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  • 18. Aesthetic Discipline

    By Carolyn Cooke

    Here is another brand-new story—this one from the acclaimed Carolyn Cooke, whose work has appeared several times in The Best American Short Stories and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. Her story “Aesthetic Discipline” is a miracle of atmosphere, somehow evoking both louche indolence and the claustrophia of a tightly controlled world.

    My former boyfriend Karim Brazir was an artist and a bohemian. His name rhymed with “Karen,” and in fact his parents, who interestingly misunderstood the name on a trip to Cairo and Istanbul during which Karim was conceived, spelled it that way. His family was eccentric and to me, irresistible. Karim was alluring, sexy, passionate in an intense but oddly impersonal way, almost perverse, maybe even borderline somehow. He used to call me at night in New York, and ask me in a gravelly voice to take a taxi over right away to his loft in a then-vacant part of town. This was romantic, I presumed. Usually, I pushed the brass button next to his name downstairs and he buzzed me up, so that by the time I arrived up the groaning elevator I had to knock on the door, which he opened as if I’d come as a mostly pleasant surprise at 2 A.M.—or a minor interruption to his work. He offered me a beer, or a glass of water, or nothing. Then he pounced, direct and disarming, kissed me roughly, removed my clothes and fucked me with the kind of attention and intensity that he brought to his work, a kind of attention that felt inspiring, even infectious. My participation was welcome, not really necessary. Afterward, to keep me from dozing off, I think, he would feed me something—cold pasta puttanesca from a Ball jar, or some take-out falafels wrapped in silver paper. He’d stand leaning against the loft bed in his kitchen and watch me eat. Then he’d walk me to the street and hail a cab. He’d try to press a five-dollar bill into my hand—not that this would cover the thirty or forty blocks to my apartment—and this insulted me. “Don’t be ridiculous,” I told him, waving the bill away, climbing into the taxi. I was a feminist.

    Once, when I arrived, he met me in the lobby, and we took the elevator together to the floor beneath his, where he showed me a terrible thing—his downstairs neighbor, a sculptor, had been killed by a beam from which part of a large-scale wooden sculpture hung—the beam had crashed down while she was climbing on it. He’d heard the crash and run downstairs and found her just an hour before, and called 911. He didn’t know the sculptor well, she’d just moved in a few months before—but Jesus, but still. The paramedics had just arrived; Karim had been with her body for over an hour. They asked him a few questions, which he answered. She’d been depressed. She had no life, no money, no sex, no enemies and no dealer, just this sculpture, which was so-so, maybe—or maybe it was good. He couldn’t say. She drank when she worked, he said. She was drunk now—or had been, before she died. Here was a bottle, here was a glass; they could test her blood alcohol later. The paramedics tried to revive her, but then without saying much of anything, they unhooked her and moved her to a gurney and took her away. (The front door was locked, and a strip of yellow tape was stretched across it, but Karim had a key.)

    When he showed me the death-scene, I understood that he was upset. He took a deep breath, he breathed into my neck. I held him more closely, rocked him in my arms, but as usual, I misunderstood everything. We did it on the floor—on a quilted mover’s cloth—among the broken pieces of the sculpture. I remember I was menstruating at the time, but Karim didn’t care. Afterward, I remember finding blood on the cloth, and worrying about it. Then I noticed that there was blood everywhere, it wasn’t even all my blood. There was more than one blood.

    Karim took me upstairs and let me shower and use his towel. When I came out, dressed in my slutty evening clothes, he gave me a blue enamelware bowl full of canned chili. Then he walked me up to Houston Street, hailed a taxi, and tried to give me five dollars. (I resisted and paid my own fare. My mother used to say: resistance is good.)

    It may seem obvious that a relationship like this isn’t going anywhere. Going anywhere wasn’t my primary motive at the time. (I wanted to go everywhere.) Karim did invite me, twice, to meet his parents, to spend a weekend with his family on Hell’s Point, Long Island. It was my first direct experience of architecture—domestic life lived under aesthetic discipline.

    *

    The Brazirs’ house in the old summer colony on Hell’s Point was defiantly architectural. Every room occupied a different level, and everybody’s personal property commingled in a shared dressing room on a mezzanine, whose walls and floor were a bluish glassine substance that gave off shadows visible from the living room when you dressed. The house was rigorous and modernist, except for the specially designed item in the dressing room, an altar dedicated to the daily accumulation of clothing and personal effects. The Brazir Tree was (according to the architect, Igor Hermann, who commented on the house in two books that sat prominently on the Noguchi coffee table in the living room) inspired by the family name (Brazir—actually pronounced Brajir). Hermann toyed with the notion of installing a tree at the center of the house, and using its branches as a series of impaling hooks for brassieres and neckties and ticket stubs from Philharmonic concerts. He saw the tree as a kind of meta-valet, a sculptural, integrated scrapbook, a changing focal point, a psychic courtyard. Like most architects, Hermann sought to control and direct the gaze. He acknowledged the necessary relationship between the house as a fixed object and the humans who used it—their constant shifting and changing. The house turned inward, rather than outward. It was, for Hermann, a womb—but bright and spare—a womb of glass. Natural light poured through clerestory windows into the dressing room where the Brazir Tree stood silhouetted behind glass, representing nature, or human nature.

    Everyone in the house used the Brazir Tree; the discipline of the house prohibited closets or bureaus in the bedrooms. I loved, at the end of the day, adding my bathing suit and my gauzy dress to the wiry armature of the Brazir Tree—and plucking off my nightgown. Mr. Brazir’s masculine items dangled among the bras, dandy ties that made into a bow, flung shirts from Brooks Brothers, wonderfully worn to pulp.

    Our effects were arranged constantly and picturesquely by Mrs. Brazir, and controlled by her; the disorder of the tree was a monument to wit; was itself a witty imitation of something. You’d find the arms of one of his Brooks shirts tied neatly around the waist of Mrs. Brazir’s peignoir, things like that. Mrs. Brazir was the most glamorous woman with whom I ever shared a dressing room. She wore a vial of perfume between her breasts, which she uncorked over the second cocktail in the evening, upended against a finger, and daubed in her cleavage.

    At the very top of the house was a tiny bathroom, almost like a doll’s bathroom, not tall enough to stand up in, with a tiny half bathtub sunk into the floor that shot jets of water at your body. It was perfectly black with a red light recessed into the ceiling. To bathe there with the door closed was to be out of this world. (Karim and I spent the afternoon there once, while Mr. and Mrs. Brazir were being adjusted at the chiropractor’s.)

    They had cocktails every evening in the living room, and they dressed up, and quoted Shakespeare and Ben Jonson; sometimes they prevailed upon Mr. Brazir to recite a long, bawdy, rhyming poem from his school days, like “Gentle Alice Brown.” Or they talked about whether to go see the balanced rock on Sunday or Tuesday. The smallest details mattered to them. Mornings we walked down to the beach, a distance of a mile—or sometimes we’d take bicycles, big lugubrious cruisers that didn’t belong to anyone in particular—and go swimming. We didn’t just lie in the sand and go splash in the water every hour or so, as my people did. We went specifically to swim, and swam until we grew too cold to swim anymore. Then we dried off and went home. Intensity was everything to them—to live intensely in the moment. Sometimes we went specifically for a picnic, and on those occasions we did not swim. The picnic would be of a particular kind. “Let’s have champagne and lobster rolls and chocolate cake!” Mrs. Brazir would suggest. And we would pack and bring these things. The portions were always very small. No matter how many of us went on the “picnic” there would be one half-bottle of champagne, one lobster roll (and a plastic knife) and one piece of cake. In this way, the Brazirs shared the burden of a guest. This seemed like an essential lesson—to live eloquently, yet economically.

    Mr. Brazir was rebuilding a car, an Alfa Romeo they got for nothing. (They weren’t poor, of course, but they had no money. It was part of the romance.) One wall of the house was glass that opened up to the outside. Once, some time before I knew them, Mr. Brazir had moved the couch, and brought the car inside. We always had cocktails around the car, and the elder Brazirs sometimes had cocktails in the car—it was a two-seater, of course—while Karim and I lay on the rug like strewn victims. If Mrs. Brazir had too much to drink the night before, she might remain in bed all day and Mr. Brazir would bring her glasses of ginger ale, and explain, “Mummy’s hung.” A beautiful silence was a particular quality of their air; it was not the tense, angry silence you feel in some houses, but a loving silence, like a glow, coming out of their bedroom where she lay (I felt) picturesquely in a white gown. (She almost always wore white, like a bride.) Only Mr. Brazir penetrated the bedroom, bearing glasses of ginger ale. I never heard their voices around this exchange, as he pressed the glass into her hand, or set it down on the nightstand beside her; I never heard her say thank you, or him ask if she would like an aspirin. Nothing banal ever happened. The rooms swallowed you in silence, and when you were in one room you could not hear voices from the other rooms, although I do remember one afternoon, sitting in the living room with the Alfa Romeo, which was never really worked on, only extraordinary, useless and admired. The hood was down and there were no tools around, there were never any tools, never a hint of grease or gasoline. Mr. Brazir had gone into the bedroom with a glass of ginger ale. I was reading ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, in shameless hope that I could participate in the conversation over cocktails (though it turned out that the incest conversation only happened one time; the subject moved from theme to theme, and it was impossible to prepare). Suddenly I heard the sound of ice cubes knocking together as she drank. The sound alone was shocking, like an avalanche of ice; I realized that the Brazirs communicated to each other without words.

    I don’t know what they did not talk about—money, ambitions, disappointments. Late in the afternoon Mrs. Brazir came in and suggested that we go swimming. Or, rather, she never suggested one thing—an action. It was always an action in the context of an orchestrated event, a mental photo shoot. “Let’s go swimming and get salt in our hair and then put on white shirts and go eat mussels at Billy Zee’s.” Mr. Brazir was a photographer, and I think she saw herself this way, visually, through his lens.

    I saw a book on a table—a simple, personal book. It glowed, it vibrated. I picked it up and read it all, and when I left I took it with me.

    *

    The last time I visited Mr. Brazir was already sick with the illness that would kill him. He seemed to be in a great deal of pain; I think he felt that he had wasted his time. Mrs. Brazir seemed embarrassed by his short temper, by the way the rooms held the sharp tone of his voice. They had gotten by all those years gliding on the surface, and the surface was perfect, like ice, until it cracked.

    After dinner Karim and I walked to the beach, with a flashlight. We walked for a while, scouting, and if no one else appeared, we lay down in the cold sand and did it quickly. I loved the way his white shirt hung and moved with the motion of his body. (The Brazirs were obsessed with white shirts in summer. Mrs. Brazir insisted that “white must be pristine.” The shirts were blindingly white and wrinkly. Sublime dishevelment was the virtue of these shirts; something about them transcended that other quality, of being ironed and ready.)

    Karim and I did not talk much. He was—I realized this later—too cool to talk much. He had the confidence of a wild animal—he never questioned his instincts. He never asked me about sex, if I was satisfied; we never discussed it at all. We went back to the silent Brazir house, undressed around the Brazir tree (Mrs. Brazir’s brassiere dangling artfully by one strap, a string of pearls wound around the neck of Mr. Brazir’s waxy car coat). We hung our clothes on the branches of the tree, and went to sleep in separate rooms.

    I woke in the night, looked through the delicate skin of windows into the sky (where it hung, full and creamy) and thought, “They have the moon.”

    *

    In spite of his illness, Mr. Brazir caught a fish for our last dinner, my last dinner, among them. He caught it himself somewhere, with a hook and line. It was perfectly illegal, he said with satisfaction; he had gotten away with murder. He invited us to look at the beautiful skin of the fish, which was silvery and held rainbow colors, like a pool of oil. Nobody had an idea what kind of fish it was. We called it “the fish” and sometimes “Him.”

    “Do we want Him in lemon and butter?” Mrs. Brazir asked.

    Mr. Brazir announced that we would clean the fish at three o’clock. Mrs. Brazir insisted that first she and I must put on dresses and ride bicycles barefoot to a particular shop to buy lemons. I was delighted to do this. (Mrs. Brazir was the architect of the life they had; I wanted to learn everything from her, to live, how can I say this, in the tone of her life. I still have the stolen journal, with entries in her elegant, playful hand: “A beautiful Yale man drinking gin at Thanksgiving. I wanted that one.”)

    When we returned Mr. Brazir had found a bottle of champagne in the cellar—something very old, a Tattinger with the label slightly eroded or chewed. He cooked the fish on a tiny hibachi in the garden, and served Him on a platter with His head still on, which I found beautiful.

    The fish was very small. The four of us drank the champagne and shared Him, with slices of lemon. I realized how bourgeois it was to make an evening around quantities of food. We could have drunk water and eaten air.

    After dinner Mr. Brazir went into a pantry—I remember a tea towel tacked up in the door representing the anniversary of the French Revolution, ten bodies, very well-dressed, with no heads. Mr. Brazir returned with his fingers spread around four small, lead-colored glasses and a bottle covered with interesting labels. He explained that absinthe was illegal in America, which I knew from reading postwar literature—it was for information like this that I had become an English major. He poured some into each of the glasses, and then added water. The absinthe turned milky, though the full effect was obscured by the color of the glass.

    Suddenly I heard the Brazirs speaking through a crack in the wall.

    “Who am I? Who am I?” Mrs. Brazir cried.

    “You are Mrs. Bosanquet,” said Mr. Brazir. “And you are my nurse.”

    The drink tasted of licorice and childhood, but quickly went deeper, and I began to feel things—a bitterness that felt true, not personal, but universal, and human. I saw I must refuse the torpor and sadness, the sense of waste, the objectless rage that were part of the air I had breathed all my life—I had already refused them. This family had got to the essence of what life should be like. There is so much suffering . . . but what can we do but transcend it, rise above it, refuse it. I talked on and on, feeling the sudden clarity of my position, and a sense that this was a gift I could give them, to say what they were.

    The words I had read in Mrs. Brazir’s journal summed it up—words that were significant not for their sense, but for their sound. It was like Shakespeare. It was all a stage. The surface was the depths. I quoted lines—they seemed to belong to the air here, to all of us. “Martinis and French cigarettes on Dan Bluebeard’s speedboat. Went swimming at midnight after oysters at Billy Zee’s.”

    Mr. Brazir began to laugh quietly, his chin falling down on his chest so that his laughter was very private and uninterruptible.

    Mrs. Brazir didn’t say anything. I became aware of a terrible shift in the color of the room. Everything had turned gray-green. We did not even clear the table and it looked ugly, the plates smeared. I began to clear the plates myself, but Mrs. Brazir said, “Please don’t touch anything,” and we left everything as it was. Mr. Brazir never stopped laughing, and we left him there.

    Karim and I went for a walk to the beach in the dark. I felt bright and wild, then sleepy and muddy from the absinthe. We lay in the sand—it was cold and wet. Karim pulled up my skirt, climbed on top of me and rode vigorously, his handsome face straining outward, toward the ocean. Just before he came, he reached down and slapped my face. On the way back to the house he told me he loved me.

    The next morning Mrs. Brazir did not rise, and Mr. Brazir scurried off with a glass of ginger ale for her. They hid out there, I guess, until it was time for Karim to take me away.

    Karim drove me to the ferry, a brutish machine that made as much noise as possible, clanking and honking, and reeked of diesel fumes. He kissed me deeply, greedily, as if he were licking a plate before handing it over to a waiter. I couldn’t hear the last words he said above the grinding of iron machinery and the growling cars lined up to board.

    I stayed with the Brazirs twice, a weekend each, and remember life among them more vividly than my youth.

    *

    Who are The Bostons? Read about Carolyn Cooke’s stories here.

    And read another of her stories in the current issue of The Idaho Journal.



    • http://www.chargord.wordpress.com charlotte gordon

      I loved this story. It is funny and sad and beautiful. Cooke is brilliant!

    • http://teresashenswingler.com/?p=39 SSR – Aesthetic Discipline by Carolyn Cooke | teresashenswingler.com

      [...] over at Harper Perenniel is doling out 52 free stories every week in 2009. The other night, I read #18 – Aesthetic Discipline by Carolyn Cooke. There are two types of desire in the story. First, the surface and obvious sexual desire between a [...]

    • http://robaroundbooks.com/2009/05/shot-of-short-36-aesthetic-discipline-by-carolyn-cooke/ ‘Shot of Short’ #36: Aesthetic Discipline by Carolyn Cooke – RobAroundBooks

      [...] Aesthetic Discipline by Carolyn Cooke Date Read: 18 May 2009 Available Online?: YES (as one of the stories posted by Harper Perennial on their website Fifty-Two Stories, which [...]

    • Ella Vadem

      Eager to read more of Cooke’s work!

    • http://BluePlanetAlmanac.com/ Michael D. Austin

      Lovely, wild and civilized all at the same time. Nice to see this from a woman’s perspective. Danke schoen.

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