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Susan Berman

Lust for Life

We live on East 12th Street, across from a Catholic school where little boys play kickball in suits and ties. Eli says they’re straight out of a Truffaut movie; the way they look like little men, the way the teachers drag them from the playground when they get into fights. Eli knows everything about foreign movies. If he really likes one, he calls it a motherfucker. The other night we saw a total motherfucker about a couple who give themselves a big going away party but then the money falls through for their trip to Africa, so they hide out in their apartment embarrassed to tell their friends that they never left. We’re kind of like them. I mean, we’re not exactly hiding out, but our apartment is our little sanctuary, where we can pretend to be the only people in New York. A tiny, lit window amid fifty others in a giant brick building. With our cat, Myshkin, silhouetted behind the iron security bars.

Eli and I are sitting at that window right now, looking down at pigeons fighting over a pizza box. We’re playing our favorite game: What Would You Miss Most If You Were Dead?

“I’d miss the sound of the radiator clanging,” I say.

“But how about when it first comes on, in October, and you think about the long, grey winter with your face stiff and freezing and your ears feeling like they’re going to snap off,” says Eli.

“I like the winter because you don’t see those huge cockroaches in the street anymore.”

Eli rubs my arms up and down with his hands. “I like when they disappear because I know they scare you and I don’t like to see you scared.”

“It freaks me out to think of them swarming somewhere underground. Or stuck together in a giant frozen clump just waiting till it’s time to come out again.”

As I talk, Eli takes my hand, extending my arm like a skinny, white twig. He kisses the bruises. He got mad at me last night for scratching our new Iggy Pop album and pushed me. Not really hard, just a little shove. I mean, I sort of fell back against the wall, but I was wearing stilettos. Now Lust For Life skips and crackles, repeating the words “torture film” over and over, until one of us moves the needle. And no matter how cheap they sell records at Crazy Eddie’s, buying a new one means less money for the phone bill. Which we don’t plan on paying anyway.

“I’m sorry Jane-face,” he whispers. He always calls me that, and I don’t know why I like it so much.

“I’d miss you being sorry.”

He murmurs something like, “I’d miss you missing me being sorry,” and carries me to the mattress, which covers most of the floor of our one and only room.

 

It’s grey outside and I’ve overslept. Eli has already left for his job at the used bookstore. He always comes home mad because no one there likes him. He’s been trying to organize the employees into an “anarchist union.”  He posts notices for meetings in the stockroom, to which no one shows up. Instead, they laugh behind his back and call him “Irate Eli.” I know this, because my friend Ellen was there on Eli’s day off and heard them talking. They were saying that only a retard wouldn’t know that “anarchist union” is an oxymoron. They don’t understand that Eli has something a little fucking deeper in mind. It has something to do with “dismantling the power pyramid.” Maybe Eli tends to go on and on about it. And no, it’s not my favorite side of him, but basically he’s nice to me. Except for when he isn’t.  Even then, it’s not like he’s completely mean.  So he slaps me in the arm, big fucking deal. And anyway, I’m no doormat. I hit him back. It’s called passion. He always apologizes for starting it and acts really sweet for at least a couple of weeks. Plus, he’s an amazing cook. Add to this the fact that he’s five years older than me (I’m 20), with blond, curly hair that dips over one of his liquidy blue eyes, writes perfect imitations of Frank O’Hara poems, and always wants to be with me. That’s the real draw. He’s my first serious boyfriend and he loves the righteous shit out of me. And he isn’t one of these losers who’s afraid to say so. In short, he’s a motherfucker.

 

I’m late for my acting class at the Lee Strasberg Institute. I put on whatever clothes are lying closest to the bed. Eli and I are the same, skinny size, and so it doesn’t matter who wears what. He’ll say, “Buy us a pair of pants today,” or “Look, I got us a Lydia Lunch T-shirt.” I pull on our black pants and wrinkled bowling shirt covered in cat hair. I run my fingers through my hair, stiff with gel and hair dye. Eli is proud of my bright red hair and tells everyone He Loves Lucy.  A black swath of eye-liner and I’m out the door, in the street, the freezing air blowing tears sideways out of my eyes.

I run up the stairs of the steam-heated school, peeling off my coat, scarf and gloves as I go. Students are draped over chairs; their heads hanging backwards, arms limp at their sides. The teacher walks around testing everyone’s relaxation level, picking up arms and letting them drop. An arm that stays suspended in space: BAD. Complete floppiness: GOOD. She gives me the raised eyebrow (I have been late many times before) as I slump backward, letting everything hang. Eventually I feel a hand around my wrist, and my arm being raised. Her grip tightens. Christ, here we go. She’s looking at the bruises. I want to go, “OK, show’s over,” when she finally drops my arm, which is now so tense it feels like a crowbar. Here at Strasberg, they say relaxation opens the emotional floodgates. It’s the first step in learning how to cry. Real actors can cry the way I can only do at the movies, or in the bathroom with the door locked. That’s why I’m here, to learn the fine art of weeping. That’s what makes you great. That’s what gets you a job.

But I also have other plans. I’m not like the girls in my class, running around with their doctored-up headshots, trying to look like Jaclyn Smith. I’m going for something darker, more real. Just yesterday I caught sight of my reflection in a window, and I thought, “Shit, yes!”  There I was, walking by a building covered in peeling Richard Hell and the Voidoids posters, and everything about me, my hair, my clothes, looked art directed. Like I had sprouted up from the street like an indigenous element of the urban terrain. But I’m not totally alone. The one person in the whole school who gets me is Ellen. I knew it the moment I saw her black, chopped off Louise Brooks haircut. She and I talk for hours about the work we plan to do. We’re in the thinking stages of a movie that will be truly revolutionary because it has no plot. Imagine, a movie where nothing happens. Only the sound of footsteps on glass. Wow. I just thought that part up.

The lights go on.

“See you Friday,” the teacher says.

We all sit up, groggy. I put on my father’s overcoat from the ‘50s and my black beret. Ellen comes up.

“Walk me to the train.”

“OK.”

We hit the street and it feels a little warmer, because now it’s snowing which takes the edge off. The sky is pearly pink and things are quiet; the Ukrainians sprinkle salt on the sidewalks in front of their tablecloth/samovar/Easter egg shops.

“So, how’s Irate Eli, the master of all things evil and sundry?”

“Fuck you. He’s being very sweet. I mean, very, very sweet.”

“Let’s go have a beer.”

“I can’t. Retour D’Afrique is playing at the Quad.”

“Haven’t you seen that like fifty times?”

“Yeah, so what? It’s Eli’s favorite movie.”

“Oh, well. In that case, forget it. I mean, I’m just so sorry. What would Eli do if he couldn’t watch Retourdefuckingafrique on a continual loop for the rest of his life? What time does it start?”

“Eight.”

“It’s six-thirty. I dare you to come in and have one fucking beer.”

We’re standing outside the St Mark’s Bar in a clutch of skinny German kids and various punks and New Wavers.

“OK, but you’re buying.”

Ellen pulls me in to the bar. I see people I know: a directing student who once filmed me walking down Wall Street in a bathrobe at 4 a.m. Two French girls who slept on my floor for a week. And tons of regular customers from the restaurant where I work.

“Hey, waitress, where’s my soy burger?” says one of them.

“I reserve the right to refuse service to anyone,” I yell over the noise as Ellen orders the beers.

Before I know it I’m looking at two empty Heineken bottles. The directing student is making fun of me for studying method acting instead of experimental theater. I’m screaming over the jukebox, saying he’s full of shit, what about real motherfuckers like Brando? He buys me a shot of Don Julio. I bet him the next round that I can cry on cue. Everyone at the table is suddenly interested; they watch me as I stare off into space, conjuring up a dog that I once saw get hit by a car. The room begins to blur, when I notice the clock on the wall. It’s 8:30.

I throw a crumpled up five on the table and stand up.

“Shit. I have to go.”

Everyone’s yelling something, but at this point I’m banging into people on my way to the door. Then I’m huffing out little clouds of frosty air, running the four blocks home, slipping in the snow as I go. I get to our building and walk up to the fifth floor. Eli isn’t home. Myshkin rubs against my legs and follows me as I throw off my coat and flop down onto the mattress. The room is undulating in a nauseating way and I lie there, focusing on a tiny dot on the wall. The cat purrs, the radiator bangs, and I pass out.

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