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  • 6. Beauty Stolen From Another World

    By Louise Erdrich

    This week we’re graced by a story, previously unpublished, from Louise Erdrich’s new collection The Red Convertible. Erdrich writes here with an almost antique elegance, ushering us into the guarded intimacy of two aging doctors in love. Read slowly, and watch how the narrator’s voice evolves with the story—from its exquisitely measured, confessional opening to the soft, frank, dazy release of its final lines.

    While browsing through the library stacks at University College in London, I was approached by a handsome Eurasian doctor who pretended to be interested in the book I was skimming, The Milk of Paradise, by M.H. Abrams. The year was 1979 and I was on a college exchange program. The doctor said that he would like to make me an omelet. For some reason, perhaps the novelty of the omelet pickup line, I allowed him to lead me down the street and then, after some hesitation, in which he assured me that his roommate was home, I got into his car, a brown Mercedes-Benz. As we drove to his place I realized that I’d done something foolish and dangerous and, if not bizarre, at least very unlike my Midwestern upbringing. The more so when we got to his flat and his roommate turned out to live in the next apartment. There was a sturdy wall between the two, surely impenetrable to screams, and I made the doctor introduce me to the neighbor so that if I “disappeared into night London,” as the provost of the college had darkly warned during our orientation, there would at least be someone who could identify my face from pictures on the news. Then I did go into the apartment with the doctor, who actually seemed quite harmless.

    We entered the kitchen. He broke the eggs expertly against the pan, one-handed, and he did not chop up onions or peppers with a big chef ’s knife, as I feared, but merely added some cheese, which he grated from a block with a little aluminum mill. I ate, and as I did so, I thought that perhaps he really had just taken me across the city to feed me an omelet. But when I was done he asked if I would like to take a bath while he answered some telephone calls, and again I knew I’d done something foolish and that I should turn back. He grew charming and persuasive. As though humoring a skittish horse he gently drew me toward his very masculine bath—all tiled in black and white—with a magnificent soaking tub. The door had a sturdy lock.

    It was the bathtub that seduced me into staying. I lived in the cheapest student housing, a building that reeked of disinfectant. The moldy showers wept so slowly over your body that it took half an hour to get the soap off. I hadn’t had a real bath in months, which may have been apparent to the doctor, now that I think of it, and I instantly longed to get into the tub. I stayed there for an hour and would not come out. Nor, empowered by my cleansing soak, would I consent to have sex with him although he cajoled me and showed me his stash of what he called pessaries, a thing I’d never seen. The absurd-looking little bullets of jelly completely dampened my interest.

    I slept on his couch and was very happy to be dropped off, back at the library. I didn’t want him to know where I lived. But I had made the mistake of telling him my name, and somehow he got into the college records and showed up at my hall. He was perhaps in his late twenties—as I said he was a very young doctor—but I had just turned nineteen and to me he seemed old. I did show him up to my room, which had a very good view of the post office tower, but I actually did have a real roommate and I lived in a room that was half the size of his bathroom. She was there, studying, responded to a signal we had developed between us, and did not leave.

    I found soon afterward that I had committed a theft, and it shames me to say that I was never able to rectify it. This is the only thing that I have ever stolen in my life. When I was picked up by the doctor, I kept the book I’d been skimming—that small paperback book called The Milk of Paradise. I held it among my other books, and was aware of it when I left the library. I could have returned it, simply slipped it back into its slot on the shelf, but I forgot all about it. Then a few days later during a lecture on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, before about a hundred of us, the professor took off his glasses and looked us over singly and thoroughly and then announced, “one of you is a thief.” And he expounded so energetically upon the selfishness and immorality of stealing a book, the very one I’d taken, and certainly meant to return, that I was very much impressed, for who would have thought one book, and so small a book, would be instantly missed from the library, and furthermore, deserve a half-hour lecture?

    Only now, of course, I could not find the book. Then I realized I’d carried it with me to the doctor’s apartment, and so I called him. When I asked him to mail it back to me, instead of returning it in person, he sounded miffed. The book never showed up in the mail. I never called again. Anyway as there was no book drop, I’d have had to either sneak it in, or to place it in a librarian’s hands, and I probably couldn’t have done it for fear of being discovered. Yet, The Milk of Paradise now resides on a top bookshelf among other mass-market-size books. That I have it back now is the basis of my story.

    As I said, it was a small book, which began in fact as an M.H. Abrams’s essay for a survey course in English literature at Harvard, and was expanded to a thesis and published in 1934. My version of the book, republished with an author’s preface in 1969, has a cover very much of its day—there sits a blank-eyed Coleridge with his forehead sprouting rainbows and psychedelic green devils with golden beards. He holds a little white pipe, though in fact he did not smoke opium but took laudanum, which came in liquid form and was administered drop by drop.

    Although I became a doctor and left Coleridge behind somewhat regretfully, I remained connected to The Milk of Paradise in several ways. The title refers to a line from “Kubla Khan” and describes the milk of the opium poppy, source of the laudanum much employed by Coleridge, at first to dull rheumatic pain, and later to try to ease the mental sufferings of his addiction. As it turns out, I have become interested in certain kinds of brain chemistry relating to addiction, and have written a number of articles on how various addictive substances, opium derivatives especially, interact with the brain on a molecular level, which is how, as it turns out, I once again entered the presence of the omelet-making doctor who had kept the book—his name was Walter Ing.

    *

    This time I was in a town suburban to Paris, attending a conference with many plainly dressed doctors whose interests adjoined mine. I am always surprised at the timidity, even mousiness, of our dress and manner, as if we feel we must compensate for the notoriety, however slight, of our chosen field. There is an old castle in that town where Mata Hari was killed. But although I wanted to see the castle very much, we were tightly scheduled and it also happened that each time I got to the entrance I met other conference attendees and became immersed in conversations that always ended up with someone suggesting lunch or dinner. As I live alone and am always hungry for well-cooked food, I always joined the group. That is how I ended up sitting at a long, narrow table across from the man in whose tub I had soaked twenty-five years before.

    Our dance of recognition was comical. He shook his head, ventured, “It’s odd . . .” I sat back in my chair, murmuring, “I’m sure . . .” I could not place him and it took us most of an exquisite lunch—I had an eggplant-and-salmon salad prepared like nothing I’d ever tasted—before we’d rifled through our respective pasts, still dogged by something familiar about the other person, and hit on London. We’d both had a little wine. I said, “Omelet” and started laughing. He was still confused until I described our meeting in the library. Then he dropped his fork and clapped his hand to his forehead. He kept it there as though stanching a blood wound and cried out, “You are the girl, the one with the room overlooking the post office tower!” He began to apologize immediately for trying to seduce me. He had thought I was a faculty member, he said, which was a laughable excuse and I told him so. He then insisted he had only come by the dormitory to apologize, and I told him again that wasn’t true, either, and that he still had my book. He said he didn’t remember it, and when I told him that I didn’t really care, anyway, about the book or about what his intentions had been, he looked relieved and sat back in his chair.

    Walter Ing had a slight Australian accent. He’d grown up there, he said, though his parents had moved to London and were deceased. He now lived in New York, as it turned out, and furthermore, he was soon to take part in a yearlong study at the Mayo Clinic, which is an hour and a half south of Minneapolis, where I teach at the university and do my research. The welter of coincidence intimidated me at first, but after a time I grew used to the state of things and agreed to guide Dr. Walter Ing around the area when he visited, which would be soon.

    *

    One month later, I had a date to accompany Dr. Ing. Perhaps since meeting in France we had both shrunk at the same rate. I am used to thinking of myself as tall and so I thought Walter Ing was tall, too, since I didn’t recall that he was any shorter than me. But when I looked out the window of my town house and saw him emerge from a tan sedan, carrying a craft-paper triangle of flowers, he looked somewhat diminutive. He was dressed with the same formality as I’d remembered—a camel’s-hair topcoat, a soft gray men’s scarf, even gloves. I had reverted to my Minnesota casual look, a sweater, skirt, soft boots. I decided at once that I wouldn’t sleep with him. He dropped a glove and bent over to pick it up. I had that sensation of pity one has watching a man when he doesn’t know that he’s being observed and judged, but then I was surprised by Walter Ing. He straightened with the glove in his hand, and looked not at the door but at the window, where I stood. He looked precisely into my eyes. We exchanged the same sort of thoughtful gaze as over the table at our conference. It was just on the verge of becoming an uncomfortable and maybe confrontational stare, when he suddenly broke into a smile and waved the package at me in such a cheerful and comforting way that I smiled back at him and was laughing a little when I opened the door to exclaim over the flowers and draw him in.

    We decided to take his car, which was new and austere, a reliable sort of car with a cloth interior. It turned out that he had leased the car for the year that he would keep the job. We drove through Dinkytown, parked, toured the appropriate buildings, and then walked through the Weissman Museum, the outside of which looks like supple, bending, shiny cans. We ate dinner at a downtown dinner spot decorated with small tiles that resembled the backs of iridescent beetles. I liked the way Walter’s face had aged so symmetrically, the lines around his smile strict as parentheses, the perfect rays of laugh lines, an unworried forehead. His gray hair was a little too long and floppy and touched his collar, but research doctors can get away with that. He had a neat mouth, polished skin, surprisingly hard hands. To relax, he made furniture. He showed me pictures of some pieces—Biedermeier copies. There were some other photos in the little envelope he’d drawn out—were they of his children, wife, girlfriend? He hesitated, I thought he was going to show me, but then he folded the envelope and put it back into his suit pocket.

    “Well,” I said, as we were finished eating, “should we go?”

    “I would like to see you again,” said Walter.

    I nodded at the place he’d hidden the photographs. “But perhaps you are attached,” I said.

    He smiled and drew the envelope out. They were pictures of a neat, imperious blue Abyssinian cat.

    “I thought you might think me strange,” he said. He drew out his wallet and showed the high school graduation pictures of two children—both sweet, freckled All-American 1950s faces. They were finishing college and graduate school, both in Massachusetts. He’d divorced six years ago and there was no other woman in his life at present. “And while I’m at it, not that I expected to, but here.” He gave me a piece of paper. I squinted to read, by the low light of the table’s candle, a set of test results for all of the usual sexually transmitted diseases with checkmarks in all of the negative boxes. I started to laugh.

    “I’m sorry,” I said, handing it back, “I don’t have one of these papers. I haven’t even had sex since some of these diseases became commonly tested for.”

    Perhaps there appeared on my face a faint shadow of sadness, or longing. He touched my hand gently and said, “Do you have a bathtub?”

    *

    I am a shy person, physically, and socially. I never did lose my smalltown awkwardness after all. I’ve had very few lovers. Some bitter experiences early on were enough. I’ve never cared to throw myself in harm’s way again. So when I allowed Walter to undress me it was partly because I hadn’t slept with anyone for such a long time that I wondered, frankly, if I was still functional. If I could even respond to a man. Things did not go badly, though I was sure Walter was only pretending to be thrilled by everything about me. But then, unexpectedly, after it all seemed to have concluded, he pulled me to him and looked into my eyes in much the same way he had when he gazed through the window. And when he did that, I felt something rise in me to meet him. It was as though there was some recognition that had nothing to do with the two selves we were in our daily jobs and with our families—it was a different sort of knowing.

    A thick silence flowered in us. These two beings, not us, but living in our skins, had realized something in the other. I have tried to understand what it was, or is. I have no words for it or the words sound weak and silly. It was a speechless negotiation conducted between two interior shadows. What, I wonder now, accounts for this in all of my favorite studies? What was decided? Was it, in the truest sense, chemistry? Were those poetic inner beings actually composed of interactions of compounds that signaled back and forth in ways too complex for consciousness to understand? Is this what it means to bless unaware?

    In the middle of this dramatic tension, Walter and I began to laugh and smile. We kept looking at each other. Then I watched the smile leave his face like breath from a mirror. He kissed me, deeply, and so the night went on. We dozed and woke every hour or two. We didn’t stop discovering each other and although my body was awkward, unused to touch, and he kept getting cold, I piled on more blankets and at last we woke in daylight and did not start our usual day at all.

    *

    Walter and I have been together now for almost a year, commuting back and forth between Minneapolis and Rochester. He has come to Arizona to meet my parents, who, like so many Minnesotans, have retired into the piercing heat. His children never come to visit, but he tells me news of their busy lives. I spend at least one weekend every month at his place, a Rochester sublet. His cat stayed with his ex-wife and we adopted one who goes back and forth with us. Sometimes as we are lying naked, spent, after making love, the cat walks across our bodies with the disdain of an emperor, then curls between Walter’s legs and purrs.

    One day, Walter asks me if I have read any of the studies on the brain chemistry of romantic love, and I look at him and laugh. We both know that the ventral tegmental area and the caudate nucleus are stimulated when a person is in love. The caudate nucleus possesses a dense spread of receptors for dopamine, a crucial neurotransmitter that lets us live for a while on overdrive and enhances the moments we are around the object of our love. He says, quite casually, that if we could cure addictions we could also treat love. Romantic love will be more treatable than a virus. Those desperate, unrequited, could swallow a pill of release. I think about this a few weeks later, when Walter leaves me.

    He goes back to New York City, intending to get his things sent out here, and to arrange a transfer. But he’s gone what seems a long time, about two weeks, and during that time I find that the ability I once had, to live alone happily and find security within a daily routine, has been destroyed. I am agitated, and find it difficult to concentrate. I dwell on Walter’s phone calls, hidden meanings in his words, a tremor in his voice. I take long, hot baths every night, for comfort, and also because the bathroom is a small place and I won’t wander about aimlessly. I am taking care of the cat and as I absently brush its fur tears fill my eyes. I don’t know what to do with myself. I eat all one thing for dinner—six oranges or a bag of pretzels. Carrot cake. An entire melon. When Walter calls and says that he will need another week at least, I decide that he is trying to soften the blow and doesn’t know how to say that he is not going to return. I hang up and sit numbly, staring at the telephone. He calls back and says he’s booked me a cheap ticket online. Can I come for the weekend?

    I ask if I should bring the cat.

    “No,” he says, “can you get someone to look in on him?”

    I draw a suddenly deep quiet breath. I am amazed to realize that I imagined, for a moment, that he was flying me out only to deliver the cat.

    *

    Walter does not believe there will ever be a perfect anti-addiction medication because addiction itself is so complex and involves learned behaviors, experience, feelings, and memories, as well as a specific genetic vulnerability. His research is material and involves DNA testing in order to isolate and study certain inherited enzymes that process drugs either with unusual avidity or with passive indifference. He imagines a world where babies are tested for addictive vulnerabilities and treated in utero.

    As we are working along, day after day, month after month, we develop a comforting routine. Evenings, music. Reading. A little fire. Bed. Mornings, tea with cream and honey. We like ours brewed hot, thick and swampy. The way we had it in London. We like plain steel cut oats for oatmeal, whatever fruit is in season. Sweet red grapefruit in the winter. Raspberries in midsummer. Over time, if the relationship is good, a substance called oxytocin becomes implicated in warm feelings of attachment. We both agree that, technically speaking, we are addicted to each other. It is a good addiction, in our case, both reciprocated and probably conducive to a longer, happier life. But after the New York absence, I also realize how afraid I am of losing Walter. Afraid in the way a heroin addict is afraid. I could never go back to my life pre-Walter without feeling at every moment Walter’s absence. Sometimes it gnaws at me. I urge Walter to drive carefully, avoid butter, update his tetanus shot. Sometimes, when I am looking at him, I imagine him dead and tears fill my eyes. I’ve worked on cadavers, of course, and I can easily imagine the lifeless absence of Walter in Walter’s body, the rigid, deeply cold limbs and gray skin.

    *

    I have been working with CART peptide receptors. CART peptide is a chemical that occurs naturally within the human brain and shows some promise, or implication, in the development of what could be the perfect medication to counter and cure addiction to cocaine. I’ve had dreams where I manage to find an antidote to addiction—one more effective than the best pharmaceutical model we have now: methadone or buprenorphine for opiate withdrawals—and with fewer side effects than the opiate blocker naltrexone.

    In my dreams, people do not die of desire or become affixed in a cycle of desperate need. They are able to use drugs without lasting physical or mental harm. Sometimes, I am in a vast crowd of people I have saved, and I am overcome by excitement. Satisfaction rolls through me. I am surrounded by freed minds. Thousands of smoothly running brains. I feel the buzz of thought. The hum of neural energy. Intricate signals passing back and forth. Sometimes I actually faint in my sleep—from joy. Sometimes I wake myself up by dreaming I have fainted this way, and I’m very happy until I realize that I haven’t cured anything at all.

    *

    One day, it happens that we both fall ill. It is a common influenza virus and we must have been exposed at the same time because our symptoms begin practically at the same hour and are identical. First the dreadful joint aches, sore throat, malaise, then the fever and the horrid nausea, which is where mine stops after roughly thirty-six hours. But Walter doesn’t get well when I do—he remains sick for nearly two weeks. During that time, he asks me to look on the top shelf of his bookcase, where I spot The Milk of Paradise.

    “I did have it all along,” he says, “I stole it from you.”

    He kept it as a memento of our meeting, and now wants to give it back to me. I look inside the book and see that he used, as a marker, a torn margin of brittled newspaper that bears my full name.

    The sight of my name, written in his hand so long ago, upsets me. I am uneasy with it, remembering how he went to the college and tracked me down. 49 Grafton Way is where I lived, within walking distance of Pollock’s Toy Museum. I found the toy museum, with its tiny passages and opaque-eyed ancient dolls, irresistibly sinister. I went there time after time. I have kept some of the beautiful cutouts of reproduction jesters, court clowns, and paper stage sets for miniature plays. Thinking of the toy museum and my attraction to it, I am startled to think that my impulse to get into Walter’s car was somehow connected to the avid passivity of those dolls. For the first time, I try to question Walter about his life in London. He professes not to remember much. It was a time of turbulence, he only says. Looking at the torn newspaper, I wonder at his impulse to commit the little theft.

    He sees me looking. “Yes,” he says, “I must have known that one day you would mean everything to me. I went out with many women. Why else would I have written down your name and kept it?”

    I swallow the sudden jolt of anger. So, he saw many women? I know the pinpricks around my heart are unreasonable and I keep my voice calm.

    “Perhaps you wrote down my name because I was the only one who wouldn’t have sex.”

    Walter smiles in a way that strikes me as a little smug.

    “That might have made me a bit more curious, yes.”

    “Did you have an inkling that we would be so attracted?”

    “I’m sure I did. And now, I don’t know what I’d do without you, I really don’t know.”

    He takes a short breath and it seems to stick in his chest. There is something much more desperate about his voice than this annoying illness warrants.

    “Being sick is tedious,” I say, taking his hand.

    He doesn’t answer, but grips my fingers so hard that I have to smile as I gently shake his hand away.

    When ill, Walter behaves much differently than I do. I like to be left alone, he doesn’t. I have never really taken care of a sick person, not someone I love, not in my house. So I am surprised, the next day, when as I am about to leave the room having brought him a glass of water, Walter tells me that he is lonely, and asks me to sit and talk to him. I have to force myself to turn back, sit down next to the bed. But I’m late for work and eager to get back—I am pleased about something I’m doing. I don’t like being drawn back into the sick room. I think he feels my absence as I talk to him, but is also comforted by the fact that I am there even though I do not want to be there.

    His face is droopy, gray, and sprouting white stubble in tiny patches. Age has freckled his temples, his hair sticks out on one side. His nose is bone pale. He is breathing rather quickly, but says that he feels better. As I sit with him, it occurs to me that he probably is hungry, and I tell him that I am leaving just to make him something to eat. He smiles, but his hand oddly clutches at mine. I smile at him and stroke his hand. I tell him not to worry, and then I walk out into the kitchen. I make him an omelet. I have often teased him about his strange pickup line, and I think he will laugh when I present this plate to him. He calls out to me. I am decorating the plate with clipped basil and I call back to him that I am coming. But it is two or three minutes longer before I walk into the room. He is looking at me silently with his hand on his heart. He isn’t dead yet. That will take the rest of the day, and a night.

    *

    I am beside his bed, at the hospital, in one of those uncomfortable fold-back plastic armchairs. Walter’s children have not arrived yet—they are driving down from the Minneapolis airport tomorrow morning. I am not really supposed to be in this room overnight, but I’ve pulled a doctor’s privilege. I won’t leave his side, though I’ve found out that Walter is not who he said he was, exactly. Oh, he is the omelet doctor, to be sure. But Walter was not conducting research, he was being treated here for obliterative cardiomyopathy, a rare heart condition. He’d told no one about this; his children had no idea. In effect, he had come here to die and perhaps had formed the plan even as he sat across from me at that conference in Paris. I have brought The Milk of Paradise to read as I sit here, and am struck by the last lines, where Abrams speaks of Coleridge’s poems as oases in our dusty lives and says: There is nothing frightening in their rich strangeness. Rather, they are to be the more dearly cherished because of the fearful toll exacted for beauty stolen from another world.

    The dragging ache of withdrawal has already begun. Perhaps out of pity, Walter started it by returning the book, and perhaps his mention of other women was a way to throw the grit of some reality into whatever I would think of him. I’m grateful for that because, as I sit with him, I recognize that instead of dreading his impending loss, a fury inhabits me. He made me love him. It is as though he has knowingly infected me with some dangerous disease and then plans to desert me. Liar, I think, and I see those dolls waiting to be held. Still, looking into his face I still feel the mysterious affinity which we are helpless to fully define.

    There is the humming, sighing, breathy flutter, the static stutter, the tiny bleeps of machines registering the presence of life in Walter. I watch the screens intently, the levels of oxygen in his blood, the erratic wiggle of his heart, the creak of the ossified heart walls and valves. Sometimes I nearly doze off, but then I startle awake and sit up. I touch Walter, his wrist, his leg covered by a sheet. His skin already bears the waxy indifference of cadavers, though blood flows underneath, and his thready pulse endures.

    Waking before dawn, I hate him for showing me how close it is, that other universe. But then he opens his eyes and stares fully into mine, and I am shocked to find myself in two worlds at once. His gaze says that I need not be frightened of such proximity, and then something peaceful and electric flows toward me, from Walter. He offers this ineffable thing and I accept it. When the nurses hurry into the room they stop short.

    I tell them that he is gone.

    It was agreed that it would be so. Nothing extraordinary. I close his eyes with a brush of my hand, and tell the nurses that I need to be alone with Walter. My eyes are drooping, my brain is full of drowsy fuzz. I have the greatest need to crawl into bed beside him and sleep. The nurses unhook Walter from the machine. They make notes in hushed murmurs, and at last go, closing the curtain, shutting the door with a soft click, padding down the hall.

    From the collection The Red Convertible.

    Copyright © 2009 by Louise Erdrich.

    Click here to read novelist Jess Walter’s review of The Red Convertible.



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