Oct 1, 1994
Four rough drafts of a letter to Tim Matson:
All of us in Paris missed you for a long time after you left, but gradually we’re getting used to your absence. We’re starting to understand you only now. My walls are busy with your work—Swinkish dangling feet and loud crowns and hearts and enigmatic roaming forks. But the artist responsible for enriching these walls has vanished. I would appreciate it if you could get my Cosmos back to me. Perhaps you remember how I am about my books! -Alex
October 9, 1994
I am beginning to see it all. People were right! And yet sometimes I think I was the one who let you down in some mysterious way. It would be nice, by the way, to get back my copy of Sagan’s Cosmos. Could you possibly send it?
I’ve been meaning to ask for my Cosmos, which, if I’m not mistaken, you’ve been hanging on to since the last time we saw each other. I expected to hear something about your stay in Seattle, your new place in Dreux, your American roommate, your life and thoughts and painting and wonderful Brian and Sue. Do write,
So here we are with Christmas upon us and still I have no news. You’re welcome here in Paris anytime. The guest room will always be at your disposal. But you know that. Love to Brian and Sue. It would be lovely to hear from you.
- The letter to Tim Matson:
Begun May 29, 1995
I went to see Brief Encounter again last night. There were about ten people in the audience, and all of us were on our own. I thought I might enjoy seeing that film, but I realized I don’t like going to the movies alone, especially when everyone else is alone. So much aloneness. I went to a bar afterwards. It was a cold night and I remembered how you and I used to talk about the movies during your season in my apartment.
I took the Métro home. At the second stop I noticed a homeless man standing by the door. A moment later, after I’d already forgotten about him, he opened his mouth and announced to everyone that he’d just gotten out of prison and had a family to support. It was a sad thing to beg, he said, but it was sadder still to go hungry. I hated being assaulted by the loud deadness of his voice. I felt guilty for not giving and guilty, too, for wanted to look away: “Why are you looking away, Alex? You’re supposed to be a poet and face things, why can’t you face this man and at least study his face for some future description?”
I went home and thought of the times you’d said “You’re so bourgeois, Alex!”—how right you were. I should’ve looked at that homeless man and some of the other people on that train, or maybe I should’ve tried to make friends, absurd as that may sound. And then I thought of the way you used to talk to me about me and how I loved it.
I tore up so many letters to you, Tim. But now I won’t be the way I was in the
Métro. I will look at the truth of what happened. Truths hit me in stages.
What do you run away from when you go clubbing? Why go clubbing? Tim Matson, the oldest clubber in Dreux. Thirty-two now, three years younger than I. The new arrival from England. Artist and teacher. The day you and I met I made a pot-au-feu. It was like finding a soulmate. We discussed Thomas Mann’s novels. Do you have anyone in Dreux to talk about Thomas Mann with?
Truths about you hit me in stages.
We met through friends of friends, or something. I don’t even remember exactly how you ended up on my doorstep. But you came to Paris without knowing anyone, and I was your first friend.
You left a message on my answering machine; I didn’t know what to expect. But I did have a guest room and was willing to put you up until you got settled here. I knew nothing about you except that you were born in Nova Scotia and that you were an artist. It seemed an attractive idea to house a stranger for a few nights and introduce him to Paris.
That first night you told me you’d made your decision to relocate after skimming through The Rough Guide to France at a Camden bookstall.
We had terrine de canard and a pot-au-feu. You smiled and helped me set the table and we discovered things about each other. You told me your favorite book was The Waste Land and you showed me a copy of Ulysses, which you were excited about starting. And I told you some of my story: spending the last ten years in Paris, writing poetry and translating a great but neglected French poet. We discussed Messiaen, Debussy, Brecht, Stanislavski, Jung, physics, cosmology, Batman. It was May and after dinner we sat in a café on the Boulevard Montmartre.
“Alex, you’re a groover-and-a-half,” you said to me. “Can’t tell you how much I appreciate you letting me kip up in your place. Really am chuffed. And what a dinky little pad you’ve got! This’ll be the right move for me, I know it. That is, once I get enough dosh together to settle in properly. The thing is, I was sick of London and I didn’t want to go back to Scotland—that’s water under the bridge, Scotland. And Seattle is boring—my folks live there now. Didn’t like Prague. It’s pretty but I almost went gonzo. Had a fling with a German lass. Don’t know why. A lot of yanks up there in Prague—no offence, Alex! I bet you don’t take offence that easily! Smoke? No? Hope you don’t mind having a smoker in your flat. Think you’ll find me livable for the most part, though neatness ain’t my forte, gotta admit. But I do cook. Love it. Dig doing dinners, too. You like dinners? Hate parties—far too promiscuous. But intimate dinners with a few close friends over—heaven! Brandenburg Concerti in the background, or a bit of Vivaldi or Scarlatti. Good red wine, stuffed peppers, pasta primavera, and to finish it off, a lemon mousse and after-eights and a glass of Bailey’s. (That pot-au-feu you made tonight was something else, by the way!) But the raison d’etre of these gatherings would be conversation. We’d of course steer clear of politics. Boring! No, the talk would center on art and music and literature. Read any good books lately? I’ll be badgering you, I’ll have you know, till you give me something of yours to read. And I’ll show you some slides of my art in the morning. Another round? C’mon, it’s early. And it’s on me. Seriously, I got enough bread to last a few weeks till I start working. And I will be working. I realize it isn’t the best time of year to be looking for a job as a teacher, but I have faith. The kermits gotta learn English, no? They taught us great things at International House. Cuisenaire rods, wow! Never saw anything so wacky in my life. Hey I said that’s on me! Yes indeed Mr. Alex I shall not leave you in peace until I see some of your work. What do you think of Pound? ‘The dew is upon the leaf. The night about us is restless.’ Gives me goosebumps. And Frank O’Hara, there’s a giant one: ‘The razzle dazzle maggots are summary tattooing my simplicity on the pitiable.’ Sublime! Yep, I wanna see your stuff. And I can already sense you’re good. My instinct tells me this about you. By the way, any idea where I can point my percy at the porcelain around here?”
And so we began a life together. After the first few days we realized we got along so well that it would be absurd to imagine you living anywhere else in this city, at least until you found work.
I showed you around, I helped you out with the language, I introduced you to people. And they loved you. You had something for everyone. And you listened. It was startling to me, your appetite for people.
And all the while, no matter where we were—in the Moreau Museum, in the Bois de Vincennes, in cafés and walks along the Quays—there was conversation.
As the year wore on and you still couldn’t find work as a teacher, you began to spend more and more time at home reading Ulysses. I worked in my study and you would be out in the living room absorbed in your book. We never got in each other’s way. When both of us were tired of working (for reading Ulysses was work, even with—or especially with—an Encyclopedia Britannica and an unabridged O.E.D. on hand), we’d stroll down to the Boulevard Montmartre and sit for hours in cafés. Since you were running low on cash, more often than not I treated you. You liked the cafés and I could see how much you liked your beer—you loved your beer, you didn’t stop.
By July you had formed a definite opinion of Paris: “What do I think of it?” you said one day on Place de St. Michel. “Big. Spectacular. Civilized. Except the Métro. And the prices. People stick to s’il vous plait and bon appetit and merci, but how do you see into their hearts? There’s a lot of glitz, a lot of dosh, but what’s underneath? You get the feeling this place lives on its past. It’s a relic. Unreal. Maybe in the fifties or sixties there was something still going on here, but now? And the people: they put up with foreigners. Where would they be without the tourists? Probably they’ve seen too many of us. It’s a cold, lonely place. Wouldn’t particularly fancy living here on my own here. Admittedly, not knowing the lingo is a major hindrance. So what happens for us? THE FOREIGN GHETTO! And I see a look of infinite disgust comes over your face, Alex, but I find the ghetto inevitable and not in the least objectionable. People who share a language are going to stick together. No use fighting it. In fact, the trouble I’m having here is there’s not enough ghetto. People don’t call here, don’t you find? I go out and have this great sesh with radically interesting cats, we exchange numbers, and they don’t call or even return calls. It’d be nice to know someone’s out there! Like I said, I wouldn’t like to be alone in this city. Of course, there are a large number of foreigners here who are just plain out of their gourds. Let’s face it. Never seen people with so many hang-ups in my life. Milton What’s-His-Name with the beautiful white beard, the spitting image of Hemingway, who goes from bar to bar like a bumble bee spreading gossip and wisdom. And Jimmie the Northern Irish madman who limps about the neighborhood singing ‘God Save the Queen’ at four in the morning. Or Tony the ex-British army dildo who’ll stop you on the street and buy you cognacs and meals all night long just so he can tell you his latest romantic woes. And then there’s…Alex! Mad as a hatter, you are. absolutely crazy and insane, but the difference is that you are productively mad. (I still want to read your poetry, by the way.) No, Alex, seriously, you’ve got to be one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met. And dippiest. I mean, you’re a walking miracle. For one thing you don’t look a day older than twenty though you’re pushing thirty-five. You have a totally British accent though you were born in San Francisco. You allow mounds of dust to collect everywhere for months but you decide to give a dinner and suddenly the place is looking snappy as the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. You read Pascal and Thomas Aquinus and yet you’re capable of shelling out a fortune on pedicures and sunlamp studios. Madness, I love it. A gay man with no gay friends and no wish, apparently, to settle down with anyone, but you go to the local saunas to have ‘relationships’ with Arab youths who charge you. You’re a tragic eccentric and a great guy. Of course, I worry about you. You need to get out a little more often. But working on it, I see. I’d like to think I’ve had a little something to do with that.”
You took up painting again, and the apartment filled up with big, garish works of art. You painted on wooden boards and signed everything “Squink.”
Like you, these paintings were lively. And, like you, they seemed to let fresh air into my moldy old place. One of the paintings was a gift to me; you called it “The Fork Must Roam.” I’m glad I still have it on my wall, as tangible evidence that we were once friends. It depicts a pale green fork set against a wasteland and a cheerily setting sun.
By the middle of the summer you were almost broke, so I treated you to a trip to St. Malo one weekend. We strolled through the old town and beyond the city walls and we sat and watched the tide come in and we went out to the little island and saw Chateaubriand’s tomb and listened to the gulls. We were still on the island when I mentioned a passage in The Magic Mountain: Hans Castorp sees an x-ray of his hand “and for the first time in his life he understood that he would die.” I told you how as a boy my parents could never share my world, how I’d read Mann at fifteen and asked my mother, “Did you feel anything eerie when you first saw an x-ray of yourself?” I wanted to convey to you something of my mother’s blank look and incomprehension when I asked her that question. You almost shouted: “Alex! I know exactly what passage you are referring to—‘Sudden Enlightenment’ I think is the chapter. Dynamite! The kind of writing that brushes the soul!”
I looked straight ahead of me and couldn’t speak, knowing I had found a soulmate.
I wrote your name in large capital letters and sealed the envelope which contained my chapbook. I left it on the dining room table and went out to eat with friends. I’ll always remember that day. I was in high spirits and so were my friends. But as much as I enjoyed their company I kept thinking I had more in common with you than I did with them. I went back to their flat and we watched Broken Blossoms. Both my friends complained about my choice of such an old, silent movie, and promptly fell asleep. I let myself out of their apartment and got home after midnight. You jumped up:
“Congratulations of your chapbook, Alex! Found the envelope when I got up at noon and I was like ‘Ace!’ I ran down to the café and ordered a café crème and started to read. I read the first couple of poems and yelled ‘Fucking-aye!’ so loud that people turned around and looked at me as if they thought I’d gone bananas. I’m telling you, Alex, you’ve got something here. The first thing I read was ‘Whiteness.’ When I read that line—‘White is the color of the bone that dresses alone’—I nearly fell off my chair. I mean it was brilliant, big-time! And the next poem, ‘A Last Iris Fully Filigree’—it was stunning. Where does all this come from? You write in a world as far away as Pluto and yet your beautifully modulated voice manages to move the reader. ‘Communion’ is dark, foreboding, but it’s got that image, what was it? Yeah: ‘The ragged rosebush of duckling yellow.’ It’s solitary, difficult poetry and yet it’s rewarding. You ought to give up exile and go home and get more of your work out there. I mean, it’s what you deserve. What else did I like? What didn’t I like! ‘Bells Fill the Battignolles With Their Laughter’—perhaps not one of your greatest titles but it has that ending: ‘Undaunted, a man travels the horizon / Translated to a line of verse.’ Whoa! So much of you is here: your father walking out of the family when you were still in your teens did leave its mark. But in your work you are capable of rising above biography and capturing something universal. ‘Delirium Days” is almost perfect. Well-done, ten outa ten! Of course, my own personal favorite will always be ‘Whiteness.’ It’s a classic:
Painstakingly the eye watches over us.
The mother walks under bare branches,
Her hand white among angels.
September came and once again you busied yourself looking for work in the language schools. And you had no luck at all. You’d wake up early and grease down your hair and you’d take your resumé and go out and spend all day in the streets criss-crossing this city in search of work in a language school. You’d come back in the evening smelling of beer and sweat but undefeated.
One afternoon—you must have thought I was out—I heard you on the phone with your parents in Seattle. You were asking them for money and you started crying. I covered my ears and lay down on my bed and covered my head with my pillow so I could tell myself it wasn’t true and you weren’t crying.
And then you heard about a school in Dreux, an hour by train outside Paris. You went there for an interview. When you got home, you told me you were now going to be a teacher.
So you wouldn’t have to leave France and would only be an hour away. We were both ecstatic.
I took you out for couscous in the Latin Quarter and we talked about the last four months and celebrated most of the night. The next day—your last—you asked me if you could borrow a book, Cosmos, by Carl Sagan. You were worried there wouldn’t be any English-language bookstores in Dreux (and of course you were right to worry). And so you took my Cosmos. I always thought I would get it back.
That day we returned to the Musée d’Orsay and saw the Van Gogh room again. We woke up unusually early and when we got to the room it was strangely empty. I have never liked that museum. It will always be a train station to me. But that day was different. We stood in awe in front of “The Church at Auvers-sur-Oise.” Many times you had said that painting was the reason you’d come to Paris. We stood there, and the bright, contorted haunting image of the church hypnotized us. We shared a moment of exploring light, demented fields and pastures. It was even frightening, the way we penetrated together. And until that day I’d thought I wasn’t really susceptible to the visual arts. In you I’d found a soulmate, and for a moment I was even glad you were going to Dreux. Maybe seeing too much of each other might somehow take away from this moment. Our intensity was so deep that we would have to partake of it in instalments, sparingly, so that it would never diminish.
After you went away, the apartment felt a little different. Dust began to collect again. During your stay, you’d gotten into the habit of dusting the whole place every couple of weeks, but now that I was living alone again no one ever dusted. Often in the kitchen I’d glance over at the feather duster in the corner, but I refused to pick it up.
I had assumed that Dreux, a dull town in the middle of nowhere, would be the kind of place you would want to get away from at least every other weekend. After all, you’d come to France to be in Paris and not Dreux.
But weeks and months went on and I got the feeling you were content to spend your time in the town where you worked. Apparently, you were living in an apartment without a phone, so the only way to reach you was by calling the Happy Language School. But the two or three times I called, we could never have much of a conversation, since you were always rushing into, or in the middle of, one of your classes. You were always still friendly, though! Friendly and chipper.
I started watching a lot of television. I watched three or four hours a night. I watched game shows. I watched talk shows. I watched operas and soap operas. I watched anything.
One day I took the Métro to St. Sulpice. It was already the Christmas season and it was cold. Thousands of people brushed past me. A few stops before the Odéon my car emptied out a bit and at the opposite window I could see a dirty bloated man carrying a bag of water with a goldish inside. I felt no curiosity about him and felt guilty for my lack of curiosity. I didn’t even wonder about the bag with the goldish. At the church I sat in one of the back rows. I’m not religious at all but wish I were. I wished someone would play an organ. I have only been able to enjoy the churches of Spain and Italy. I had gone to St. Sulpice to be transported but felt nothing. On the way home I watched a young couple—I assumed they were a couple—sitting across from me. I looked at the young man’s nails, rough and dirty. He started biting them. I felt no curiosity at all about these people. I felt lucky to be a poet and not a fiction or prose writer who had to have a deep journalistic interest in or fascination with other people. I missed Tim and thought of him often. I’ve started to write about him in the third person! I do that, sometimes.
A few weeks into the new year I phoned the Happy Language School and asked about you. The secretary told me you were having a show at a Dreux gallery. So you’d been busy painting and all those weekends could be explained.
I went to Dreux and stayed in a hotel. The night your show opened was a memorable one, and everyone was drinking. I met your new Dreux people. There was your American roommate and your close English friends, Brian and Sue. You were pleasantly drunk, surrounded by people who seemed to know you all your life. We managed to talk a little:
“So how the hell are you, Alex? It’s been while, hasn’t it? Welcome to Dreux. I’m telling you, this town is a total mindfuck. After nine p.m. it’s Creepshow City and I’m being serious. I walk dark streets listening to my Walkman and all the proper citizenry are asleep. I’m like Antoine Roquetin in Bouville, know what I mean? I know you do, I know you do. Jeyesus, Alex, what they need here is plague. Yeah, something to happen. Maybe a blob from outer space. SOMETHING TO HAPPEN. No wonder all the kids get into drugs. Never seen a town crawling with so many nonentities. I do wish I could get to Paris more often. Been busy lately. Terribly. I ought to call more often but not having a phone is a definite hindrance.”
And on the walls was your show. There were nine imposing canvasses forming a series called “A Brave Ulysses.” These works were bigger and brasher than the art you’d done in Paris. “All very derivative,” I heard someone say, “and very Keith Haring.” But the remark didn’t mean much to me. I liked your work. The paintings dealt with what seemed your favorite theme: the exploits of a hero who wanders through the world, a kind of messenger or guide, determined to dazzle and enlighten. This hero never lingers anywhere for very long. He’s been sent to touch mortal lives for only a brief moment before moving on to new disciples and fans.
I tried to get hold of Tim in April, hoping that he would think of coming to Paris again. The secretary at his school said he’d gotten into a fight outside a Dreux club at five a.m. and had broken a boy’s nose with his head. I wonder if my message ever got to him. The next time I tried, in the middle of the summer, the secretary told me he was no longer working at the Happy Language School and couldn’t offer any further information.
I was sick soon after that, and I’m never sick. And I was silly one night. I couldn’t get into my new obscure book and turned on TV in the middle of Doctor Zhivago. But I had missed the first half. I was angry about this and threw a yoghurt at the screen. I turned on the radio and listened to the latest news bulletin. I should improve my French. It’s adequate but it’s not what it ought to be. I should never have moved to France. Only extroverted people succeed in foreign countries.
I was weak and feverish and went to bed. Once asleep, I was back in middle school with my bullies. They sat behind me in social studies class. One of them flicked his fingers against a bad pimple on my earlobe and it started to open and bleed. Everyone turned and laughed. The lady teacher laughed, too. I ran into the hallway without permission and there Tim Matson was hanging his paintings for an exhibit. I offered to help him. “I know San Francisco United School District isn’t any good,” said Tim. “But you’ve got to make the best of it. Start acting tough and they won’t pick on you so much.” Tim drove me to a town outside the city, on the coast somewhere, and we sat in an outdoor café eating shellfish. “This is like a dream,” I said to Tim. “You are here again, with your art and it’s wonderful. You’re back!” But suddenly Tim was gone and I was alone and without money to pay for my meal. “But I’m an old friend of Tim’s,” I said to the waiter. “Please, he is my friend, he’ll tell you that I have enough to pay you, just not today, please.”
I woke up and found myself in a bed so disheveled that my skin touched the naked quilt. Touching the underbelly of a quilt nauseates me. I slept again and this time I owned a new encyclopedia and looked up the C volume: Capitalism, Civil Law, Cameroon, Caviar. A chameleon jumped out of the article on chameleons. It began babbling about Marcel Duchamp and lay down on the floor delivering a well-rehearsed monologue on Chausson and Corfu. Suddenly the encyclopedia set was gone. I walked the streets and finally at Galignani’s Bookstore I complained to everyone who’d listen. I showed my receipt to the manager but he just shook his head the way the French do.
For a while I doubted myself to the point that it was hard to buy half a kilo of ham or a duck confit at the charcuterie. I reviewed almost every day of the four months Tim had spent in my apartment. I’m a loner, and we all know loners aren’t attractive—and the same goes for people who have too high an opinion of themselves. I didn’t want to see anyone; I wanted my soulmate back. Perhaps I owed Tim an apology, but I couldn’t think for what.
At the end of that summer I was in San Francisco, and spent an entire afternoon phoning all the Matsons in the Seattle area. “Tim Matson who lived in Paris? No idea who that is but he sounds interesting”—that’s the kind of response I got. I wondered about his father’s first name. It was exhausting to phone all the Matsons in Seattle, and I don’t recommend it. I returned to Paris and my translating work. I thought of putting together a new chapbook. Time went by. I wondered if I only stayed in Paris because of my psychoanalyst and considered returning to America. But I had almost no one left there, except an old father I didn’t get along with. One day his young girlfriend phoned to tell me he was dead and buried and had left everything to her.
I thought of moving to Morocco. I thought of bright, sizzling beaches packed with hungry brown bodies. For a while all I could talk to my psychoanalyst about was the fantasy of Morocco.
Last weekend I was determined to finally acquire a new copy of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I went to every bookstore in Paris, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. “I’m very surprised!” I said, throwing a tantrum wherever I went. “I mean, that shouldn’t be allowed, not having Cosmos!” I walked along the Seine. The Pope waved to me from his boat, and I waved back. “You’re doing well for your age!” I called; he laughed and shouted back, “So are you!” “Any idea where I can buy Cosmos?” I asked him, but he didn’t hear, and passed under the bridge where I was standing. I ran to the other side of the bridge as the Pope re-emerged under it. “I have a death problem!” I called to him but my words were badly answered: the Pope gave me the finger. I ran in the rain to a loft where Picasso was preparing for his latest show in Dreux. “Where’s my Cosmos?” I asked. “But the fork must roam,” he answered, and turned his back.
After I woke up I sat on the balcony listening to an accordion in the distance.
I had dinner with friends last night. We went to see African Queen at a cinema by the Sorbonne and then tried a new Lebanese restaurant off the Place de la Bastille. Many new things have come into that quarter since the building of the opera house. When we left the restaurant it was snowing. My friends asked me if I’d ever heard from Tim Matson again. I told them I hadn’t heard from Tim in more than seven years. The last time I ever saw him was the night of his show in Dreux. My friends told me they’d heard a rumor that he’d moved to the West Indies and had married a Hungarian yoga instructor. But they also mentioned they could have sworn they spotted him just the other day crossing the Boulevard Voltaire near my apartment. “That’s very strange,” I said. “To think he’s been right around the corner all this time, and it’s been seven years.”
By the time I said good-night to my friends I’d missed the last bus. I took a taxi home.