Small Paradises

In New York I found a collection of small paradises. The backyard of a coffee shop on 20th, where there is no sound but the voice of a woman talking to her new boyfriend about her boss whom she finds “adorably flirtatious.” The street in Park Slope where I can look into the windows to apartments I’ll never be able to afford, just near the park. The loft in Chelsea, in the shadow of the High Line, where I fell in love with the lives of two people who are dying.

I found the loft when my co-worker — who was from Kansas City but told people he was Sicilian — broke his vain character and recommended me to a nonagenarian artist named David who was in need of a biographer.

When I met David, he was wearing a yellow fleece vest and yellow cargo pants and a straw hat; he looked like Nintendo’s Mario, if Mario were Jewish and shaped like the pipes he slid down. The Chelsea loft was his, and he lived there with Jo Ann, who was a photographer and his wife of several decades. For a time, a cat lived there, too. The cat’s name was Cat, because Jo Ann couldn’t remember the names of pets, but could remember types of animals. She also could not remember the name of her caretaker, or the name of her building superintendent, or the name of her sister, or the fact that her father owned a bakery in Queens, or where she was born, or the day she was born.

It was a rule of David’s that there were no shoes allowed in the loft. The first time I took my shoes off, Jo Ann walked slowly up to me and whispered, “Hey, cutie. It’s fine, you can leave your feet on.”

Later, when she lost her glasses, she asked if I’d seen her eyes. I said yes, that they were beautiful. They were. And then I grabbed her glasses from her head and put them on mine. She scowled, her thickly made-up, wrinkled face contorting, then grabbed the glasses back and returned her attention to a drawing she’d been working on, laughing.

The things she drew were posted all over the place. They were crude, stuff like parrot heads on baby bodies, or rough portraits surrounded by poems — most things spelled phonetically, mostly stream-of-consciousness type stuff. One read “Blu to you, how do u do?”

The day I realized I was falling in love with Jo Ann and David was the day before Jo Ann’s birthday, though neither of them could remember if it actually was Jo Ann’s birthday, or, if it were her birthday, how old she would be. I helped them search for her passport. I couldn’t find it, but David fed me a bowl of oranges anyway. The ripe slices sat on top of a puff of cat hair. I didn’t eat them, but I said thanks. David ate them. He also ate the cat hair.

The cat could get lost anywhere in the loft. Just by existing there it was lost.

The walls were lined with rows and rows of David’s sculptures, arrayed so densely and taking up so much space that it was hard to assess the actual dimensions of the apartment. (It was, I’d later find out, something like 2,000 square feet.) It was as if Jo Ann had emptied her brain of her memories and piled them all up along the perimeter of her living space, so that she was free to make a new life for herself every day.

One day I ran into Jo Ann having lunch with her caretaker at the Chelsea Cottage, a Chinese place a few blocks from the loft. Jo Ann wouldn’t stop talking: “Where is David?” “Do you know where my husband is?” “When is my husband coming home?” “Is David ever coming back to me?” Her caretaker, whose name was Bebe, never answered, just kept telling her to eat. Looking on, I realized what discipline it must take for Bebe to not answer. I realized, too, what it must be to have your whole life wrapped up in a single person, or a single place. Remove Jo Ann from her apartment, and remove David from Jo Ann, Jo Ann becomes nothing but the absence of a person. She might have well been asking, “Where is me?” or, “When is me coming back?”

When David and I worked, we’d sit at the kitchen table, which was covered by in-progress sculpture. He’d clear away just enough space for his notebook —or a manila folder, or an electric bill, or whatever he could write on — and my laptop, and we’d go through the timeline of his life, matching his stories to the dozens of photos we’d scanned. One particular afternoon we were looking through a period when he and Jo Ann had lived in the mountains of Kyoto, doing nothing but making art together. The dates of their stay could’ve been 1965 or 1972, but we decided to call it 1968 through 1970; to David, who rarely titled or dated his art, it didn’t matter.

The story of their time in Japan was a story of the kind of life that doesn’t seem to exist any more, one funded by government money and consisting of little other than creative vagabonding — and that vagabonding was exactly what the government money was for.

In Kyoto, Jo Ann created geometric sculptures in the foothills of the mountain, their spare, wooden shapes acting as extensions of natural rock formations. The sculptures were permanent but temporary, just like everything else in the world: fated to wash away in some summer rain, or rot in a winter storm.

During their time in Japan, they spent time with a rōshi who was more into Alan Watts than the Dalai Lama, and who also played host to Owsley Stanley, a man who was known, in the 60s and 70s, to supply the best hallucinogenic psychotropics.

At the mention of this, Jo Ann perked up, raising her hand and saying to David, “I remember that. I remember that, I do.”

David tested her, gently. “Jodie, what do you remember?”

Jo Ann repeated what she had just heard, about guys named Owl and Watty.

David said, “Oh Jodie, that’s right. You were there!” and he scratched his head and looked down, silent for a second.

“Where’s the cat?” I asked.

“What cat?” Jo Ann asked.

Panic from David. “Shoosh, shoosh. She doesn’t know about the cat. We gave it away. We couldn’t take care of it.”

The cat didn’t leave when it was gone. Its hair was everywhere, blond clouds hanging over the work, remnants on top of remnants. Sometimes Jo Ann would be working at the kitchen table, until she spotted a large clump somewhere, in some deep corner of a paper sculpture, and she would walk over to it and snatch it up and look at it closely. Sometimes she would lick it.

Jo Ann’s dementia had gifted her with a child’s intellect in the months that I knew her, but her face had gotten older, whitening rapidly, the color draining from her cheeks. Her eyes stayed vital, though, and she always managed to paint a face over the pallor; her lips were always bright red. She would kiss David on his bald head and leave her lips everywhere. Once, David said she had put too much makeup on, and it devastated her. She spent the next hour fixing it, smiling wildly when she returned to the kitchen, her face looking exactly the same as it had before she’d left.

Periodically, David’s son would visit New York. He lived in the Pacific Northwest and had his own life, but he was rightfully concerned about his father and his health, and whether or not David was capable of taking care of both himself and Jo Ann.

The first time he visited, he looked at a rough draft of the book we’d been working on. He was upset that he was hardly mentioned in it. He was happy when, a few months later, I sent him a copy of the book with a picture of his newborn self in it.

David once said of Jo Ann’s worsening condition, “This is probably just karma. I refused to be a father to my son, so now I’m forced to be a father to Jo Ann.” And he was. She dressed herself in the morning, but they went out together, always. He bought her cappuccinos and cookies, always made sure she ate according to their pescetarian diet.

The routine began to collapse when Jo Ann fell down the small set of stairs in their home, spraining her wrist, which refused to heal completely. She fought against her cast constantly, biting and ripping at it when David wasn’t looking.

In the end, David put Jo Ann in a home. He was asked to stay away for at least two months so that Jo Ann would stop constantly asking for him. It was the kind of forced withdrawal that signals the end of every relationship.

By then it had been months since I’d visited them; the book had been finished and printed, and lives always catch up and take over.

The last time I saw Jo Ann, she and David were seeing me out of the loft after a day of work. She wore black leggings under a bright red peacoat and a duster. As we rode down to the lobby, she studied herself in the elevator mirror, making faces, and then making faces at those faces. She pulled her hair from the corner of her lips. She pulled her shirt down, taut, shocked at the force of someone pulling her shirt down. She was constantly surprised at herself in a way that was, it seemed to me, lucky.

David wasn’t wearing any shoes. He probably wished he were still in Japan, outrunning karma.

JoAnn asked David if he had his keys. He said, yes, Jo Ann, I’ve got the keys.

The door of the elevator opened and we all went outside. David stared up and past the High Line silent. I looked at Jo Ann; she shrugged. I said goodbye and hugged the two of them. Jo Ann kissed me on the cheek, and I wiped her lips away.

Above: Self-Portrait Under Plastic (1972) by Maria Lassnig. Courtesy of Collection de Bruin-Heijn. Photo ©Peter Cox.

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