The Last Days of Peter Sellers
She would come to think of that day as the last before the plague years, the final time bodies would mingle—bodies anonymous and impossible–and disease would be celebrated because it had yet to be identified. She got this from the French philosophers she had been studying, although she did not know, at that time, that this had been their real topic, not the dissection of language or intent through language or some other conundrum that college students are forced to fill their minds with. She would not understand much of what she studied, or even what happened to her, until she was much older, and she was a teacher, and a mother, and had to explain things to her students, and her daughter. Because what the French philosophers were saying was that leprosy was a dream, a swing at utopia; and while the plague was not a nightmare, it was closer to the present-day reality. But how could she have known that then, when she was a freshman.
It began before she knew it had begun. By the time she had noticed it, it was already far, far ahead of them. A spot. A circle. A blemish, maybe like ringworm. But it was not on the skin. It was in his eye: the left or the right, she can no longer remember, but in the eye, where it did not belong. It was as if a scab had grown in the white of his eye, or hieroglyphs that better belonged on a tablet. She could not translate it; she could not tell if it was meant as a sound, or a picture; if it was an idea of what something larger, something more realistic, might look like. Perhaps this mark moved, it shifted, like a half moon waning after midnight; perhaps it marked a stage, a number in the sequence. Or perhaps it was just an idle scratch, not deliberate if not accidental, or perhaps it was a question mark, on a private quiz that could not be passed.
At first she did not say anything to him because of its color. She can still remember telling herself that it was not quite the color of blood, but more like something burning, butter in a saucepan, the dregs of an recipe she could not enumerate. She could only say it had to have been something that had once been sweet but was now close to rotting. That would have meant something nearly black in his eye, a speck, a flaw, congenital but not genetic. But it was not that. It was closer to red, and it descended deep into the white of his eye. Like a black hole, a concave collapse, and the eye was puckering. The blood was where the breach had begun. Then the weight of the world, the weight of the air and everything they had been through together, bore down on that one particular section of him, in the smallest possible circumference. It was not wide enough for anything but a needle, and it had penetrated into the other side of whatever rests behind the eyeball. The mark was red, horribly red, and mournful.
He was not a healthy man, which is why she did not want to say anything. He wheezed and bellowed and his ribs were too prominent. She did not know this then, but they called it “pigeon chest,’’ this condition he had that made so much of him undependable: his lungs, and his back. The two most important organs: right? How could anyone live without them? And yet he did, if in less than admirable fashion. He dragged himself to work each day until he lost his job, and then he still dragged himself out of bed if only to complain about his circumstances. There would never be another job to replace the one he had; nor would there be food to replace what he once ate, when he was earning a living. Once a week she gave him some cash, five or ten or twenty dollars, from the college allowance she and her parents had negotiated. Steak and noodles and hot peppers: he’d buy them at the beginning of the week and was industrious in their use, until the weekend came and she could buy him his meals again. He was not a healthy man but he got up every morning and did the things he could do considering the state he was in, jabbering and clawing and sucking his way through his days until the weekend came, and they could see each other again.
By the time the weekend came, she was seething through her clothes; she was undone with desire; she was reeking and, possibly, bleeding with worry over how the next forty-eight to seventy-two hours would go. She was only eighteen and he was twenty-two, twenty-three; it was best not to press the issue of their age difference, of her inexperience and his assumed maturity. So when she saw the thing in his eye—the spiral of a vessel wound too tight, she wondered; or the last ounce, the straw, the indecipherable measurement of whatever would crash their relationship forever—she could not announce her findings. For it was in those kinds of imperfections, what might signal a flaw or a greater chance for a fatality, that she found her desire.
He was not ugly. He had much to recommend him in his hair (blond); his eyes (blue); and his height (over six feet). He did not necessarily look bad, either, although she was beginning to wonder, because of the way he coughed each morning, if he was smoking or drinking too much. Yet he still looked like one of those guys who had been formerly good looking, but something had happened to smudge his handsomeness. One side of his face had been stretched, or flattened, or pumped up by allergies or arthritis or worse yet, their treatment. Whatever was wrong with his face, it may not have been noticeable at a distance, but at a reasonably educated glance he might appeared drugged, or drunk, or the unwitting victim of years of abuse. His was a face with no margin for error: no bad hair days, toothaches or blemishes. She liked faces such as this, because she considered her own face to be pretty much in the same tradition: not beautiful, but passable, if only not for the twist, the crack, the unidentifiable aspect that marred it in some way. Unlike her boyfriend, she had not lived long enough to have ruined it through drugs, alcohol, or hard living. She had simply been born that way, imperfect.
As they walked to her apartment together, she wondered how the two of the must have appeared. Not so much rag-tag, but disorganized, unable to care for themselves: she in her borrowed clothes, too big and sloppy, as if she was too young to wear statements so adult; and he with his bloody eye, earned through defending her in a bar fight, or in a dispute with her father, or some unseemly operatic argument that was had no chance of ennobling anyone, whether they be actual participants or those on the sidelines. He was one of those lost, romantic, but irredeemable men; men who had no purpose on this earth other than to be beat up, screwed over, marked, taken advantage of. And she may have started out differently, in a house in the suburbs with pets and station wagons and college funds. Maybe at first she had been slumming, but she was far, far beyond that now. She had fallen. She would have new boxes to check on the census the next time it came around. She would never go back to the life she had as a dependent.
There is no dramatic pretense in all of this. These are only sentences. They do not change anything. They might not even explain anything. But they are here; they exist. They were cooked and formulated by my memories, my mind, or my brain, my physical accumulation of electric impulses and neurotransmitters. That experience can be transposed, translated, and perhaps even transliterated into something that it is not, numbers and charges, is of endless fascination to me. How do the numbers get it right, how does the chemical composition of one memory differ from the next? And yet they live together, they thrive together, in the same chaos. They depend on similar conditions. Should I make sentences out of them, I wonder; should I take their formulas and probabilities and put them into a language that I can understand. I do not know if others will understand these bits and pieces, these encounters with profundity; what I see as so essential in the human experience and others cannot stand. And yet I know the components are in there somewhere, to teach a lesson, to help someone else escape from the same crucible with their dignity in tact. That is why I write this down now. That can be the only reason.
They were supposed to go to the movies that afternoon. Something at the cheap art theater, across the street from the coffee shop where her father used to take her. She did not find anything about this coincidence Freudian. She just wanted to go to the movies. She had never seen the films. One was about the man who walks on water; a man who is eternal? A man she couldn’t believe in? A man who does not know the difference between the magnetic poles, the cardinal directions, who sleeps in sunlight when he should be in darkness, but does not know the difference. He is a blank slate. He could be an experiment.
They had to see the double feature that particular weekend, because the star of the movie was dying. He was in a hospital, in London, possibly, and he had been dying for weeks. He had a bad heart, a bad self-image, and lots of bad marriages. The movies at the art house played no more than two nights running, but they were not advertised. Their names simply appeared on the marquee like miracles, and only those who could look out their windows, and see the marquee, knew what was playing. There were also flyers, calendars where each day looked like a television screen, that announced which movies were playing, but what did you have to do, to get one of those flyers? They were a clandestine mailing, the little television screens risking controversy and pornography with the scenes they displayed from the movies. People put them up on their refrigerators, in their dorm rooms as if they were posters, achievements, as if to inform other people of their status. But neither of them had any of this, but somehow he knew the movies were playing that weekend.
They were supposed to see those movies, but they didn’t. Because by the time they got back to her house; by the time they took the 90-minute bus ride from his house to her house; from his decrepit neighborhood to the decay of her own, she could not ignore it any longer. The tide she saw in his eye, how it moved each time his eye moved, as he scanned the passing cars and palm trees, the rare pedestrians, the bus stops where people did not want them to be. They had to ride through all of Beverly Hills, and all of Westwood to get to her place: and they were a scourge. No one took buses in Beverly Hills or Westwood. They were a moving contagion. They spread poverty and listlessness, as they rode on the bus through the quality neighborhoods. She had grown up in neighborhoods like those, not so much planned as they were timed, for the right neighbors, the right automobiles. They were not unleashed until all the elements were in place, from the PTA president to the theme of the landscaping: desert, or Polynesian. But now that she had moved away, she was an exile. Contact with her past was dangerous, disruptive. And it was that she saw in his eye, that clash and fleeing.
Her grandmother was always bleeding. Eventually her grandmother died. She lived around the corner from her grandmother, as she was growing up, in one of those neighborhoods with a landscape split between sylvan and tidy. At the time it seemed like a good thing. At the top of a hill, her grandmother lived, so that when she got sick, they could just coast all the way down hill, to the doctor’s, to the hospital, to the pharmacist. Her grandmother could just glide. She only saw her grandmother bleed once, when the old woman failed to step over a parking curb, and fell face first on the pavement. Her face was not bleeding, but her shin. It might not have been a problem but her grandmother had a heart condition. She did not have enough strength to pump the blood that bled. There was not enough muscle in her system to pump out excess blood, and the family thought she might die. She did not die that time, but sometime later, because she was always bleeding on the inside.
She thought about her grandmother bleeding and she thought she could remember how it looked under the skin, yellow and purposeless, a bruise long after it has recorded the injury. She thought his eye would turn yellow too. The offense had been experienced, and noted, if not by him, then at least by her; and now it was time to disappear, recede, and dissolve into her mind’s eye. But it did not.
“There’s something in your eye,’’ she said, finally, once when they were inside the apartment. Here they could look into mirrors, or rather he could look into the mirror, and see for himself. If she had told him on the bus, he would be wondering what it was she had precisely seen, and then she would have wondered too, and wondered whether she had in fact seen anything real. But with mirrors, they would have an objective source. They would have confirmation of the worst.
“There’s something in my eye?” he repeated. He wasn’t always repeating what she said, but it felt that way to her, at that instant.
I could tell you the next thing that was said, and the thing after that, and how together the two forged a panic through their voices, body language and facial expressions that spilled out of the second-floor apartment she shared with her roommate, and down the stairs. I could tell you the precise fire of their dialogue, and how after he looked in the mirror and saw what it was that she had seen, they ran out of the apartment to the first-floor neighbor’s. They could have asked the roommate for help, but she was gone that weekend. I could tell you how they went to the downstairs neighbor because he was pre-med; how they asked him to look into the eye and tell them what was there; but then I would have to tell you about the inexplicable parts, of what happened next. Finally the boyfriend and the pre-med student went to the emergency room, and the girl stayed behind. There wasn’t room for her in the car, a two-seater, or the motorcycle; but this can’t be the reason, it can’t be, because the pre-med student was really suffering and he didn’t have the money for any kind of vehicle like that. Now that pre-med student is a professor at a community college because he didn’t like medical school and he didn’t like research. He just wanted to teach what he knew and not know anything different. But then he was suffering through college and planned to suffer through medical school so he had to drive an old jalopy of some sort. But an old jalopy was better than what she had, a twenty-four-hour bus pass, so the pre-med student had to take him to the hospital, and she stayed at home, waiting.
As she was waiting, she thought again and again about how he had walked into her bathroom, and exclaimed, “There IS something in my eye,’’ which was not exactly repeating the things she had been saying. He had to slouch a bit, bend his knees and miniaturize himself, because he was too tall to see himself in the mirror of her medicine cabinet. That always made his back and pigeon chest look worse than it was, and that angered her again, for reasons she could not articulate. If he had been simply repeating her, it would have made her feel as if they were becoming an old couple, unable to hear or listen to each other. Or if he repeated her, it was because he no longer trusted her, and the cold hard facts that were simple enough for anyone to see and recognize and identify were no longer self-evident to him; he had to question every fact she discovered and brought for his approval. But he hadn’t exactly repeated what she said; his emphasis was different, so she was angry with him, for another reason.
She was angry because she had always been the sick one in their relationship, their new relationship: they had only been a couple since January, and this was their first summer together. She was working to support herself for the first time ever, and giving him a portion of her college allowance so he could get by too, until he was employed again. This was their first summer together, and she was sick all the time. She was working in a photography studio, developing film and negatives into eight-by-ten glossies of actors and actresses. At the end of each week a truck came by to drain away the photography chemicals, and harvest whatever silver could be squeezed out of them. At the end of each day she went home and took the hottest shower she could manage, to extrude the chemicals out of her. She smelled like metal and vinegar. She sweat out the chemicals in her sleep. She was always flu-like, blurred and bitter.
She had been sick all of the previous semester, too, with something no one could diagnose, because it was not mononucleosis, although it acted like it was. She couldn’t have something as simple and expected as mono in her first year of college, because she had already had mono, thanks to some infected cousin, years earlier. Kids come to college blank slates, without a repertoire of white blood cells, but she was already scored and dog-eared. She watched their drinking games and she was bored. Until she met him, and then she began to swell, to fatigue, to sleep through twenty-four-hour fevers without sweating. When they made love he’d have to balance her, handle her, beyond the bewildering presentment of her symptoms. He’d be the one who would change the record because she was as formless as a mold, both shivering and paralyzed.
She was mad for another reason too: that she couldn’t remember precisely what she had seen in his eye. She had sent him to the emergency room with a neighbor, but she could not recall the precise size of what she had seen, or its shape; nor could she confirm for herself that it could have been any trouble at all. She had spent so much time, she realized, looking into his eyes, especially when they made love. She looked into his eyes and saw herself, mostly, her nose and eyelashes and sometimes her lips, although they did not stick out from her face as much as her other features. Once, when she was a little drunk—she would not smoke dope with him when her throat hurt like this —they were making love and she felt so hot, she thought she finally understood what it meant to have a fever break: it would be like mercury popping out of its pouch at the bottom of the thermometer. And when she looked into his eyes that time, she saw another man’s face there, a foreign portrait doubled in the black of another man’s pupils. A real man’s pupils. A real man who went to work and earned money and when he was unemployed he just starved, and had no parents to fall back on. That a boy would even think of intruding there, random with his taut curls and backpack, maybe a windbreaker: she had to look away, from him, and the man’s eyes, and she didn’t look back until the man raised a hand to her cheek and returned her attention to the place for which it was intended. And with that memory, she realized. She realized the shape of the bloody turn, almost a circle: the same as her diaphragm.
There are other times when I did nothing. Many years after this I was living in a terrible building in a town much smaller than Los Angeles, and I thought I heard the people upstairs beating their children. There was always weight falling, smashing against my ceiling, their floor, above my bed, when I tried sleeping. There were no loud voices, though. Just falls, accidents, a brief recovery, and then more falling. There was the time I drove past a bus parked askew, in the middle of the street, in a beach town on the east coast. And at the head of the parked bus was a splash of blood, and a boy lying on his side, his bicycle between his legs. I drove past, and I parked. I ran to a pay phone, and called the police. But I was a newspaper reporter, and I had called only to find out the story. There will be other times, I know, when I will be similarly, voluntarily, inert. I will put these things down in sentences. I will make sentences out of my neglect.
When he came home, it was not too dark; the days still seemed to be getting longer. And everything was all right, he said. The neighbor nodded with authoritative confirmation. He had broken a blood vessel in his eye, nothing more. It happens all the time. That was what the doctor had told him, and the same doctor apparently told the pre-med student that while the broken blood vessel was common, it was not usual, and it would have to be monitored. They need only watch it, make sure it did not change, like a cold on its way to pneumonia, or a mole on its way to cancer. The medical student had to leave. It was summer but he still had to study. Once he left, her boyfriend was giddy, and then he was crying, because, it turned out, that actor had died, the one who was in those movies at the art theater. Then they had a fight, because he said the actor was the greatest comedian who had ever lived, and she didn’t know him from anything but the Pink Panther movies. Besides, she said. “Lolita” was a book first.
When the fight was over, they agreed to go to the coffee shop, the one across the street from the movie theater, where her father used to take her. At least they would get out in the night. They saw the crowds coming out of the double feature, and she felt as though they were watching a funeral they hadn’t been invited to. She wished she had been standing there, among the crowd, talking about the movie, or congratulating one another for having timed their Saturday night to the great man’s death. They all had something to mourn together, she thought, and then she was jealous.
Jane Rosenberg LaForge lives in New York City with her husband and daughter. Her first full-length collection of poetry, “With Mick Jagger, Other Gods, and All Women,” will be published by The Aldrich Press this fall.
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