life meant, and other such things that Russians talked about when they got together, even when they were not drinking vodka. On a bench facing the sea, Mickey Mack made his amends to the Norwegian. She had worn a pair of khaki shorts and a linen shirt and had on a pair of sandals, and as they sat on the bench, she removed the linen shirt, so she sat there in her yellow bikini top and her khaki shorts, barefoot. At first she laughed, thinking Mickey Mack was joking, but once she realized that he was serious, she cried. They embraced, and they held that embrace for a long time. It was a deeply human embrace. They were connected on that bench the way two people rarely are. After a long time, they kissed, and once again the chemistry of their kissing ignited everything else, that whole cascade of obsessive behavior that they had done with each other a decade earlier. After the intensity of their kissing and holding each other subsided, they sat looking out at the sea. This is a deeply spiritual moment, Mickey Mack said. The Norwegian did not answer. She had once told him that she thought that her problem was that she did not believe in god and had no spiritual life outside of writing poetry, and when she went through long periods when she did not write, she felt empty and suicidal. She had just gotten over a long suicidal period when Mickey Mack had called the other day, and it had been broken by her writing a new poem, the first one in over a year. Could he read it? he asked. No, she said, I’m not ready to show it to anyone yet. Maybe one day soon, she added. From that point onward into the rest of the summer, they saw each other constantly. They had sex in hotels, motels, in his place when no one was there, in her place when her partner was away, in his car at beach parking lots on Long Island. Sometimes she called him from work at the university and asked him to meet her at her apartment in a few minutes. It was her lunch hour and instead of eating lunch, she had sex with Mickey Mack Coole, quickly, passionately, thoroughly, and then she went back to work, planning to have a go again later in the day and into the evening. Ever since Mickey Mack had made the amends, he and the Norwegian had become love junkies. It was like it was ten years earlier, only more compulsive, more obsessive, the hunger impossible to slake. She had put on some weight, not a lot, nor was she fat, but she was now fuller, more voluptuous, a woman in her full glory physically. There was no part of this woman that he didn’t like, even adore, and in turn, she seemed to like everything about him. It reminded Mickey Mack how loveless his own marriage had become. This was what love-making was supposed to feel like. They drove outside the city to motels that charged by the hour. Going to these places made it feel like he was seeing a hooker, and this excited her even more. The Norwegian said, I want to be your whore. I want to do whatever you tell me to do. I want to lick you and suck you and writhe underneath you for as long as it is possible. I want you to tie me up and blindfold me. I want you to do whatever you want with me. But her drinking was far worse than ten years earlier. She stumbled. She slurred her words. She repeated herself. Sometimes she laughed or cried for no reason, became unpredictable, worrisome. She often spoke about killing herself, and told him that she was a bad person, a worthless human being, about how she betrayed her partner without once thinking about his feelings. Once she was with Mickey Mack, she said, she did not even think about her partner’s feelings. Mickey Mack told her that suicide was a permanent solution to a temporary problem. But the Norwegian saw no humor in that remark.

9.

In the autumn, a friend went away for the year and gave me the keys to his apartment to use for writing. The place was to be scraped and painted during his absence, and in return to the free use of the apartment, I was to oversee the refurbishment work. So the apartment, besides its myriad books on shelves that reached up twelve feet towards the high ceiling, was like the dramatic set for a play, with painters’ drop cloths covering furniture and the floors, although work had yet to begin. Once a week the Norwegian and I got together there. Usually she brought a bottle of vodka or a six pack of beer. As in the old days, she took off her clothes immediately upon entering the apartment, but because she was so instinctively theatrical, she liked to prance around this stage-set of an apartment completely naked, literally dancing from place to place, taking down books, reading them aloud, especially if it were poetry, and then flitting off like a sylph. She would laugh and run around the couches, and her laugh had become insane. We took showers together, soaping each other down, embracing, kissing. But in this new cycle of our lives, we did not make love first, then have foreplay. Most of the evening, we sat around and talked, reading books aloud to each, though, true, she was naked and I was either naked or not, depending on my mood or my own feelings about my state of fitness. If I had been running and working out, I didn’t mind sitting around naked. But if I was out of shape, I didn’t want to undress until we took a shower or made love. Most of the evening was a build up to one long bout of sex, though, as I said, we now talked and talked, usually about books, poetry, movies, amends, sobriety, drinking, psychiatry, relationships, our partners—she liked hers, I no longer cared for mine—studies at university, shopping, politics, philosophy, the usual things two intelligent people discuss. There were literally thousands upon thousands of books in my friend’s apartment. He was a renowned professor and, in fact, I had been one of his graduate students years ago. We had formed a friendship which had lasted until the present. He was even a kind of confidante, and as we had gotten to be better friends, I had become his too. His own marriage had dissolved recently. He had been having affairs with some of his graduate students. His wife found out. That is how he came to purchase this large apartment, ostensibly for his books, which he planned to donate to his university upon his death. There were some great volumes therein. My friend was one of the great intellectuals of his time, lauded the world over for his subject area. He was a very dramatic man himself, and I think he appreciated my complicated life. He knew that I was going to do more than writing at his apartment and, not only did he not disapprove, he was delighted to know that it would be used so complexly. Don’t forget to wash the sheets before I return, he had said, the last time I had seen the old professor. Once a week, in the evening, I stayed on later than usual, and the Norwegian came by, ringing the bell after work. She often brought Chinese food, which we ate. One day she called me at my friend’s place and I heard her voice on recording, asking me to pick up. She was at home, having taken the day off from work. Could I come to visit her? My own work was not going well, so I said I would. How soon can you be here? she asked. I’ll leave now and walk up along the park, I said. The park was just outside my friend’s door, so I didn’t even need to go by my own apartment, but could slip further uptown along the park’s promenade. The walk was a little over a mile, and took me twenty minutes to get there. When I entered her apartment, she was wearing a negligee and pulled me into her messy bedroom, closing the French doors behind her. She moved the piles of clothing and lay down on her back, spread eagle. We made love immediately, not even taking off my trousers first. They lay in a heap at my ankles, twisting me up. Even as we made love, she kept talking. I had never seen her so vocally animated. But I knew from her history that she was bi-polar, so maybe this was one of her manic phases, although I had been with her during some of those cycles, and it was never verbal but nearly always physical, running here and there, writing, lovemaking, drinking copiously, dancing, running, traveling, reading, making telephone calls. Now she was talking dirty, telling me how much she wanted to be fucked by me, and this made me come quickly. I am a total sucker for women who talk dirty. Afterwards, I went around the corner to the organic bakery for rolls which we ate as we talked and laughed. I realized that it was the first time we had made love and she was not drunk, she was not even drinking, and although she could be occasionally sullen and moody, even suicidal, this day she beamed sunshine, being alive and well. Let’s do this until the day we die, she said. All right, I said, in complete harmony with her.

10.

The next time we met was the last time. When I picked her up in my car, she was already drunk and agitated, and she made me stop in a mall to buy beer and vodka. We went to a motel in New Jersey that overlooked the city across the Hudson River. What am I doing? I asked. But that did not stop me from doing it. She seemed so fragile and uncertain, at once shameful and guilty. I was still married, empty as that marriage was. I had not slept with my wife in over five years. We argued all the time, my wife and I. We were not argumentative, the Norwegian and I, only disconnected, disjointed, out of sync, in fact, living on two separate planets. I was sober as the proverbial judge, and she was soused, very emotional, up and down in a matter of seconds. We had paid for two hours in the love motel. Outside, there was a disturbance, at first in the hallway, then in the parking lot outside the windows of our room. The motel was situated at the opposite end of a tiny strip mall. I heard gunshots outside, and when I looked onto the parking lot, I saw two or three gunmen shooting at several policemen, and the police returning fire. Once again the Norwegian lay naked on the bed. She was like a Matisse odalisque, more a work of art than a human being, as her skin was flawless and golden, and her curves were sculptural, long and elegant. Come here, she said. She held up a can of beer. Have one sip with me, she said. No, I said emphatically. There are police outside. There is shooting going back and forth, we could get shot ourselves. A bullet might richochet off a wall. Have one sip, she said. At that moment, the Norwegian was like statuary, like a Rodin or Degas sculpture of a human figure. There was no one more beautiful, I thought. But there was no one more dangerous either. I’m not going to make it out of here alive, I thought.

11.

Mickey Mack kneeled and clasped his hands. He kneeled beside the bed. He clasped his hands the way he did as a child, and he leaned his head forward, nearly touching the tops of his hand. He prayed. God, he said, if you get me out of this one, I’ll never see her again. He prayed to himself, not aloud, but his intentions were obvious to the Norwegian, who looked alarmed. She was a dedicated atheist, and any thought of God or religion was anathema to her. She once told Mickey Mack that she liked how they lived outside of conventional morality, and yet it was her who was torn by guilt and shame, not him, the lapsed Irish Catholic. But she was not really focused on Mickey Mack to any great extent. Instead, she was lost to the noise in her own head. She looked at herself in the mirror now, examining her breasts. By the shape of her breasts, Mickey Mack knew that the Norwegian was turned on, but all the gunfire had turned him off. Her drunkenness had turned him off, too, as did her request that he have one sip of beer with her. He knew that this moment was the closest he had ever come to taking a drink since he had put it down years ago. He battled with the idea of accommodating her, of joining her drunkenness, so that they could be on the same page, even the same planet. As she examined herself in the mirror and posed and looked and looked at herself, Mickey Mack realized that he was an interchangeable part in the Norwegian’s life. Anyone could be fulfilling this role in the New Jersey motel. Now she laughed, she cried, she laughed again. She drank vodka, then beer. After the shooting stopped outside, and more police came, it turned quiet, was a beautiful night as he guided her to her clothing, getting her dressed, her giggling as she lost her balance, and finally directing her towards the door, down the hall, and out into the parking lot to his car. She was quite wobbly, really wonky, and he practically carried her to her door when they got back to the city. The Norwegian called him a few days later, speaking in a squeaky, mousy voice that he didn’t recognize. She felt bad about what she was doing to her partner. Her psychotherapist thought that their affair was a very bad idea. Mickey Mack remembered his foxhole prayer from a few nights earlier. But I don’t want to stop, she said. I love my partner, but I want to keep seeing you every week. Maybe we should lay off for a few weeks, she said, and then resume it after that. All right, Mickey Mack said, that sounds like a good idea. Do you think it’s all right? she asked. Then she added: If we get lonely or have to see each other, of course, we don’t have to wait a few weeks. This is not carved in stone. It sounds like a good idea, he repeated. But he knew that he was humoring her. Still, she thanked him for being open to this idea. Let’s talk in a few weeks, she said, and hung up the telephone. Shortly after that conversation, Mickey Mack interviewed for a job in another city, was offered it, accepted, and a few months later moved away. He still had the Norwegians telephone number in his book. He still had a sheaf of her poems which he occasionally read when he thought about her. But he was two hundred and fifty miles away. In the first year after he moved away, Mickey Mack came back to the city regularly, and sometimes he did think of calling her. His own marriage had disintegrated, and then he began to stay at his apartment in the other city, two-hundred-and-fifty miles away.

12.

Once he did call her long distance, and her partner answered, so Mickey Mack hung up the telephone quickly. A few minutes later, the telephone rang, and it was her partner. Mickey Mack answered the telephone, using a foreign accent once he saw that the number on his machine was hers. You called me, her partner said. Who are you? Who do you want? Wrong number, Mickey Mack said, using the foreign accent. It was a kind of Mediterranean one, he thought, but maybe it was more latino. Sometimes he used an Indian accent to order food, and perhaps he should have used the Indian accent. It was his best accent yet. Wrong number, Mickey Mack said, using the Indian accent now. Who is this? the partner asked. Wrong number, wrong number, Mickey Mack said. Mickey Mack hung up and the partner did not call back. A few years later, he was divorced, and he moved out of the city where he had been living for five years to a more rural place, one where he stayed for only eighteen months before he packed it in and moved abroad. In London, where he lived for the past decade, Mickey Mack wrote, I have not thought about the Norwegian, much less anything else from the old days in America. Mickey Mack did not get back to New York very often in that decade, going to the city only once or twice, staying in hotels or with friends. Once, he stayed in a hotel on the Upper West Side in which they used to go. Back then, it was one of their sleazy hotels, but now it was upscale and expensive, a boutique hotel, they called it. Even if he had wanted to call her, he no longer had her telephone number. There were some occasions, back in England, when he did think of her at odd moments. He joined one of those social networks online and he thought of searching her name, but then forgot about doing it. Prior to that, he had Googled her name, but nothing ever came up. He figured that she must be married to her partner or someone else and had a different name. He hadn’t seen her poems in little magazines either. Once, he was in Nice, walking down the Rue Meyerbeer, and he thought of his old friend whose apartment where he often met the Norwegian for their trysts. His friend had been an expert on the Russian writer Chekhov, and Mickey Mack imagined he was thinking of his friend because of walking on Chekhov’s songlines in Nice. Chekhov had lived a few blocks north of Meyerbeer in a boarding house for Russians. There were not many Norwegians in Nice, but it was still filled with Russians. Mickey Mack wondered what had happened to all of his friend’s books. Had the university where he taught inherited them or perhaps one of his daughters now owned all of them? He couldn’t imagine his friend’s daughters wanting his flat because, other than the bookshelves, it was not a very comfortable place. It had been a convent, then sold to developers, who turned it into flats, my friend purchasing one of them, Mickey Mack recalled. The ceilings were high, the rooms were spacious, and yet you could hear people in other apartments. There was no sense of total privacy. Thinking of his friend’s apartment, as Mickey Mack walked on Rue Meyerbeer in Nice, he suddenly recalled the Norwegian walking around the apartment naked. The memory was startling, stopping him in his tracks. She was voluptuous then, with a great ass and legs, and her muscular dancer’s back. Mickey Mack sat on the couch, watching her reach for a volume of poetry on a high shelf. It turned out to be a book by W. B. Yeats, a selection of his poems. The Norwegian asked him what his favorite Yeats poem was. He said it was “The Second Coming,” though that was not entirely true. He preferred the much later poems by Yeats. She read that poem aloud, standing there, erect, statuesque, naked. It reminded him, at the time, of a performance piece that one might see downtown in the 1960s at some place like the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery. The result of this performance put the poem in a wholly new context, and so Mickey Mack Coole listened to the poem as if for the first time. Then she read several more poems, still standing there naked, golden in the twilight as light streamed through the large, main window of the living room. Then the Norwegian sat on the couch and asked Mickey Mack Coole what it was he liked about her. It is not so much what I like, he said, as that I don’t dislike anything about you. There is nothing I dislike. But then he thought of things he liked about her. He told her that he liked her hair, her skin, her broken smile, her eyes (though he still could not remember their color), her breasts, her poems, her figure, her voice, her gentleness, her sensuality, her daring, her bohemian ways, even her drunkenness. She was crying as he spoke. It was like being in love, and it was the last time they

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE NORWEGIAN

 

“It is on this moment of balance I must end: the strange moment when spirituality rejects ethics, when happiness springs from the absence of hope, when the mind finds its justification in the body.”

                        —Albert Camus

1.

What he did remember was her naked in a hotel room. She was blonde everywhere, curvy, and she called him to her side. He went there like a little dog, her terrier, she said, or perhaps he makes up that detail, as she did not talk, they did not talk but made love, every chance they had, over many years and partners, always in sleazy hotels, her naked, he said, and calling me to come to her, to come there by her side, my god, he said, I cannot regret any of it, thoughts of her rose up in me, he said, at home, at work, in bed, out walking down the street, until I rushed to call her, asking when we might meet once again, and she would answer that it might be possible in a week. A week! It was both a blessing and a curse. A week could be like an eternity. But then the week passed and she showed up, and they talked, and then went off. She undressed quickly, and they made love. Was there any love-making as good as theirs? He doubted it. He doubted if anyone ever made love the way they used to.

 

2.

Mickey Mack had taken his wife to the airport. They said goodbye. She boarded the plane and flew off for the next few months. Their children were with her. It was back in the Eighties. He was a young man still and the Norwegian was just a woman. They used to drink a lot together, and one hot summer night, he told her that he had air conditioning. Would she like to come by to cool off? She did want to cool off, she said. They walked around the corner from the bar where they had been drinking and went inside the cool apartment. He cranked up the air conditioning. They made love on the flimsy couch, the one that had to be thrown away shortly. It was like an addiction more than being in love. As soon as they finished, they had to do it again. This went on for a few years, and he couldn’t remember how it stopped. Before it stopped, Mickey Mack would see the Norwegian once a week, once a month, no more than that, and sometimes they would not see each other for a few months as her or his life intervened in the love affair. Then it began again, often after a poetry reading Mickey Mack Coole might give, and she was in the audience. He remembers a bar downtown. It was the oldest bar in the city. Afterwards, they drank. Then they found a cheap, sleazy hotel. He paid for it, the hourly rate, usually an hour or two was all they needed. She would strip off her clothes quickly, and so would he. They would have sex quickly, too, only later engaging in foreplay until, aroused again, they had sex, over and over, until one or the other was exhausted, then he dressed and went home to his wife and children and she went home to her own partner. Once, he found a good rate on a better hotel, and as he dressed to go home, she lay naked in the bed, as she had decided to spend the night there alone. I like hotels, she said.

3.

I can’t remember how that first cycle ended, but it did. One day I saw her out with someone else. If we met on the street, it was always warm and friendly. There were always promises to get together for coffee, to catch up, to read each other’s poems and stories. But we never did. One reason why we stopped seeing each other was because eventually I stopped drinking, and she was a big drinker. I was forty-two years old, and one day I stopped, not like that, I went off to a rehab. It was a slow process, taking me years to find my sea legs again. Whenever the Norwegian and I used to get together, we drank heavily. Drink did not seem to affect her, though. She would be okay after enormous amounts of vodka and beer. I would be drunk by the point she only seemed tipsy. Her composure stayed the same, and she remained stunningly elegant and beautiful in her unadorned way. She dressed plainly, wore no make-up, but she often hid her good looks by how she dressed or how she walked on the street or how she interacted with people socially. She had a way of being invisible when she wanted to be. But if you looked carefully, as I once did, it was obvious how stunningly beautiful she was. When she was naked, there was no one like her, everything seemed just right, and seeing her, it was impossible to think of anyone or anything else.

4.

Despite her simple, elegant beauty, she drank heavily, even to catastrophe. Once Mickey Mack came home from teaching at the nearby university where he occasionally taught an evening workshop, and she was sprawled on the floor of the entryway to his building, passed out. He got her awake and sent her home, and the next time he saw her, she had no memory of the incident. She told him that, as a child growing up in Africa, she had been raped. She said that she had difficulty forming lasting relationships with people. That is why their relationship was so exceptional. It had gone on for years, if unconventionally, on and off, months lapsing before they ran off to another cheap hotel in midtown. The last time he saw her was that night in the better hotel when she stayed on after he left to go home. It was after the performance of a play which he had written and which was being performed late at night in the basement of a midtown restaurant. They went off to the hotel. She stripped immediately. Seeing her naked brought it all back, the beautiful obsession for her. The Norwegian was like a drug. He could not get enough of her, nor could she apparently get enough of Mickey Mack Coole. After sex, they engaged in foreplay, then made love several more times. Mickey Mack was exhausted, crazy. As the play did not begin until midnight, it was probably seven in the morning when he got ready to leave. When he dressed and left the hotel, the street was already crowded with people going to work. He swore that he would give up drinking, but also he would stop seeing the Norwegian. At the end of his drinking, he was carrying on like this with several people. But once he stopped drinking, he kept thinking about the Norwegian the way a drunk thinks nostalgically of drinking after he or she put it down. He would be working for a newspaper on an assignment in the Far East, and he would think of her. He saw her naked, always naked, statuesque, and somehow perfect. She had her flaws, to be sure, but he did not see her excessively drunk or even drinking. He saw her as a dancer—and she was one—her legs strong and muscular. He saw her drinking the way dancer’s did, just as part of their aura, nothing to take notice of. He saw her face, fair but not too pale, her blonde hair, a slight scar on her face—that face without any make-up, and yet, as he always described it, somewhat inadequately—stunning.

5.

Years went by, each living their lives, not seeing each other, not even casually on the street, out walking in the neighborhood, shopping or going to the bakery. Mickey Mack did not see her again. The big change for him was getting sober. He did not hang out in bars anymore, much less go to late-night shows at the theatre. He tried to get his own life in order, to deal with the wreckage of the past, as his new friends called it. There was an inventory to take, amends to do. One by one, he spoke or wrote to people about his past behavior. He had thought of himself as a good person, and yet what he unveiled was anything but good after he got sober and went to counseling. He was not a bad person, like they say, but he was a sick one. Most of his illness was mental—how he perceived the world. He needed to learn how others perceived the world, as he had never considered those points of view in his own life. Everything was about him—about gratifying his immediate needs. A doctor once told him that he suffered from the phenomenon of craving, and he never forgot what that doctor told him. He smoked, ate, walked, read, wrote, talked, and even slept in regard to that phenomenon of craving. A writer once called his own addiction the algebra of need, and Mickey Mack Coole thought that the writer was writing about the same itch that wanted scratching. He had once met that writer downtown at a party at a friend’s loft. The writer was twenty or thirty years older than Mickey Mack Coole, and yet they seemed almost like contemporaries. He remembered the writer wearing a suit and tie and he kept his short-brimmed hat on during the entire party. The one oddity to his dress were his black, high-top Converse sneakers. The writer and Mickey Mack had even talked about wants and needs and how there was a great gulf between these two things. Wanting was insatiable, unfathomably deep, an endless pit. He was not sure what happened to the writer after that night. Mickey Mack knew that the writer had given up his heroin addiction, but he understood that he still drank heavily and did other things. Mickey Mack had tried to get help for himself, checking into the rehab for that entire summer, going to after-care for six months, attending meetings in his neighborhood. He was a changed man. He even tried to implement the new suggestions into his life. The idea was to admit that he was not in charge; everything was out of his hands. Gradually life settled down. He got used to this new routine, even began to like it a bit. Materially his life did not improve, in fact, got worse and worse. But this was not about material growth; it was about taking care of yourself. An inside job, one of his new friends called it. The teaching jobs disappeared. The newspaper work went. Yet he did not drink. It was a kind of miracle. Slowly his life improved.

 

6.

Five or six years passed this way, and I even managed to complete a book I had been working on for twenty years or more, back to a time before I knew the Norwegian. I believe it was that phrase and nothing else that reignited my obsession for her. One day I thought: I’ve been working on this project from a time before I knew the Norwegian. One thing led to another, as at first I simply thought, why do you call her “the Norwegian”? The woman has a name. She is a full human being. Calling her the Norwegian is disrespectful. It could be construed as sexist, your objectifying her, and let’s face it, that’s what you’ve done with her over the years. You actually know very little about the Norwegian, I thought, and then I castigated myself again. Stop calling her the Norwegian! She had a name. Use it. But calling her the Norwegian was the only way I could see her, if not naked, then as a fellow human being. She was the Norwegian, I thought. That is how I affectionately thought of her. But it was during one of these obsessive mental rambles about her that I looked up her name in the telephone directory and saw that she still lived a mile north of me in her tiny apartment near the old elevated train tracks. Perhaps it was time to make an amends to the Norwegian, I said. Yes, maybe it was time to make an amends. You had done that with just about everyone but your wife who kept reminding you that you had not made an amends to her. I often went up to the Norwegians neighborhood to buy carrot cake from the organic bakery there, and it was coming out of the bakery that I ran into her for the first time in almost ten years. We kissed and hugged and asked each other questions and said we must get together some time for coffee. I asked how her writing was, because she often wrote very good poems. At least I had admired her poetry when she showed it to me. The Norwegian was very modest about her own talents, and her poetry writing was certainly one of her talents. I remember that the meeting was somewhat awkward because she was with a man whom I presume was her partner. We did not exchange telephone numbers or make any plans other than to say that we should get together for coffee some time. I took the carrot cake to a nearby meeting for the other members, some of whom had anniversaries. The cake was meant to celebrate those landmarks in their sobriety. All through the meeting I thought of the Norwegian, how good she looked, how she had not changed a bit in the years since I had seen her last. She stood tall and erect outside the bakery, still the dancer. I sensed that we each wanted to run into the other’s arms, to embrace but not let go, to make love right there on the street, in front of everyone standing in front of the bodegas and the botanicas. I sensed that we wanted to become obsessive about each other once again. I completely forgot about making the amends and only wanted to get back to where we had left off ten years earlier.

7.

When the novel was published, Mickey Mack Coole gave a series of readings downtown, and one day he called the Norwegian to say hello and to tell her that he was going to be reading at the oldest bar downtown, the one where they used to meet and then went off to a midtown hotel. Would she be interested in coming to the reading?

            I don’t think that is a good idea, she said. I’m engaged to be married.

            There was a pause.

            It’s a nice idea, though, she said.

            Afterward, Mickey Mack told himself, well, at least she said it was nice idea. Later that week he gave the reading, and towards the end of the set, he saw her in the back of the room. She waved discreetly and he nodded back to her. Afterward, he couldn’t wait to say hello, to speak with her, to ask how she was. He hoped that she didn’t leave before he had a chance to say hello.

            People came up after the reading to speak with him, and he lost sight of the Norwegian. He thought perhaps she had left, and maybe that was for the better. He now understood that this obsession was just another manifestation of his overall addictive personality. It had nothing to do with love, and everything to do with trying to fill a bottomless pit that craved sex, drink, drugs, attention, gambling, anything to fill it. A theologian once told him that this hole was god-shaped, and he told the theologian to go fuck himself. The theologian walked away, his feelings hurt. Now he had to find him and make an amends to him too, because now he could see that the theologian was right.

            The bar thinned out, and he did not see her, but as he prepared to leave, she came over to say hello.

            I’m supposed to be at a dance class, she said.

            How are you? he asked, hugging her and kissing her on the cheek. You look so well.

            I’ve gotten fat, she said.

            No, no, he repeated, you look so well.

            I still work at the university, she said. The same job I’ve had for years, the same apartment, same partner.

            Still getting married?

            On hold, she laughed, as of yesterday. Issues.

            Oh, yeah, issues, he said, they have a way of appearing at the worst moments.

            But then her girlfriend whom she was with wanted to leave.

            Can we get together some time? he asked.

            She looked uncertain about that.

            I’m not sure, she said, but then said, maybe. Give me a call. Do you have my number?

            Are you in the telephone book?

            Yes, I am, she said.

            Then I’ll look it up, he said.

            But he already had her telephone number written down from that first time he had looked it up.

            When can I call? he asked.

            Anytime, she said, waving to him, going off with her friend.

            She was slightly tipsy, and she did not so much stumble, as dance around the chairs as she walked off towards the door.

8.

His marriage had not been good for years. For one thing, his wife did not think he had a drinking problem. But then of course he had been her drinking companion for the better part of two decades. She told him that he had lost his charm when he got sober, but he did not think that he was a very charming drunk. She had forgotten about him coming home from a tour of the play in Scotland and England, when he had gotten so drunk that he thought he was back there, stood in the middle of the night and began to pee on their bedroom wall, right next to the bed, thinking he was back in a British pub where the men peed on the men’s room wall that was a metal trough. How charming was that? He had not had a drink in over six years, which was a kind of miracle, he thought, and he was at a point in his sobriety where he wanted to make amends to everyone he thought he had harmed. This did not include his wife, for some reason, who still antagonized him for not drinking anymore, but it also included her because she was the one who regularly demanded that he make an amends to her, and then to tell her who he had affairs with, and when. When his wife drank, she did not so much drink for herself, as at him, or at least he felt as if that was what she did. He had heard it said that feelings were not facts, but he never understood what that meant. Feelings are facts! They are palpable and real, if not always accurate assessments of what really was happening. So he got it into his head that he had to make an amend to the Norwegian for his past behavior. He had never treated her well, he thought. He had made her an object of his desire, nothing more nor nothing less. She had always been this beautiful thing in his mind and, by extension, when they were together, beyond his fingertips. Even when he thought of the Norwegian, it was not as a human being but as his own personal sex machine. He had never once taken into consideration the complex nature of her being. She actually was a fairly complex person, had lived broadly in the world, traveled and seen things. She was well educated, a very good poet herself. When she spoke about things, her thinking was complex, never simplistic, and her heart was always in the right place politically and socially. He liked her taste in music and books, movies and performances. She regularly attended dance concerts. She was, like Mickey Mack, an avid walker of the city, adventurously going anywhere new, including to remote parts of the outer boroughs. He remembered all of these things about her as he thought to make his amends. That’s when he called her one hot summer night when no one was in his apartment, and she invited him over for coffee. He didn’t drink coffee late at night, but he still walked over to her place for a visit. As he walked uptown, he recalled their past encounters, the excitement of seeing each other, the passion to their love-making, the way her body lingered in his mind long after he had left her. Her own partner was away, she had said, and he had told the Norwegian that so was his partner away, and when he arrived at her apartment, she invited him in, giving him a mild peck on the cheek, no hug, no pulling him to a bed, stripping off her clothes, and having a go with him. They sat and talked. She had one of those French cafetieres, and made herself a very strong black coffee, so he knew that she was probably already halfway on her way to being drunk, so he did not worry about making an amend to her because she might wake the next morning and forget what it was he said. At one point in the evening, she did go into the other room to change, as her clothes had become soaked through with sweat from the temperature and humidity, and he was likewise soaked through but could not change. When she came back into the room, she wore the shortest skirt Mickey Mack had ever seen, and her top was very revealing, showing every curve of her body, including her breasts. He once knew so much about her breasts. She did not like them, she had said, and it was true that when they would first get together, her breasts sagged in a way that one might associate with an older woman, not a vibrant, young dancer. But her breasts were actually one of the nicest parts of her. For Mickey Mack, they were like barometers that read her emotions. Whenever she became aroused, her breasts would swell, it would seem, to twice their size, get hard and firm, and were anything but sagging. When she was aroused, her breasts were simply beautiful, and he could see through the sheerness of the top’s fabric that she was turned on. He wanted to go over to her and put his hands on her breasts and begin to kiss her. But now he was sober and such spontaneity did not come easily, not to mention that his conscience was sitting on his shoulder, reminding him that he came to the flat to make an amend, not to make love. Let’s go out and get some air, she said, I need another bottle of wine. So Mickey Mack went out with the Norwegian to find out if any place was open this late at night. Her neighborhood was very convenient, and only a block from her place, there were shops, and maybe one of them had a bottle of wine for her. But it was already much too late to buy wine, so she settled on a six-pack of beer at a bodega. All the men in the bodega looked at her prancing around the shop in her short short skirt and her revealing top, and they kept making comments about her in Spanish. Mickey Mack remembered that the Norwegian loved an audience, despite appearing to be quite shy, and she never turned down a chance to strut, to show off, to make men look at her, even if she had no interest in them at all. There were times when he found her exhibitionism refreshing and then at other times he was appalled by her behavior, turning himself into a judgmental, self-righteous prig. Long ago, in early sobriety, he had learned that his number-one character defect was self-righteous anger, and when he tamped down the anger, sometimes all he had left was a ball of self-righteousness. He had never known this about himself before. Perhaps it was all those years of Catholic schooling, but something made him prudishly self-righteous, and he was feeling a bit of that in the bodega as she strutted up and down the narrow aisles, looking for items to buy. Mickey Mack decided that he’d had enough and wanted to go home. He was hot and sticky from the weather and wanted to take a shower, to read a book, and go to sleep. The Norwegian settled on a six-pack of European beer, some Spanish crackers, and some cheese. They walked back to her corner, but Mickey Mack told her that he needed to get home, he was expecting an important telephone call early the next morning. Perhaps they could get together again soon. She put down her bag and wrapped her arms around his shoulder and forcefully pulled him towards her. She stuck her tongue in his mouth and grinded her crotch into his body rhythmically. It all came back in a flash. But then she stopped, picked up her bag, and walked off. He could see the cheeks of her ass sticking out from the bottom of the skirt and the defined curve of her waist underneath the halter. Then he turned and walked home in the hot night back to his empty apartment. The next morning he called her and said that because it was so hot, he was going to drive to one of the beaches in Brooklyn. Would she like to come along? She said that she did not have to go to work as it was the summer holidays for the university, and she had just bought a new bikini bathing suit which she would wear if they went swimming, but Mickey Mack was not intending to go swimming, only to sit on the boardwalk and let the sea breeze waft over him. They drove to Brighton Beach that morning and walked on the boardwalk amid the Russians playing chess, strolling, roller-blading, bicycling, and sitting around talking about God and humanity, the will to live and the thoughts of dying, of what life meant, and other such things that Russians talked about when they got together, even when they were not drinking vodka. On a bench facing the sea, Mickey Mack made his amends to the Norwegian. She had worn a pair of khaki shorts and a linen shirt and had on a pair of sandals, and as they sat on the bench, she removed the linen shirt, so she sat there in her yellow bikini top and her khaki shorts, barefoot. At first she laughed, thinking Mickey Mack was joking, but once she realized that he was serious, she cried. They embraced, and they held that embrace for a long time. It was a deeply human embrace. They were connected on that bench the way two people rarely are. After a long time, they kissed, and once again the chemistry of their kissing ignited everything else, that whole cascade of obsessive behavior that they had done with each other a decade earlier. After the intensity of their kissing and holding each other subsided, they sat looking out at the sea. This is a deeply spiritual moment, Mickey Mack said. The Norwegian did not answer. She had once told him that she thought that her problem was that she did not believe in god and had no spiritual life outside of writing poetry, and when she went through long periods when she did not write, she felt empty and suicidal. She had just gotten over a long suicidal period when Mickey Mack had called the other day, and it had been broken by her writing a new poem, the first one in over a year. Could he read it? he asked. No, she said, I’m not ready to show it to anyone yet. Maybe one day soon, she added. From that point onward into the rest of the summer, they saw each other constantly. They had sex in hotels, motels, in his place when no one was there, in her place when her partner was away, in his car at beach parking lots on Long Island. Sometimes she called him from work at the university and asked him to meet her at her apartment in a few minutes. It was her lunch hour and instead of eating lunch, she had sex with Mickey Mack Coole, quickly, passionately, thoroughly, and then she went back to work, planning to have a go again later in the day and into the evening. Ever since Mickey Mack had made the amends, he and the Norwegian had become love junkies. It was like it was ten years earlier, only more compulsive, more obsessive, the hunger impossible to slake. She had put on some weight, not a lot, nor was she fat, but she was now fuller, more voluptuous, a woman in her full glory physically. There was no part of this woman that he didn’t like, even adore, and in turn, she seemed to like everything about him. It reminded Mickey Mack how loveless his own marriage had become. This was what love-making was supposed to feel like. They drove outside the city to motels that charged by the hour. Going to these places made it feel like he was seeing a hooker, and this excited her even more. The Norwegian said, I want to be your whore. I want to do whatever you tell me to do. I want to lick you and suck you and writhe underneath you for as long as it is possible. I want you to tie me up and blindfold me. I want you to do whatever you want with me. But her drinking was far worse than ten years earlier. She stumbled. She slurred her words. She repeated herself. Sometimes she laughed or cried for no reason, became unpredictable, worrisome. She often spoke about killing herself, and told him that she was a bad person, a worthless human being, about how she betrayed her partner without once thinking about his feelings. Once she was with Mickey Mack, she said, she did not even think about her partner’s feelings. Mickey Mack told her that suicide was a permanent solution to a temporary problem. But the Norwegian saw no humor in that remark.

9.

In the autumn, a friend went away for the year and gave me the keys to his apartment to use for writing. The place was to be scraped and painted during his absence, and in return to the free use of the apartment, I was to oversee the refurbishment work. So the apartment, besides its myriad books on shelves that reached up twelve feet towards the high ceiling, was like the dramatic set for a play, with painters’ drop cloths covering furniture and the floors, although work had yet to begin. Once a week the Norwegian and I got together there. Usually she brought a bottle of vodka or a six pack of beer. As in the old days, she took off her clothes immediately upon entering the apartment, but because she was so instinctively theatrical, she liked to prance around this stage-set of an apartment completely naked, literally dancing from place to place, taking down books, reading them aloud, especially if it were poetry, and then flitting off like a sylph. She would laugh and run around the couches, and her laugh had become insane. We took showers together, soaping each other down, embracing, kissing. But in this new cycle of our lives, we did not make love first, then have foreplay. Most of the evening, we sat around and talked, reading books aloud to each, though, true, she was naked and I was either naked or not, depending on my mood or my own feelings about my state of fitness. If I had been running and working out, I didn’t mind sitting around naked. But if I was out of shape, I didn’t want to undress until we took a shower or made love. Most of the evening was a build up to one long bout of sex, though, as I said, we now talked and talked, usually about books, poetry, movies, amends, sobriety, drinking, psychiatry, relationships, our partners—she liked hers, I no longer cared for mine—studies at university, shopping, politics, philosophy, the usual things two intelligent people discuss. There were literally thousands upon thousands of books in my friend’s apartment. He was a renowned professor and, in fact, I had been one of his graduate students years ago. We had formed a friendship which had lasted until the present. He was even a kind of confidante, and as we had gotten to be better friends, I had become his too. His own marriage had dissolved recently. He had been having affairs with some of his graduate students. His wife found out. That is how he came to purchase this large apartment, ostensibly for his books, which he planned to donate to his university upon his death. There were some great volumes therein. My friend was one of the great intellectuals of his time, lauded the world over for his subject area. He was a very dramatic man himself, and I think he appreciated my complicated life. He knew that I was going to do more than writing at his apartment and, not only did he not disapprove, he was delighted to know that it would be used so complexly. Don’t forget to wash the sheets before I return, he had said, the last time I had seen the old professor. Once a week, in the evening, I stayed on later than usual, and the Norwegian came by, ringing the bell after work. She often brought Chinese food, which we ate. One day she called me at my friend’s place and I heard her voice on recording, asking me to pick up. She was at home, having taken the day off from work. Could I come to visit her? My own work was not going well, so I said I would. How soon can you be here? she asked. I’ll leave now and walk up along the park, I said. The park was just outside my friend’s door, so I didn’t even need to go by my own apartment, but could slip further uptown along the park’s promenade. The walk was a little over a mile, and took me twenty minutes to get there. When I entered her apartment, she was wearing a negligee and pulled me into her messy bedroom, closing the French doors behind her. She moved the piles of clothing and lay down on her back, spread eagle. We made love immediately, not even taking off my trousers first. They lay in a heap at my ankles, twisting me up. Even as we made love, she kept talking. I had never seen her so vocally animated. But I knew from her history that she was bi-polar, so maybe this was one of her manic phases, although I had been with her during some of those cycles, and it was never verbal but nearly always physical, running here and there, writing, lovemaking, drinking copiously, dancing, running, traveling, reading, making telephone calls. Now she was talking dirty, telling me how much she wanted to be fucked by me, and this made me come quickly. I am a total sucker for women who talk dirty. Afterwards, I went around the corner to the organic bakery for rolls which we ate as we talked and laughed. I realized that it was the first time we had made love and she was not drunk, she was not even drinking, and although she could be occasionally sullen and moody, even suicidal, this day she beamed sunshine, being alive and well. Let’s do this until the day we die, she said. All right, I said, in complete harmony with her.

10.

The next time we met was the last time. When I picked her up in my car, she was already drunk and agitated, and she made me stop in a mall to buy beer and vodka. We went to a motel in New Jersey that overlooked the city across the Hudson River. What am I doing? I asked. But that did not stop me from doing it. She seemed so fragile and uncertain, at once shameful and guilty. I was still married, empty as that marriage was. I had not slept with my wife in over five years. We argued all the time, my wife and I. We were not argumentative, the Norwegian and I, only disconnected, disjointed, out of sync, in fact, living on two separate planets. I was sober as the proverbial judge, and she was soused, very emotional, up and down in a matter of seconds. We had paid for two hours in the love motel. Outside, there was a disturbance, at first in the hallway, then in the parking lot outside the windows of our room. The motel was situated at the opposite end of a tiny strip mall. I heard gunshots outside, and when I looked onto the parking lot, I saw two or three gunmen shooting at several policemen, and the police returning fire. Once again the Norwegian lay naked on the bed. She was like a Matisse odalisque, more a work of art than a human being, as her skin was flawless and golden, and her curves were sculptural, long and elegant. Come here, she said. She held up a can of beer. Have one sip with me, she said. No, I said emphatically. There are police outside. There is shooting going back and forth, we could get shot ourselves. A bullet might richochet off a wall. Have one sip, she said. At that moment, the Norwegian was like statuary, like a Rodin or Degas sculpture of a human figure. There was no one more beautiful, I thought. But there was no one more dangerous either. I’m not going to make it out of here alive, I thought.

11.

Mickey Mack kneeled and clasped his hands. He kneeled beside the bed. He clasped his hands the way he did as a child, and he leaned his head forward, nearly touching the tops of his hand. He prayed. God, he said, if you get me out of this one, I’ll never see her again. He prayed to himself, not aloud, but his intentions were obvious to the Norwegian, who looked alarmed. She was a dedicated atheist, and any thought of God or religion was anathema to her. She once told Mickey Mack that she liked how they lived outside of conventional morality, and yet it was her who was torn by guilt and shame, not him, the lapsed Irish Catholic. But she was not really focused on Mickey Mack to any great extent. Instead, she was lost to the noise in her own head. She looked at herself in the mirror now, examining her breasts. By the shape of her breasts, Mickey Mack knew that the Norwegian was turned on, but all the gunfire had turned him off. Her drunkenness had turned him off, too, as did her request that he have one sip of beer with her. He knew that this moment was the closest he had ever come to taking a drink since he had put it down years ago. He battled with the idea of accommodating her, of joining her drunkenness, so that they could be on the same page, even the same planet. As she examined herself in the mirror and posed and looked and looked at herself, Mickey Mack realized that he was an interchangeable part in the Norwegian’s life. Anyone could be fulfilling this role in the New Jersey motel. Now she laughed, she cried, she laughed again. She drank vodka, then beer. After the shooting stopped outside, and more police came, it turned quiet, was a beautiful night as he guided her to her clothing, getting her dressed, her giggling as she lost her balance, and finally directing her towards the door, down the hall, and out into the parking lot to his car. She was quite wobbly, really wonky, and he practically carried her to her door when they got back to the city. The Norwegian called him a few days later, speaking in a squeaky, mousy voice that he didn’t recognize. She felt bad about what she was doing to her partner. Her psychotherapist thought that their affair was a very bad idea. Mickey Mack remembered his foxhole prayer from a few nights earlier. But I don’t want to stop, she said. I love my partner, but I want to keep seeing you every week. Maybe we should lay off for a few weeks, she said, and then resume it after that. All right, Mickey Mack said, that sounds like a good idea. Do you think it’s all right? she asked. Then she added: If we get lonely or have to see each other, of course, we don’t have to wait a few weeks. This is not carved in stone. It sounds like a good idea, he repeated. But he knew that he was humoring her. Still, she thanked him for being open to this idea. Let’s talk in a few weeks, she said, and hung up the telephone. Shortly after that conversation, Mickey Mack interviewed for a job in another city, was offered it, accepted, and a few months later moved away. He still had the Norwegians telephone number in his book. He still had a sheaf of her poems which he occasionally read when he thought about her. But he was two hundred and fifty miles away. In the first year after he moved away, Mickey Mack came back to the city regularly, and sometimes he did think of calling her. His own marriage had disintegrated, and then he began to stay at his apartment in the other city, two-hundred-and-fifty miles away.

12.

Once he did call her long distance, and her partner answered, so Mickey Mack hung up the telephone quickly. A few minutes later, the telephone rang, and it was her partner. Mickey Mack answered the telephone, using a foreign accent once he saw that the number on his machine was hers. You called me, her partner said. Who are you? Who do you want? Wrong number, Mickey Mack said, using the foreign accent. It was a kind of Mediterranean one, he thought, but maybe it was more latino. Sometimes he used an Indian accent to order food, and perhaps he should have used the Indian accent. It was his best accent yet. Wrong number, Mickey Mack said, using the Indian accent now. Who is this? the partner asked. Wrong number, wrong number, Mickey Mack said. Mickey Mack hung up and the partner did not call back. A few years later, he was divorced, and he moved out of the city where he had been living for five years to a more rural place, one where he stayed for only eighteen months before he packed it in and moved abroad. In London, where he lived for the past decade, Mickey Mack wrote, I have not thought about the Norwegian, much less anything else from the old days in America. Mickey Mack did not get back to New York very often in that decade, going to the city only once or twice, staying in hotels or with friends. Once, he stayed in a hotel on the Upper West Side in which they used to go. Back then, it was one of their sleazy hotels, but now it was upscale and expensive, a boutique hotel, they called it. Even if he had wanted to call her, he no longer had her telephone number. There were some occasions, back in England, when he did think of her at odd moments. He joined one of those social networks online and he thought of searching her name, but then forgot about doing it. Prior to that, he had Googled her name, but nothing ever came up. He figured that she must be married to her partner or someone else and had a different name. He hadn’t seen her poems in little magazines either. Once, he was in Nice, walking down the Rue Meyerbeer, and he thought of his old friend whose apartment where he often met the Norwegian for their trysts. His friend had been an expert on the Russian writer Chekhov, and Mickey Mack imagined he was thinking of his friend because of walking on Chekhov’s songlines in Nice. Chekhov had lived a few blocks north of Meyerbeer in a boarding house for Russians. There were not many Norwegians in Nice, but it was still filled with Russians. Mickey Mack wondered what had happened to all of his friend’s books. Had the university where he taught inherited them or perhaps one of his daughters now owned all of them? He couldn’t imagine his friend’s daughters wanting his flat because, other than the bookshelves, it was not a very comfortable place. It had been a convent, then sold to developers, who turned it into flats, my friend purchasing one of them, Mickey Mack recalled. The ceilings were high, the rooms were spacious, and yet you could hear people in other apartments. There was no sense of total privacy. Thinking of his friend’s apartment, as Mickey Mack walked on Rue Meyerbeer in Nice, he suddenly recalled the Norwegian walking around the apartment naked. The memory was startling, stopping him in his tracks. She was voluptuous then, with a great ass and legs, and her muscular dancer’s back. Mickey Mack sat on the couch, watching her reach for a volume of poetry on a high shelf. It turned out to be a book by W. B. Yeats, a selection of his poems. The Norwegian asked him what his favorite Yeats poem was. He said it was “The Second Coming,” though that was not entirely true. He preferred the much later poems by Yeats. She read that poem aloud, standing there, erect, statuesque, naked. It reminded him, at the time, of a performance piece that one might see downtown in the 1960s at some place like the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery. The result of this performance put the poem in a wholly new context, and so Mickey Mack Coole listened to the poem as if for the first time. Then she read several more poems, still standing there naked, golden in the twilight as light streamed through the large, main window of the living room. Then the Norwegian sat on the couch and asked Mickey Mack Coole what it was he liked about her. It is not so much what I like, he said, as that I don’t dislike anything about you. There is nothing I dislike. But then he thought of things he liked about her. He told her that he liked her hair, her skin, her broken smile, her eyes (though he still could not remember their color), her breasts, her poems, her figure, her voice, her gentleness, her sensuality, her daring, her bohemian ways, even her drunkenness. She was crying as he spoke. It was like being in love, and it was the last time they ever saw each other again.

 
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