House of Clouds
by Leah Erickson
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
People had thought, way back then, that it had been he who saved her. From bland obscurity. From the endless ocean of girls desperate to be starlets.
It was different than that. It was she who discerned him. Saved him from his own circumscribed life. He had always been living in the shadows and didn’t even know it. He had still been the dark-eyed boy who lived alone with his mother in the old walk-up tenement in Brooklyn. Patty saved him from that crampness, that shame of fatherlessness, of poverty, of beans in the pot and sad yellowed sheets flapping on the line.
Howard was able to escape this inner prison once and for all. He no longer felt the heedless drive of ambition at all times. She was such an elemental being, as though she were made of sunlight or flame. She taught him to live.
He had never been a true celebrity, with his picture in the magazines, until her. Never truly had friends. But then, the beautiful people flocked to them. Deep inside, he knew it wasn’t about him. It was because they saw something in Patty. Her brilliance and beatitude. It rubbed off on him. And then theirs was the exalted life. And why shouldn’t he feel this ecstasy all the time? He deserved it! Had been starving for it all along.
A new kind of life, never lived before, was what they thought they would have. They wanted to go always further. There was a kind of beautiful momentum. They wanted more. More beauty. More love. More of everything.
Was it she or he who started shooting smack first? He truly didn’t know anymore. At the time it felt like a spiritual ascension. A cosmic yes. Together they experienced love in its most brilliant, crystalline form as it filled their veins with light. Together they embarked on an ocean of bliss, and their hearts, minds and bloodstreams felt as one.
Other people, their friends, tried to intervene. Told them it wasn’t good to be locked up together in the bedroom for weeks at a time, wasted out of their minds. That it was going too far.
But going too far was the whole point! The life they had together was a beautiful garden they never wanted to leave. And other people, especially friends with their righteous “good intentions,” were increasingly unwelcome.
He could not bring himself to think of Patty’s death. Sometimes involuntarily, in his mind’s eye, he saw a flash of his dead young wife: the blue skin and the scrimmed-over eyes, the needle still hanging from her arm.
Just as quickly his mind would go blank, so there was nothing anymore, just a dull numbness, though how his hands shook! Only the dimmest recollection of the party that was going on, strident glam rock on the stereo, insistent and throbbing. Screams and panic as the girl was pulled out of the bathroom and laid on the living room floor.
It wasn’t your fault, Howard. She did it to herself. You aren’t responsible for her bad luck. We each have our own fate, man.
He could hardly say now why he made the string of decisions that he had. All he could say was at the time he wasn’t feeling or thinking anything. But he was surrounded by many people, only too eager to advise and guide him.
And strange people they were, the denizens of Laurel Canyon, 1973. Doctors, gurus and mystics. Mad poets and disillusioned screenwriters. And singers with voices of angels. Who was it, in the immediate crazed aftermath, who had whispered to him of cryonic suspension? Who had urged him to this insane, sci-fi dream of suspended animation? Who had convinced him to hope for salvation, a second chance, some day in the future?
It could have been any number of those nutjobs, he often thought with a grimace. Nutjobs, all of them. Thank God he got away.
He got clean through those desperate, terrible weeks at the methadone clinic. He sweated through his sheets and shook and dreamed that his darling floated above his bed, hair sparkling with ice crystals, and she gave him a kiss that tingled blue and painful as frostbite.
I’m sorry, Patty, that it was you and not me.
It was he that got a second chance and went on to live his life, and make more movies, and win more awards. To remarry and have children, and grandchildren, while poor Patty slept like a doomed princess in a fairy tale.
And meanwhile, all that time, the technology was developing, growing richer and stranger and more unfathomable. The scientists and doctors grew stronger in their knowledge until they were like gods, rumpled young gods. Most had not even born when Patty had died! Now these brilliant children in lab coats decided her fate. Because of them, what was once unimaginable was now real.
* * *
“Patty? Do you think you would ever... want a baby?”
He asked this shyly as they sat on the bedroom balcony in the afternoon, looking out over the crashing Maine coast in the distance. He had been planning to ask this for a while. Not because he wanted it. He just wanted to give her whatever she wanted. Of all the experiences she had been cheated of.
But she just looked at him, uncomprehending. “A baby?” she asked, brow puckered. She had a book face down in her lap. Poetry. Adrienne Rich. Patty enjoyed reading again, the forgotten rhythms of the poetry that she had loved when she was alive the first time.
Television seemed to overstimulate her, so it was avoided. Just as well, because Howard had never fully discussed the whole truth of her situation. It was advised that she go into therapy first, but Howard didn’t want to. He wanted it to be only the two of them, no one else. No intruders in their garden this time.
“Why would I want a baby?”
“Well, honey, I just wondered if you would want one. Of your own.” She still didn’t know of his adult children, nor they of her. “Well, what would you like to do? Travel together somewhere? We could go back to Mexico. See if Casa las Lubes is still there. We could buy a motorcycle. We could live on an ashram. We can do anything that you wish, the possibilities are endless...”
Lately, her mind had been quickening considerably. No more vagueness or staring spells. It was as though she was in sharp focus now. And sometimes, now that she was really looking at him, it gave Howard the disconcerting feeling that she was a stranger. Who was this girl? It wasn’t quite the young woman that he remembered. Something about dying had changed her irrevocably.
It was something new, the way she was looking at him at that moment. Thoughtful, but alert. Considering. She was so sober and deliberate now. It was almost as though she had aged, after all. Sometimes her right arm pained her, stiffness in the ligaments having to do with her ordeal. It seemed to spread from one limb to another at random. It made her walk stiffly, like an older person.
At last, she answered. “Howard, honey. I just need time. Please give me that. And space. I think I need to be still. And think about things.”
Pity. It was pity, making her eyes go soft and liquid! Pity that made anger flare inside him and drove him limping from the room, so he would not have to look at her.
* * *
She enrolled in adult education classes, at the local liberal arts college. There was such an acceleration of her synapses that she craved ever increasing intellectual stimulation. The doctors had told them that this was to be accepted and not unusual in a downloaded mind.
“But Patty, why don’t you enroll in regular daytime classes? With people your own age?”
“That’s okay. I prefer staying where I’m at.” She was taking night courses. One in poetry and one in biology. She had even quickly made some friends, a trio of women in their fifties. They went out for coffee together, sometimes to movies. What did they talk about? Howard couldn’t wrap his mind around her new life. It was all happening too quickly.
He tried to laugh it off. “You’re so mellow now, darling. You used to be so fiery, when you were a young actress. You would try anything once. Don’t you ever... miss being that way?” He had started off with a jocular tone, but somehow he had ended sounding accusatory. He tried to smile, but it felt false.
It didn’t bother Patty, though. She remained placid, even smiled a bit wryly. “Maybe I learned a few things in life, the first time around.” She patted his hand, comforting, like a mother.
* * *
He came home in the early dusk. He knew where she was, he could hear her in the study, writing a paper on the computer and listening to music. Funny, it seemed to have taken her no time at all to master current technology. Maybe it is because she is the latest technology, a voice in his head said to him before he shushed it.
Howard had made a special play list for her, songs of the time and place that they were married. The musicians that, once upon a time, had known personally, like Carole King and Harry Nilsson.
But for some reason those songs didn’t seem to resonate with her, not at all. She seemed to enjoy more the songs she remembered from her girlhood in the fifties; she was at that moment listening to Blue Moon on repeat. Her face, moonlike itself, glowed softly in the computer light, makeup-free, and with her hair plaited in a way that made her look like a peasant girl or a young nun. He had to rap on the doorway to get her to look up at him.
“Hello, remember me? Your old husband?” he joked.
“Hello,” she said softly, fondly, as if he, too, were an apparition of her past. But she did not ask him where he had been all day.
One thing he couldn’t get used to, this second time around, was her absolute stillness. Her absolute calm presence in a room. It made him feel, for some reason, panicky. Apt to do or say reckless things.
“How was your day, darling?” he asked, heart racing.
“Not bad. Just finishing this paper, mostly. I’ll be working at the soup kitchen tomorrow, though.” Patty had joined a group of Buddhists, people he didn’t know. They had meditation sessions and worked as well in service groups. “How about you?”
Howard went blank for just a moment. He didn’t know what to say. How could he describe what forces had compelled him that day? He had driven an hour away, to an impoverished little town inland. Factory town. He had driven aimlessly along those gray streets of shuttered buildings and graffittied storefronts. An old man looking beseechingly among the street’s shadowy denizens...
“I was just out for a drive.”
“Where?” She was pausing to look at the screen, at a sentence she had just typed.
Where? He had been searching for something. Patty’s calm, Patty’s spiritual awakening had driven him to despair, as though he himself had been gypped. She had found God in a tree, a leaf, a cloud. All these years he thought he would find God in her. But she had left him behind.
He had no past. He didn’t know the future. He alone was lost in the great uncertain present, driving those one-way streets, until he found what he was searching for, the two hooded figures huddled against the brick wall. Eye contact. One walked forward with a hopping lope, hands in pockets, the guy was just a kid but he sure had the indifferent eyes of death, hadn’t he?
“Nowhere, really.” But he’d got what he wanted, a brick of packets. The packets were stamped crudely in red, Murder#1. Almost made him laugh. He had them in his pocket. He liked to feel them. He didn’t know if he had the guts to use them. But having them was somehow calming to his soul. “Patty?” He asked, teasing the crystalline contents with his fingers.
“Do you love me? Really?”
She frowned at him, with concern. Compassion. That was what he wanted, right? To bask in the warm glow of her sympathy.
She stood up, shaking her head. “Howard? Why do you even need to ask?”
And she came to him, put her arms around him. He leaned heavily on his young wife, feeling her warmth, but his eyes stared straight ahead.
You love me, but would you save me, if you had to?
Because as he was driving those slum streets that day, lost and trying to get back to the freeway, he didn’t know who he was anymore. His life was breaking up into fragments of images that he alone had to piece together into a story. His own story.
A California sunset. The lazy strum of an acoustic guitar. Soft laughter.
On a private movie screen, a luminous girl speaking to him in silence. Close up. Closer, and she becomes a being of all shadow and light.
Quiet on the set!
Sounds of time. Bells, clocks, and whistles.
Snowflakes melting on a steamy classroom window.
A girl’s voice whispers, “I saw the void. It was white. Everything was white.”
Walking up the dark narrow stairway to a dank-smelling railroad apartment, where his mother’s voice calls, “Howie? Is that you?”
The whir of a projector wheel in the dark.
Copyright © 2014 by Leah Erickson