7202

 

Hoffman’s Last Gift

 

Stash Luczkiw

 

 

 

            1.

 

I was reluctant to see Hoffman on his deathbed. I wanted to remember him as he was during the years before we lost contact. But I had to see him. Not just because he was the one who introduced me to Diane—that too—but because every time he came into my mind throughout the years, his image was that of a man serenely resigned to happiness. And the happiness was contagious.

            Diane insisted on bringing a live plant. Flowers, she said, were for funerals. It was the kind of subtle touch Hoffman would appreciate.

            We went to his townhouse on the Upper East Side. A matronly Russian lady, Olga, greeted us at the door. The suspicious features ingrained on her face gave way to warmth—the kind reserved for dear friends—as if Hoffman had already told her about us and she was determined to make us feel at ease.

            The living room still looked like a museum, full of vaguely Mesopotamian objects that harked back to the birth of civilization. All his antiques and paintings were still in the living room. But the room where he once kept his study was now a convalescent ward. The huge desk had been moved to the window, replaced by an adjustable hospital bed.

            “There they are,” Hoffman said. His voice was weak for him, but it still had livelier timbre than most healthy adults. “The loveliest couple in New York.”

            He extended his arms out to us and enveloped us in a gaze intent on absorbing all our youth. Diane hugged him delicately, as if not wanting to break him. She showed him the potted gardenia. He practically kissed the blossoms.

            “And they smell good.”

            The remark made me recall two of Hoffman’s pet peeves. The first was that flowers had lost their scent over the years because they were bred to look good and last. The second was that English had only one commonly used verb to indicate smell. “A truly sensual language has two different distinct verbs for smelling good and bad,” I remember him saying.

            I bent over to hug him. He smelled like perfumed talcum powder.

            “Thank you for the plant. You know my father always said, ‘Don’t bother with the flowers after I’m dead. I prefer to see them while I’m still able.”

            You could tell by his almost tearful eyes that he was grateful for our coming. Our presence energized him. And Hoffman had the uncanny ability to make you feel comfortable. He understood how to make you feel understood. He could communicate important things without actually having to spell them out, and this was a real asset in such a situation.

            Olga popped her head into the room. She took the plant and offered to prepare us tea.

            Hoffman said, “She’s a wonderful nurse, and a very wise woman. I remember as a child, when we lived in Bukhovinia, we had a Russian nanny: Masha. Olga reminds me of her. Hardheaded, but warm and sincere. She reads to me in Russian, but I’ve forgotten so much of it. When we moved back to Budapest after the Revolution my father insisted we all learn English…”

            I was already on Hoffman’s global tour. Within minutes of greeting him you’d be bombarded by a salvo of distant locations: places he’d just come back from or traveled through in his youth or childhood. There wasn’t a continent on the planet that didn’t harbor fodder for some Hoffmanesque reminiscence or anecdote.

            His father and grandfather were wealthy Jewish industrialists in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After the empire came apart, they moved all around Europe. Hoffman spoke so many languages that it made someone like me, who only knew English, feel flat.

            I once heard him referred to as a polymath. I had to look the word up in the dictionary and found it was indeed the best way to describe him. He knew something about everything, it seemed, and was an expert in many fields.

            At various points in his life he had been a mathematician, a biologist, a composer of classical music, a professor of Medieval German Literature at Columbia (his job when I first met him). He authored a dozen books and countless articles ranging on subjects from Biblical History to Pythagorean Elements in Modal Jazz. And on top of all that, he had the most active social life of anyone I’d ever known.

            I was twenty-five years old when I first met Hoffman. At first I didn’t want to like him because I felt ignorant beside him. Eventually my intellectual insecurities galvanized into outright jealousy. I suspected he harbored a not-so-secret desire for Diane, who could have been his granddaughter: the way he complimented her, encouraged her, fawned over her. And the way she lit up in his presence angered me at times.

            But I quickly realized that I had no right to dislike him because he had the ability to recognize whatever was special or redeeming in a person and would give you his complete attention until he was sure that you recognized it too —if only for an instant.

            With me, he extolled my acting ability (I used to be an actor), which he said came from my capacity to let go of the ego and enter into the mind and soul of another—a skill, I might add, that has atrophied over the years.

            These were platitudes, of course, but Hoffman would say it with such good-natured authority that it hit home where other people’s compliments would dissipate in the turbulence of their own insincerity.

            It was through Diane that I first met Hoffman; and I felt like an appendage to their relationship. He was a good friend of her father’s. They met during one of Hoffman’s stints at Stamford. One of the first things he asked Diane when we visited him was how her father was.

            Diane said, “He’s well. Remarried. His new wife is good for him.”

            Diane’s mother died in a car accident shortly after we’d met. I took Diane to the funeral and that was what solidified our relationship.

            “Does he know about my condition?”

            “I told him as soon as I found out. He’s in Europe now, but I’m sure he’ll visit you when he comes back.” That is, if you survive that long, I thought silently.

            “Tell him I’m all right. It’s my liver which is not as painful as other forms. I’m sure he knows.”

            His face had what I can only describe as a blessed expression, as if fully aware of what a gift it was to be able to die after a long fulfilling life—and to die with relatively little suffering, yet with enough time to tie up many of the loose ends a life inevitably collects.

            The happiness that generated that blessed expression was beginning to infect me; and as usual, I felt a deep resistance to it because even on his deathbed Hoffman seemed to have more life in him than I could drum up in most vital years.

 

 

            2.

 

Olga brought tea while Diane told Hoffman about her father—his research projects, his recent trip to Africa with his new anthropologist wife, their present obsession with tracing the migrations of the early hominids through genetic mapping, conferences on formative causation, and so on.

            Though weak, Hoffman still gazed at Diane as if she were the only woman in the world. He had always been the kind of man that made every woman feel like she was the center of attention because she—her noble soul and the beauty it emanated—deserved just such attention.

            I surveyed the room as Hoffman listened to Diane. Every once in a while he’d turn my way to include me in the conversation, but I was distracted, still sorting our all the impressions of him I’d conveniently forgotten over the years.

            At times Diane blushed. Hoffman complimented her, touched her hand. His face was old—sunken cheeks and dark spots. I’d always known him as an old man, but now he was showing his ninety-plus years—each one of those years fuller than most people’s lifetimes.

            At one point Diane got up, on the verge of tears, to go to the bathroom. Hoffman turned his full attention to me.

            He said, “She’s still very much in love with you.”

            I tried not to look surprised, considering how I felt our marriage had been skidding uneventfully lately. His feeble but unequivocal smile melted years of accumulated cynicism.

            “How long has it been?” he asked.

            “Fifteen years.”

            “That’s rare. To still be in love after fifteen years. Especially with two dynamic people such as yourselves. Beautiful—inside and out. You should consider yourselves fortunate.”

            “I guess we are,” I was trying to sound as sincere as possible. “It’s so easy to lose perspective when you get involved in the daily…”

            I didn’t know how to finish the sentence. I didn’t want to sound like I was pitying myself. But my general dissatisfaction was probably written all over my face. I didn’t think it was appropriate to complain about life to a man about to lose his own.

            Diane came back with Olga, who carried the teacups away on a tray. Diane and Hoffman sat and looked at each other in silence. They had a rich relationship. I found myself trying to analyze it in order to learn something valuable—like what binds people.

            Several times Hoffman seemed on the verge of falling asleep. When Olga came in again she gave us a look that meant Hoffman was tired and needed rest.

            Diane kissed him twice on the cheek and I shook his hand. He invited us to come back whenever we liked, as often as we liked.

            “There are many empty guest rooms, and if you feel like staying in the city overnight rather than going back to Brooklyn, you’re more than welcome. Olga is always here and she can arrange everything.”

 

 

 

 

            3.

 

Later that night Diane burst into tears as we lay in bed. She buried her head in her pillow and bawled—not so much for David (she was the only one I knew who called Hoffman by his first name) but for a thousand regrets in her own life.

            I stroked her neck and wondered if it had been a good idea to tell her he was back in New York, deathly ill. Diane and I had lost touch with him in the late eighties after we moved upstate. Then in the early nineties we heard that Hoffman had gone back to Budapest to be near some of his family’s estates. After the fall of communism there were hopes of buying some of them back. Eventually, he settled in Paris.

            The way I found out about Hoffman being back in New York was a fluke. I was renovating a summerhouse near Woodstock. (I’ve been a full time building contractor ever since I quit acting for good.) While on the job I overheard my client—an elderly lady who was very much involved in the art world—on the phone saying she had to go back to the city to visit a friend who had just been admitted to the hospital. She described him as “the most amazing man I’d ever met.” She even went as far as calling him the closest thing to a saint she’d ever come into contact with.

            She went into a few particulars: scientist, art collector, mountain climber, bon vivant and a seducer. She’d met him back in the early sixties, while still at Columbia. He and his wife invited her to one of the banquet-cum-orgies he used organize at his apartment. They became friends, lovers of sorts, and he introduced her to a world of “libertine sophistication.”

            My ears percolated as I listened, pretending to assess the electrical wiring in the house. She never mentioned any names, but when she began rattling off geographical coordinates—Budapest, Berlin, Paris, Tangier, Rio—I knew she was talking about Hoffman. When my client got off the phone I apologized for eavesdropping and told her about how I, too, knew Hoffman—what a remarkable person he was, and so on. We eulogized him together over the coffee she made for me, and she gave me his latest address.

            There was no way I couldn’t tell Diane. She’d known the old man since she was a little girl. He was Diane’s spiritual mentor, a surrogate grandfather—the man who taught her how to seduce other men. She was able to share with him secrets she wouldn’t dare tell her best girlfriends. She trusted him. He was able to give her advice detached from envy and desire, backed by years of experience and practical wisdom. His most memorable injunction was: “Make a man feel like he’s the only man in the world who can fulfill your deepest emotional needs at that moment. But keep him guessing as to all other times

            He was the only person I’d ever met who could actually live in the moment without losing sight of the past; yet he always maintained a clear vision of his actions’ future consequences. He was one of the lucky Jews who left Europe in the thirties. He said he sensed an imminent catastrophe and never had it in him to play the martyr. After arriving in America he became successful at whatever he did.

            For my part, I always tried to find Hoffman’s weakness, his tragic flaw. But I never found it. He was utterly transparent and sincere. He loved life and anything that was alive.

            Diane often accused me of envy. But it wasn’t so much envy as disbelief. Hoffman was too good to be true. He was too intelligent, too polite, too well balanced on the surface not to harbor some area of darkness buried in that ancient soul of his.

            I spent a lot of time after I first met Hoffman looking for a stain or blemish that might reduce him to more human proportions in my eyes; but the harder I looked, the more I saw a man utterly beyond reproach.

 

 

            4.

 

Hoffman introduced me to Diane in a way that would seem prescient in retrospect.

            I had just finished an off-off-Broadway performance of Strindberg’s Miss Julie in which I played Jean, the lead. It was a good production considering our limited means. Probably my most successful role. Hoffman, who was a friend of the director, came backstage after the show to congratulate me. He was lean, with a gentle-yet-authoritative bearing that made him seem taller than he actually was. He put his hand on my shoulder and, with that cheerful seriousness he used in intimate situations, invited me to a dinner party at his apartment later in the week. “I want to introduce you to someone I think you should meet.”

            Miss Julie would turn out to be my last lead performance in the theater. After that, I got a few commercials and bit parts in soap operas, but I began to lose enthusiasm for acting.

            When I met Diane at the dinner party, Hoffman didn’t tell me she was the person I should meet. (In fact, I was expecting to be introduced to some influential movie or theater producer.)

            Diane changed my life from the very first night. I saw in her the refined, understated beauty I’d dreamed of sharing my life with—the subtle, almost hidden sensuality in her thin lips, and that spark of naive compassion in those intelligent eyes she hid behind her glasses. I’d always been turned off by women who were too overtly seductive, preferring the shy reserved eroticism that only comes out when you’ve awakened her longing for intimacy.

            The party had a wide assortment of fascinating individuals. Hoffman was an alchemist of human nature. And he made it a point to invite a lot of young people. “Otherwise everyone only talks about what they did in the past instead of what they dream of doing in the future,” he said.

            In this sense America, especially New York, suited him perfectly—everyone always talking about projects and dreams with the firm belief that they could realize them. The incessant buzz of activity hovering over the city inspired his own extraordinarily eclectic feats. He fed off others’ dreams in a healthy, symbiotic exchange. They gave him reveries to pursue, and he reciprocated with confirmation that those reveries could indeed be realized. He spoke eloquently on matters of politics, literature and science, yet could indulge in gossip about any of the celebrities he knew—though never in a mean-spirited way.

            That night at the party he practically pushed Diane into a corner with me so we could get to know each other. She was finishing her master’s degree in Art History at Columbia. A few days later we went out to the theater and dinner afterwards. I kissed her. The following week it was a movie. She slept over in my apartment in Brooklyn. We made love all night. Within a year we were married.

            Hoffman was lecturing in Beijing during our wedding, but he gave us one of his Chagall lithographs as a gift: a fantasy nuptial celebration with levitating bride and groom. Since then, I’ve always associated Chagall—his lightness, humor and childlike exaltation of life in awkward motion—with Hoffman.

 

 

            5.

 

Diane felt she needed to see Hoffman as much as possible before he died. Given his age and the advanced state of his cancer, he could lose consciousness from one day to the next.

            We decided to stay in the studio apartment we kept in Brooklyn—my old bachelor pad, where we first made love. Before Diane and I moved upstate, we decided to keep it as a foothold in the world of culture to hedge against the isolation of rural life.

            After I got married I quit acting. I felt I should be able to support my wife and eventual children. I was tired of castings and all the uncertainty involved. The reason I wanted to be an actor to begin with was because I thought I wanted to be famous. I showed some talent at it in high school, then studied drama for two years at SUNY Purchase, not far from where I grew up in Westchester. I wrote some plays, but they were such a struggle and always met with lukewarm feedback. I preferred the applause a good actor gets after he takes his bows; and I especially loved the adrenaline associated with the stage.

            To support my acting I worked as a carpenter. There was a lot of work at the time in New York. Within a few years, however, leading the double life of actor/carpenter discouraged me and I fell prey to depressions. I just didn’t have the tenacity to withstand the rejections that come with being an actor.

            Falling in love with Diane and committing myself to supporting her allowed me to justify my decision to give up acting. She wanted me to continue, but I was determined to get out of N.Y., move to the country and stay clear of exactly the kind of people that came to Hoffman’s parties: sharp, witty, cosmopolitan artists and intellectuals who seemed to pity anyone with a “normal” life. It wasn’t that I didn’t like these people; I just felt so out of my element that I wanted to hide in a corner.

            I went out on my own as a general contractor and did well. In two years, I bought some land in Ulster County and began building my dream house. At first we used it as a weekend getaway while Diane worked on her Ph.D. dissertation: “The Human Figure in Ptolemaic Greek and Egyptian Art.” Her father didn’t have the money for Columbia and I felt a sense of satisfaction at being able to put her through school. I paid for her trips around the Mediterranean and even went with her a few times, trying to be a little more like Hoffman as we gallivanted through Athens, Istanbul and Cairo.

            We’d been married more than five years when she finally finished her dissertation. By that time I was so sick of living in the city that I obliged her to come upstate and look for a job there until she got pregnant. I had enough high-end work in the Woodstock area to keep me from having to come into the city. Diane had been in school so long that plunging into the job market terrified her. She pretended to be looking forward to living in the country, but it was just an excuse for not having to pound the pavement. We both knew it wouldn’t be easy finding a job in the country. Diane’s ambivalence grew as the job offers weren’t forthcoming (in actuality she didn’t even try, she was so paralyzed by fear) and she resigned herself to having children and being a full-time mother.

            I felt like I’d arranged my dream: a beautiful (and controllable) wife, secure income, and my own house. Everything was in place except for the baby. There was no explanation. According to the doctor we were both fertile, but for some reason she couldn’t get pregnant.

            Rather than trying artificial insemination or hormone therapy (ideas which she abhorred) Diane tried to accept living without children.

            We were both afraid to admit we were no longer “in love.” We stayed together because we cared about each other’s well being—which, since my own individual well-being was inseparable from hers and vice versa, was tantamount to fear of being alone.

            In one year she gained forty pounds and only left the house to go to the supermarket. She stopped reading and watched soap operas and talk shows all day long. I suggested we move back to the city in the hope that she could find a job that might bring her back to life.

            As soon as Diane moved back to the city she contacted Hoffman, with whom she’d lost touch. He used his connections to find her a job at the Metropolitan Museum. It was that easy for him. A simple phone call.

            Diane immersed herself in her new job. She lost weight and managed to shake off the paralysis that had sabotaged her. We lived separate lives. I spent most of my time in the country, and we’d meet on the weekend. Friends asked me if I was jealous, or had suspicions. Diane was attractive and met many interesting men in her work. “No,” I told them. “I trust her completely.” And I trusted myself as well.

            Yet we rarely made love. We were totally faithful, but passion struck us as superfluous. We just needed to know the other cared.

 

 

            6.

 

Diane went to see Hoffman during the week while I was at work. She said he looked stronger and was able to get to his feet and play the piano.

            He wanted—or maybe needed—to talk about his past with her. He told her about his wife, who also died of cancer a few years before I met him.

            All Diane remembered about her was the glow of her skin before she fell ill, how it made you feel at ease immediately. Hoffman’s devotion to her was legendary. They were a paradigm of two individuals that had managed to fuse without losing their individuality. She, too, was unable to have children and they had managed to channel the need to give and receive the unconditional love that comes from children into each other and the friends they surrounded themselves with. They had an open relationship before it became fashionable. He said he and his wife were both violently jealous when they first got married. At one point she betrayed him with his best friend. It was the closest he ever came to killing a man. For months he was obsessed with murder. Then, in a flash, he recognized his anger was rooted in the suppression of his own promiscuous nature. And rather than chastising himself he tried to transform it into generosity. The only remedy was to forego claims of sexual exclusivity. He claimed it saved their marriage and took them to a level of understanding they’d never imagined.

            Hoffman also confessed to Diane the existence of a son he’d had out of wedlock, with a Jewish woman in a Hungarian village shortly before the war. That was one of the main reasons he’d gone back to Budapest: to find out if the son was still alive. He wasn’t. The boy managed to survive a concentration camp, then took his life twenty years after the war.

            “I tried to help his family,” he told Diane. “There’s a granddaughter, and even a great-granddaughter, but they looked at me suspiciously. They’d learned to compartmentalize their history in order to live with it. Then I came along as a living embodiment of that history, full of my human contradictions. At first they looked at me like I was the Archangel of Chaos, but then they warmed up and allowed me to get to know them.”

            Hearing this I felt I had found the stain I was looking for. It gave me a vague sense of satisfaction. Hoffman wasn’t perfect. Hoffman had doubts, maybe even regrets.

            Diane talked about Hoffman as if he were already dead, holding my hand the whole time. I felt closer to her than I had in years.

 

 

            7.

 

When Saturday came around I accompanied Diane to see Hoffman. This time we brought him some scented candles.

            Olga led us to Hoffman’s room where he was reading a large book with a magnifying glass. He put down the book and smiled shyly, like child when favorite aunt and uncle come. Diane sat beside him and asked what he was reading.

            He said, “The Old Testament—the story of Jacob and Esau. I’ve never realized how full of subtle humor some of the Biblical stories could be. And they’re so concise. The writer paints a vivid character with a few simple strokes. It’s like a breath of fresh air for anyone raised on the European novel. No extraneous details, hardly, or psycholgisms—just man’s relationship with his fellow man and God. When I was a young man I stayed clear of the Bible because of its moralism. But that was just libertine prejudice. I don’t imagine either of you are religious.”

            Diane shrugged her shoulders. “I used to go to church when I was a child, but after I moved out of the house I stopped.”

            “And you?” Hoffman asked, looking at me.

            “Well, I’ve always felt there must be something out there, some force or something. But as far as an organized religion, or community… it usually makes me feel more alienated than if I didn’t believe in anything. I mean how can you agree on what God is?”

            “I understand,” Hoffman said, nodding.

            I felt uncomfortable. The old man was trying to come to terms with the Absolute before he died. And there was nothing I could do to help or comfort him but listen.

            He said, “I’ve always been an agnostic, at least as far as the conventional definitions of God were concerned. But I must admit that whenever I felt what could be called the Divine, it has always been through contact with other people, or nature—through love or beauty.”

            Diane and I nodded. Hoffman closed his book and went to the piano, elegant in his silk pajamas and bathrobe. He played something unfamiliar, one of his own compositions. It was sad and soothing and almost put me to sleep.

            He looked old, but not like a dying man. In fact, his eyes seemed more alive than I felt—they looked rested, full of awe; whereas I was always struggling with exhaustion, head full of unfulfilled aspirations.

            Olga came in with tea. Hoffman seemed to tire as soon as she stepped in. He went back to his bed and swallowed his pills.

            Olga left us alone.

            “I want her to be taken care of when I go. In the past months she’s given me so much. All she’s ever known in her life is sacrifice.” Hoffman looked at me with an almost grave expression. “Do I look like I’m afraid of dying?”

            “No. In fact, I think I’m more afraid of living than you are of dying,” It was a feeble attempt to inject a little levity into the situation.

            He grinned and shifted his gaze to Diane, who forced a thin-lipped smile.

            “At times I am afraid,” he said. “But I assume that’s normal—and healthy.” He paused to prop himself up in the bed. “You don’t know what a pleasure it is to spend time with a young couple still so in love.”

            Diane and I cast a glance at each other. We had both recently crossed the threshold of forty, and I certainly did not feel young. But with Hoffman older than both of us put together, it was all relative.

            “It’s our pleasure, too,” Diane said, realizing how trivial she must have sounded.

            Suddenly, Hoffman looked weak. He wanted to ask us a favor, but he was having trouble getting it out.

            “What is it, David?”

            “Nothing. Just… one gets the strangest requests.”

            He sounded flippant. Still, I braced myself for a request only Hoffman could conjure—the kind that Diane and I couldn’t deny him, because that would be like pulling the plug on your own life support system. And yet, it had nothing to do with any quid-pro-quo withholding. Hoffman’s ability to give was just so great that reciprocating became a personal imperative to whoever basked in his generosity.

            Diane said, “All you have to do is ask.”

            “Maybe I’m being presumptuous.”

            “Really, David, anything.”

            “Well, since you first came back… How can I say… I’ve been heartened—is that the word?—by your presence.” He paused, at a loss for words. I enjoyed watching him squirm for once. Then he looked us both square in the eyes and regained his composure. “I’d like so much to share your love, to have as one of my last living images a couple making love. I’d like to die with that image of beauty.”

            There was no hint of embarrassment in his voice. Only the wistful lilt of man barred from participation.

            Diane and I caught each other with questioning glances. We both knew we couldn’t deny him. Neither of us said anything; we each took his hand and stroked it in tacit agreement.

            Olga came in as if on cue to chase us away before we could retract our silent promise.

            “The doctor needs to rest now.”

            We told him we’d come the following morning.

 

 

            8.

 

Hoffman assumed Diane and I were in love. Most people did. We’d been together for fifteen years and neither of us were the type to complain to our friends when problems cropped up.

            But ever since we accepted our inability to have children, we stayed together for lack of alternative, by default. Neither of us could say for certain: “I’m in love with you.” And that, to me, meant we weren’t. The passion had vanished long ago and on the rare occasions we did make love it felt like a duty, like some abstract notion of Conjugal Law were looming over our bed, obliging us to act out on the physical desire that by definition was supposed to be between us. Now Hoffman had come to embody the judge, and our decision would be carried out in terms of duty—the duty to reciprocate a gift—rather than pleasure.

            Diane said, “I don’t know if I can go through with it.”

            “Why not?”

            “I’ve never made love in front of a third person.”

            “Sure you have. Our first year here in Brooklyn, before you moved in. My curtains were transparent and the neighbor across the street used to watch us with binoculars.”

            She laughed. “That was an oversight.” We hadn’t thought about that first passionate year in a long time, and it was comforting to go back there. “You don’t think he’ll want to get involved, do you? I mean physically.”

            “I doubt he could even if he wanted to.”

            “Do you think you can go through with it?”

            “I don’t know. But now that the opportunity is there, I’d like to try—just to see if I could.”

            That night I thought about how it might turn out. My biggest worry was that I’d find it totally uninspiring, even disgusting, to make love to my wife in front of a moribund old man. But that worry was counterbalanced by my desire to capture Hoffman’s undivided attention and thereby, maybe, if such things actually happened, absorb some of the old man’s life. Such desire made me realize to what extent I was envious of Hoffman, why I didn’t want to see him on his deathbed. He was everything I could never be, and in his presence I became a solid mass of regret.

            I thought I had one advantage over him: that I could make love, that my physical body still functioned. But I would soon realize that Hoffman’s most mysterious quality was that he precluded you from thinking in terms of advantage around him. Either you blocked him out entirely and interacted like an impermeable sack of skin, or you flowed in and out of his expansive presence.

 

 

            9.

 

We brought Hoffman a potted jasmine plant. In the flower shop, we chose whatever had the strongest scent.

            Olga led us in to the study, and with a grave expression warned us that Hoffman had taken a turn for the worse. She must have been informed of the day’s itinerary because the sofa at the far end of the room was covered in fresh linen sheets. A string was tied from the top of one bookshelf to the other as a makeshift curtain rod between the bed and the couch. The curtain was made of a transparent gauze-like material and was drawn to the side. As she left the room, Olga flashed a forced smile at me and Diane that could easily have been interpreted as a scowl accusing us of coming to pull the plug on Hoffman’s life support.

            He really did look much worse: gaunt, harried by the effort required to breath. He lay on his bed and struggled to lift his torso and kiss each of us on both cheeks. It was the first time he showed his pain—at least to me.

            Olga brought us a bottle of Taittinger champagne and a tray of hors d’oeuvres: crackers topped with various cheeses, caviar, pâté de foie gras, followed by a tray of raw oysters.

            Hoffman asked me to choose some music. I put on Haydn—something I thought the old man might appreciate.

            Diane concentrated on the oysters and drank two glasses of champagne in rapid succession. Hoffman raised his own glass to his lips prudently. “The doctor said the slightest bit of alcohol could shut my liver down and kill me.”

            He meant it to be mildly amusing, but Diane burst out laughing and nearly choked on her cracker. The laughter was contagious. Hoffman was weakened by the exertion and had to lie back in his bed.

            I asked if he had any whiskey. He pointed to a rolling bar that had been set up in the corner of the room. I checked the assortment and poured myself three finger-widths of Glenfiddich.

            “Help yourself to anything you find,” he said, obviously referring to the pre-rolled joints and small silver tray containing about a gram of white powder. I assumed it was cocaine, but you never knew with Hoffman. He used to be friends with Jean Cocteau, and that circle was known for indulging in heroin.

            I hadn’t smoked any pot or seen cocaine in years, but Diane leapt for the joint. Cannabis had always had the effect of releasing her inhibitions.

            We smoked a joint together. Even Hoffman took a feeble drag. I asked whether the powder was cocaine or heroin.

            “The former,” Hoffman said. “But if you prefer opiates, Olga might be able…”

            “No, no, that’s fine,” I said. “Never touch the stuff.”

            Diane and I looked at each other. It was so typical of Hoffman to have thought about every little detail. I sniffed a few micro-spoonfuls of the powder and offered some to Diane.

            When the Haydn disc stopped we all looked at each other, smiling awkwardly in the silence. I was quite high off the joint and could tell Diane hadn’t been that stoned in ages.

            I went to the CD collection and chose a compilation of bossa nova, thinking it might detach me from Hoffman’s mitteleuropean gaze—if even by inflicting a stroke on the old man.

             I lit the candles beside the couch, the ones we had brought on an earlier visit, and began running my fingers through Diane’s hair, massaging her head. I thought about drawing the curtain, but then decided Hoffman should have an unobstructed view.

            The room was warm. I wasn’t sure how to begin, then realized I’d already begun. I thought about asking if we should just call off the charade, but I was in full-on deferential mode, and by now I had to prove something to myself with this performance. I kissed Diane. I took off her blouse and skirt. She lay on the couch in her cream-colored lace negligée—one I gave her as a gift for our first anniversary. She hadn’t worn it in years. I stroked her shoulders from.

            Hoffman turned out all the lights by remote control and sat quietly in his bed. I could see him in my mind’s eye, straining in the darkness not to let out any sign of the pain afflicting him.

            The only light in the study came from the candles beside the couch. I undressed. I knelt in front of Diane with my back to Hoffman and licked her entire body. She looked shy, scared even, and beautiful in her desire to please. She moaned under my touch, and I wondered if it was my touch that made her excited or her desire to please Hoffman. The more she moaned the more self-conscious I became. A jolt of paranoia hit me: she was excited because she was making love to Hoffman vicariously. Then I quickly attributed such thoughts to the cannabis and cocaine, and tried to evict them from my mind.

            I molded her body in my hands and traced the outlines of her skin with my tongue. Diane had always been beautiful to me, the only woman I’d ever wanted. And yet, I’d never been able to appreciate that fully and act accordingly, decisively. All my expressions of love were scattered with hidden loopholes and escape hatches I was only partially aware of.

            I caressed her to the point where she was about to let go, but thoughts of Hoffman broke my rhythm. I chased them away with action. She grew more excited. Then he came back in. A dozen times this happened in the course of a few minutes.

            I couldn’t get hard. Diane looked like she was offering herself to Hoffman’s gaze—the way a doe offers herself to the headlights of an oncoming car. I couldn’t see the old man, but I imagined him behind my back, lying in bed with the curious eyes of a child watching TV. I wondered what he thought of me, of my performance. Because it truly was a performance. I was acting again, full of adrenaline, wanting to get it over with and bask in the applause, but knowing I had to pace myself if the scene was to be credible.

            I fought with Diane’s sex, desperate to bring her to a climax. I licked and groped at whatever ghost of spontaneity the situation may have contained; but it all seemed like a blocking session for something else, some other spectacle, a rehearsal that was well out of my control already.

            At one point I felt a cramp develop in my jaw. I heard Hoffman moving under the covers—probably just trying to find a less painful position—and thought of the moribund old man masturbating. The image revolted me. I struggled with the cramp and thought about acting in a porno film. I moved my tongue in every possible direction. I was infected by a series of increasingly squalid and violent thoughts: fetish images and rape scenes. I imagined Diane as old and shriveled, cold and desiccated. I imagined her geriatric form making love to a younger (though still old) version of Hoffman. It dawned on me that she had always harbored impossible unconscious fantasies of Hoffman filling her up, sexually, filling her up with that extraordinary lust for life both Diane and I were incapable of. Now she was finally, almost, living it out.

            The music stopped. All I could hear was her moaning, beckoning. She was beautiful again. I saw her cast a glance in his direction. I wasn’t sure if she wanted me, or just wanted me to get it over with. But I couldn’t manage to get it up with him in the room. Whenever his image appeared in my mind, it broke my rhythm. That was my problem: I could never sustain a rhythm. And therefore, I could never adequately express my love.

            I hated the old man. I hated Hoffman precisely because he had always known how to manifest his love, was always willing to experiment. He was so generous; and I felt like a debt-ridden niggard in his presence. I remembered photos of his wife, whom I’d never met. Their happiness together and devotion to each other was the stuff of great novels. Or was it? It didn’t matter. He could manifest it and I was still blocked, forever blocked.

            I tried to imagine his wife in Diane. I protected her from his gaze with my body. I could feel him boring into me. Diane was his wife. I knew nothing about her first-hand—just what she looked like from photos and what I’d extrapolated from all the Hoffman gossip I’d heard over the years. But she was beautiful and devoted, and I imagined Diane as her; and that finally sparked a physical reaction.

            I wished Hoffman would die. Again, I allowed myself to imagine this episode killing him: he’d get so excited that his heart would stop and he’d keel over on the spot. The image soothed me. I laughed to myself; and that laughter allowed me—like a good actor—to get rid of myself and adapt another character.

            I steadied the rhythm and licked Diane with vindictive delight. I felt her contracting around my tongue. She was doing it for him, not me, and that was right, and I became him at that moment. Hating him. It was a controlled rage that allowed me to remain him.

            I felt him enter me. Diane was practically irrelevant. He entered me and I realized I wasn’t making love to Diane or his wife, but to myself, through her—emptying myself in the process. Making love was a form of self-annihilation. I was literally eating myself out.

            Diane came in my mouth, muttering things I couldn’t make out; and I resented the fact that she could get excited in such a situation and come so easily, like a sacrificial whore in the tomb of some embalmed pharaoh. I wanted to possess her entirely. I wanted every crevice and pore of her skin to scream out with desire for me—not some polymath on death’s doorstep. Scream out for everyone to hear.

            But Hoffman was everyone.

            I penetrated, pushed, writhed and tried to keep a rhythm. But it all seemed like work, a shallow performance. No matter how hard or fast I thrust, no matter from what angle or in which position, I just couldn’t come. And every time my mind wandered I felt my erection deliquescing inside her.

            Suddenly a strange sensation came over me. I felt lifted out of my skin. I was viewing the scene from outside. I remembered the self-emptying feeling. I coiled up all my energy and saw Diane convulsing beneath me, saw us both from off to the side. Our faces took on those disturbingly contorted expressions of pain and ecstasy that were almost too intimate to watch. I heard a sob well up from my chest. My face seemed to distend. Then I realized it was Hoffman weeping, silently, stifling his sobs with a blanket over his mouth.

            I couldn’t come. But I had to act. Something inside me flared up, burnt out. There was a weird laughter—vaguely simian—echoing through my head. I lay motionless on top of Diane and the echo gave way to a steady hum. It was over. The performance was credible, but something else had happened. I could only see it from the outside.

            We looked beautiful on the couch. The whole room was buzzing. I was still charged, still outside myself.

            I glanced at Hoffman: he lay there with his eyes closed—serene, content, as if etching the episode onto his soul. I began to doubt. Maybe it wasn’t him weeping.

            Diane sprawled out nude on the couch riding the backlash of pleasure—or whatever it was she’d experienced. I got dressed and poured myself another whiskey. Diane walked up to me and put her arms around my neck. I thought she wanted to whisper something in my ear, but what I heard was unintelligible, an animal utterance that blended in with the humming in my head.

            She went over to Hoffman and kissed him on the forehead, as a mother would kiss a sick child. I put on a classical radio station and we each reveled in our own world, comfortably. I drank, smoked and sniffed myself into a state of euphoria unlike anything I had ever felt

            Hoffman invited us to stay for dinner and we ate together in his room. Olga eventually came and looked relieved to the man she loved (for whatever reason it had become obvious that she was “in love”) somewhat reanimated.

            Hoffman hardly ate, but he seemed to enjoy watching us. We chatted about love and marriage. He mentioned his wife. He mentioned the Chagall painting he’d given us, and I felt like I’d just come from somewhere inside that wild wedding scene. He talked of his childhood: how he first discovered flowers; how every spring when the snow would melt he’d sit by his mother’s flower bed and invite the crocuses to come up; and how when they didn’t, he’d sulk and pout to a point where his mother had to punish him. And yet, we continually skirted the subject of what had just transpired—not as if nothing had happened, but fully aware that everything had changed.

 

 

            10.

 

Hoffman died within a week of our making love for him. We saw him another two times before he lost consciousness. At one point during the last visit his eyes lit up with gratitude, and he said, “I have so many beautiful images to take with me where I’m going.”

            It was like he saw his death as a voyage, and his life as a repository of experiences which he selected the way a museum curator selects works to be displayed. I only wonder if he collected his experiences for some transcendent observer, or if it was all for himself.

            The funeral took place six months ago. Diane and I have since gone through a quiet upheaval. Hoffman left us a substantial sum of money, which we used to go on a trip through Europe. We were constantly together, and the entire trip—though beautiful and exciting—was fraught with trivial conflicts.

            Now we spend much more time together, but it seems as if the balance we’d achieved over the years has been shattered. Whenever we’re in the same room, there’s a smoldering tension. We bicker and argue over insignificant things, which rarely happened in the past. To defuse the tension we touch and hold each other, as if to literally keep the relationship from falling apart. From the outside it may seem like we’ve become more affectionate, but deep down it comes from the fear generated by one predominant feeling: we’ve become strangers to one another.

            We make love often, and though I can’t deny it’s beautiful, I suspect it’s more of an outlet for the fear: if we don’t touch each other we’ll go our separate ways. And if we go our separate ways, we’ll go numb—we’ll cease to exist.

            I’ve also noticed Diane has been showing interest in other men. This would probably disturb me if I myself hadn’t begun looking at other women with less than innocent appreciation. In fact, I was recently presented with the possibility of living out the contractor’s most hackneyed fantasy: getting seduced by a beautiful client and having an on-site affair. She was stunning, sophisticated, hungry for physical contact. It seemed like the perfect diversion.

            But it felt wrong. Betrayal had little to do with it. If anything, betrayal might have released some of the tension with Diane; and that’s exactly what I didn’t want to release. Admittedly, this newfound precariousness between Diane and me has given us a second wind. I interpret the tension as a sign that certain problems have begun to boil over. And this has finally allowed us to address the problems at their roots. Diversions would only make things fester.

            I’m convinced this new dynamic in our relationship was the direct result of Hoffman’s wish. I still see his eyes watching me, judging my love. And though something inside me has always longed to find malign intentions in that gaze, I now welcome it—as I welcome the upheaval— because I can’t see Hoffman as anything but good.

© 2002 Stash Luczkiw


 

 

Stash Luczkiw was born in New York City in 1965. He has written several volumes of poetry, fiction and translations. Currently he lives in Milan, Italy, where he is the editor of Cartier Art magazine.

 

Stash.luczkiw@rcs.it


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