Leonard and Vivien sit in her van drinking soda. They’re parked where Grand Street dead-ends into the East River. Vivien’s dirty bare feet are up on the dashboard; Lenny’s knee is propped against the steering wheel. Out on the river a tug nudges a garbage barge through the water. It eases past the Domino sugar docks, where they’re loading up a big battered ship, slips under the Williamsburg Bridge and drifts towards the tip of lower Manhattan.
“I’ve got something to do this afternoon,” she tells him. “So I won’t be able to help you clean out the basement.”
“O.K.,” he says, frowning, but not at her. “I guess I can take John off sheet rocking and have him help me.”
She wants him to ask her what she has to do, but he doesn’t. She would make up something good, let him know she has a life of her own.
Leonard reaches to adjust the plastic Saint Francis mounted on the dash, and Vivien’s eyes trace the curve of his bicep. He smiles sideways, flexing a little for her benefit. The rolling line is the kind of landscape she wouldn’t mind getting lost in, still, after their five years together. She wants to take a big bite of him, but instead kisses the back of his neck, chewing a little. He squirms and pulls away. They’ve got to be getting home. Lenny’s expecting a phone call.
He’s trying to start the car. It’s not easy – a live wire running from the engine is touched to a battery terminal, and the hiccupping spark that erupts must be pumped into a full-fledged connection. The battery is behind the passenger seat. Lenny pumps the gas, his arm around the back of Vivien’s seat, his forehead wrinkled up into grimy furrows.
Vivien studies the long line of his fine nose. She imagines giving him a hard push out the driver’s side door, climbing behind the wheel and driving away. Driving through the tangle of New York expressways and out into open country, where a lone road cuts through a field. Never coming back. How would he like that? She remembers soon after they first met, Lenny, coming on to some acid, called to say he knew her house was a spaceship and he wanted to be with her when she took off.
Leonard. He wears rumpled summer-weight wool suits, ties either too wide or narrow to be in fashion, black leather army boots unlaced to the ankle, cracked tongues lolling. Wolfish grin, loping stride, one shoulder lower than the other. Old suits hang well off his spare frame. His forearms are covered with scarred, cordlike veins. Every week he hoes t the Dominican barber down the street, trying to look sharp and somewhat conservative so he can move in different circles, sell real estate or buy drugs, He gets his thinning hair cropped close to his skull. He tries to keep himself clean and presentable, but always seems a little grimy. There is an unhealthy sheen on his narrow face and crescent moons of engine grease under his nails.
After a few metallic wheezes and coughs, the engine dies. Vivien stamps her foot on the ribbed rubber mat that covers a hole in the chassis. “This car.”
“Don’t let it here you,” Lenny whispers. “It’ll get mad and run even worse.” He reaches behind her, touches the wire to the terminal again. “I want to get home.”
More of an encampment than a home. A woodpile next to the refrigerator. No bath or shower, Rats under the floorboards, Leonard has no money – Vivien wonders what sorts of deals he’s struck. He operates on no cash and a lot of talk. He’s always on the phone. The building is sinking, the engineers tell him. Inch by inch. In 15 years, they predict, the foundation will crack.
Leonard isn’t worried. “That’s very common,” he says. He’s also managed to convince his silent partner, a man Vivien’s never seen or talked to, that nothing is wrong.
Meanwhile, they take showers at the neighborhood pool. Their clothes are in big damp piles, sprinkled with sheetrock dust. Vivien doesn’t know which clothes are his and which are hers anymore – they’re the same size.
The engine finally catches. On the way home Lenny talks about the building: it needs a new boiler, new windows, the bathrooms should be torn out and rebuilt. Vivien listens in silence and then starts in: it’ll never work, she tells him. He’ll go bankrupt or be beaten to a pulp by loan sharks or drug dealers, and besides, he’s so preoccupied with the damned building that he never even looks at her anymore. Lenny parallel parks across the street from the building, down the block from the spray-painted Grand Street sign. He shoves the car into park.
“If things don’t shape up,” Vivien says. “I’m out of here.” It’s something she says more and more often, with less and less conviction.
When did she get to be such a bitch, she wonders. She’s always fought a lot with her lovers, has been dramatic and intense. But never this petty bitchiness and character assassination. She feels like she’s fighting for her life, with any weapons available. But she hates herself for the smallness and meanness of the weapons she chooses.
At home Blaze is setting up a shrine to money in the basement. Blaze is Leonard’s friend from his drug dealing days; he showed up a month ago. He used to manufacture the cleanest speed in San Francisco. Now, he says, he’s working on his body image and trying to draw money into his sphere. He’s placed a green votive candle on a low table. On a dusty green satin pillow is a pyramid with a single eye in the middle, cut from the back of a dollar bill. Blaze will wear only green; he must demonstrate that he is willing to have money come into his life.
Before, Blaze wore yellow to channel the power of the sun. Before yellow it was white for purity. Blaze has given Vivien all his white and yellow clothing. He has a rendezvous in the desert. The day is set – Winter Solstice – but the place isn’t clear yet. For now he’ll mediate on money. Following his inner voice is expensive.
“How’s it going, Vivien?” he asks, coming up the scrap wood steps. He arrives in a cloud of mildewed air from the basement, which mixes with the upstairs smell of new wood and fresh plaster.
“I’m a little down,” Vivien admits.
“You know,” he offers, “we’ve got the same problems. Body image and a serious case of inertia.”
Lenny never asked Vivien how she felt about Blaze coming to stay, and since it’s his building, sort of, she never said anything. But she hates never coming home to an empty apartment. “I don’t know about that, Blaze,” she says. “I move around a lot.”
“Maybe,’ he allows. “But do you ever get anywhere?” He smiles. He has a nice smile. “By the way,” he continues, turning to Leonard, who’s going through some papers on his desk. “Lewis called from Santa Cruz. He’s got a new girlfriend who’s a window washer. She fits all of her equipment in the back and on top of her Subaru.”
“I’m really busy, Blaze,” Leonard says.
“Oh. Ok.” Blaze clumps back down the stairs to the basement.
The next night Leonard and Vivien are cruising trash on the Upper West Side. A scrap of nice carpet, a bookcase, an old chair, a box of water-stained National Geographics. This is fun. They both think so. But the familiar pain is starting to show in her face. He sighs, reaches over, pulls her earlobe.
“Do you think you’re the only one who feels alone?” he asks her, exasperated, his eyes on the road. She says of course not but she has to admit to herself that she can’t imagine anyone as alone as she. At this grandiosity she smiles, and he smiles to see her smile.
Sometimes the pain is a comforting buzz of complaint from her muscles and tendons; it almost passes for self-sufficiency, so insulating is this pain, so private.
“You,” he says, pronouncing the word with thrilling intimacy and a hint of impatience, “are fine.” She looks at him, hoping he will elaborate, but his attention is back on the road.
She wants something from him. She wants it only every so often but when she wants it she wants it badly: a reflection of herself in his eyes, some indication that he sees her. That he sees he moving and shifting, moving towards filling in her outlines, towards becoming more what she is. When he ignores her, or seems to see her only in his peripheral vision, she feels like she doesn’t exist.
Vivien pushes her back up against the car door and stares hard at Leonard.
“What?” he says after a while.
“Why,” she asks, “are you always the one to drive?” She used to love driving – the fell of speed and control, easing around a smoothly banked curve. In fact, it’s her van. She bought it to start a moving service. She put ads in the paper and put up fliers for Joyride Moving. It was good business for a while” Vivien became very strong and got to know New York streets pretty well. She had to stop when the van started to stall in the middle of busy intersections. Now she’s almost afraid to drive. He seems to do it so much better.
“Do you want to drive?” Lenny asks.
Vivien looks out the window. “Maybe later.”
Saturday morning. Vivien has a little time to herself. Blaze is out on his bike, and Leonard is working on the car. Vivien puts water on for coffee. Going through their bank statement, she sees many withdrawals that she didn’t make. Lenny has an expensive habit. T’s hard to condemn him, though, since she often shares what he buys. She decides to open her own account, but can’t do it on a weekend. Instead, she starts separating her clothes out from the big piles on the floor.
Lenny bursts in the door, his hands and face streaked with oil, finger bleeding. He’s got the carburetor, a complicated metal flower, in his hand. He fiddles with the flaps, standing near the stove, his face intent and irritable. Without looking up, he takes a can from the counter and sprays the carburetor with cleaning solution. As if siphoned off from the flame under the kettle, a cloud of flames billows up and envelops Leonard’s head. He reels, laughing. Vivien lunges to turn off the burner. “Are you crazy?!” she demands. The ghost of the fire cloud, sooty and bitter on her tongue, hovers in the air between them. Then she is laughing too, seeing his singed eyebrows. His blackened face cracked into a grin. The carburetor is on the floor. It has nicked and blackened a spot on the plywood. She puts her arms around him; his body is convulsing with laughter. “Lenny,” she whispers into his neck. His hair smells sharp. He pats her back awkwardly.
She knows that even weekend addicts have only one true love. She’s read this; she’s been told. But somehow the formula doesn’t include her – she can’t believe that the categories she and Lenny fall into say more about them than their individual quirks. She uses, too, but she still wants him. So maybe it’s not the drugs? She can’t, or won’t, understand that dope penetrates Lenny in the same was that he penetrates her: every tissue is saturated, every hollow filled, and there’s no room for anything else.
There is something fundamentally slow about him these days, though he’s always in a manic hurry. She knows that when he stops all his running around he is so wildly empty that he scares himself. His bones hum with the memory of all the money he’s spent, all the love he’s wasted, all the drugs that have branded hieroglyphics into his cell membranes.
“You promised you’d help me with the car today,” he reminds her.
They spend many afternoons this way: Leonard under the car on flattened cardboard, Vivien starting it up on his signal or handing him tools. She doesn’t like being the helper; she wishes she were the one doing the repairs. It’s not like he knows so much. He’s an impatient mechanic, slapping things together, welding a half-formed new part, strapping on a dragging muffler with a coat hanger. He makes unconsidered moves and scrapes his knuckles down to the bone. But he has confidence in himself; he knows he can fix it if he fiddles with it long enough. Whether it stays fixed is another story.
That night Blaze and Leonard and Vivien sprawl on the bed and watch a movie. There seems to be some sort of grit on the bed; Vivien keeps sweeping off her area with little flicks of her hand. They pick at a store-bought chocolate cake and snort a little dope.
She can feel the satisfying bitterness drip down the back of her throat. Sometimes dope tucks her in under a cool, clean sheet. But more and more often it feels like a scratchy blanket thrown over someone shaking with fever. Last week she had some Mexican brown and vomited hard all night. In the morning her eyes were puffy and red with broken blood vessels. That’s it for me, she said. No more. But she keeps doing it. She likes the enforced laziness, the fully realized leisure. And then there’s Lenny. When she snorts dope with him, she’s trying to match his rhythm, trying to fit herself into his mode.
Blaze has been talking throughout the movie.
“Then the car broke down in downtown L.A.,” he continues. “We found Paul’s loft – he had that dog with a face like a dolphin, remember? – and shot up the last of the speed in the bathroom. He’s looking at Vivien. The story is starting to sound familiar.
The mention of speed makes her bowls tremble, with the same mix of revulsion and anticipation she remembers from those days. She’s thinking of how speed was her antidote to the slow rhythm of California, a rhythm she never appreciated until she moved to New York.
She and Leonard did speed together, but it was always her drug, her favorite. It had the contradictory effect of calming her down, removing the webs and branches that her thoughts caught on in their rush through her head. Speed helped her swell up to the size she always knew she should be, her back pressing against the roof of the sky. She was going to break through at any moment.
When she came down, usually after three or four days of no food or sleep, she wanted to die.
“We made it to Tucson in time for Sam and Sarah’s wedding.” Vivien says.
Lenny scoops up a fingerful of icing from the cake, “I introduced them. Sarah wanted to marry and man named Sam and I said, I know a Sam who plays the piano.” Vivien strokes his legs; his muscles tense under her hand.
“Remember, Sarah’s cousin videotaped the wedding?” says Blaze. “And after everyone went home, they sat down and watched themselves get married.”
Lenny has pulled away from Vivien; she pretends not to notice. “There was that huge field of old tires outside of town. “ She’s talking to Blaze now, “You know there’s no way to get rid of old tires – you can’t burn them and it takes them like 100 years to break down.”
Blaze nods. For all his obliviousness he knows exactly what’s happening between Lenny and Vivien. “I hear you can shred them,” he says, his voice full of sympathy.
Vivien’s car then was a 1963 Chevy Nova, the color of a peeled potato. They detoured though Death Valley on their way to Tucson. They were at a gas station, she remembers, checking the oil. The station was the only thing on the horizon. Scrubby weeds split the pavement near the pumps. Blaze was asleep in the back seat. Leonard ran his hands though Vivien’s short hair. “I could die right now,” he said. “Just as long as you die too.”
“No,” thinks Vivien, brushing crumbs from the bed. I’m not going down with him. He doesn’t even want me down there anymore.
Vivien’s current car, the old van, is on its way down too. The engine, set between the two front seats, spews black smoke – the rubber seal is eaten away. The door handles fall off, and the windows won’t stay up. The handles are replaced by vice grips, which clatter to the floor when they drive across a pothole. To keep the windows up he sticks wads of chewing gum along the frame.
“You’re lucky to have me around,” he often says. “Do you know how much a mechanic would charge to fix this car?”
When it stalls out, they have to flag someone to give them a jump. Leonard takes care of it, conjuring a character that is half friendly cowboy, half cajoling conman. She sits in the cold car, fuming. She feels bad blaming him. But it is, somehow, his fault.
Blaze is held up at gunpoint on the Williamsburg Bridge. He had transferred the talismanic eye-in-the-pyramid to his wallet, to have the money-making power close at hand. When he’s held up it’s the only shred of money he has. “I’m broke,” he tells the guy with the gun. Slowly, he takes his wallet from his pocket. “See?” he says, shaking it open. The pyramid falls out, drifts on the breeze. Blaze and the gunman watch its long slow fall to the river below.
“He was a decent guy,” Blaze says of the encounter. “We all want the same things.” All the same Blaze decides it’s time to leave New York. He will ride his bike all the way to New Mexico. Think of the shape he’ll be when he gets there!
The day before he leaves, Vivien overhears him tell Lenny that he’d better watch out. Vivien’s on her way down, he says, and she’s going to take you with her. Vivien can’t believe that Blaze has gotten it so very backward. But a small part of her is beginning to wonder just who or what it is that is falling.
Vivien misses Blaze more than she thought she would. She’s forgotten how to talk to normal people. At the corner store she can’t look the clerk in the eye. She feels unfit for human company.
She does temp work. Stares at the same computer screen in different offices. The green glow and low buzz are comforting. She manipulates words, devours them with the delete key. Compels them to jumps from line to line, makes them adhere to a fresh piece of paper. This is where she feels powerful. She holds the finished page lightly in both hands.
At home, Lenny is working furiously on the building during the day, and is nearly catatonic at night. Vivien tells him he’s a smalltime operator, a salesman, an asshole. She tells him she’s going to leave if things don’t shape up. She tells him everything but the truth: that she’s afraid he doesn’t–that he can’t–love her anymore.
He’s looking worse and worse. He’s very thin and his skin is sallow and rubbery. He does his best not to look Vivien in the eye, as if that will prevent her from seeing what’s happening to him. One night, though, he seems unaccountably open to her. He looks at her, imploring.
“Lenny,” she says, putting her arms around him but disappointed that he only comes around when he needs something. “You don’t look so good.”
He buries his head in her shoulder like a child. “What do you expect,” he mumbles, “when you’re always criticizing me?”
“Don’t do that,” she pleads, feeling nonetheless that it is, somehow, her fault. She takes hold of his wrist and pushes up the sleeve of his sweatshirt.
“It’s not what you think. Those are mosquito bites that got infected.”
In the past, he would have come up with a better story.
“I’m fucked,” Lenny says, his voice breaking. “I’m up to eight bags a day.” There is the smallest hint of satisfaction in his voice.
Vivien drives upstate with Leonard bundled in blankets in the back of the van. The idea is to find a rehab place Lenny heard of a while back. It’s called something like Sycamore House. It’s hard to get in, they don’t answer their phone, but Lenny thinks if they just show up he’ll be able to talk his way in. Vivien things he just might. She imagines watching him disappear into a dim entryway behind a woman in crisp white. Someone who could relieve her, Vivien, of all responsibility, if not blame.
She drives them through the rolling Catskills, past barns and hills and trees. The road is narrow but smooth. The air feels green and easy to breathe. It’s been a long time since she’s done all the driving. Lenny says the movement of the car eases the pain of kicking. Maybe they’ll just drive around a while. He could get better just by riding around, he says, and then they could head back to the city.
Vivien isn’t listening. The steady drone of the engine has put her into a sort trance. It’s like her body is an extension of the car. That she is, for the duration of the trip, outside of herself, outside of human experience.
“Hattie says you should see someone too,” Lenny shouts over the roar of the engine. Hattie is the counselor they assigned him when he was briefly on methadone maintenance.
“You need to sleep,” she says.
Lenny curls up under the blanket and is quiet. Vivien’s eyes are on the road but she’s picturing a scene from a few years back. Lenny is throwing a television set through her living room window. The cord and the plug lag behind as the bulk of the set sails though the air.
They were just getting to know each other. Her roommates—her friends–didn’t like Lenny. They wanted to know if he hit her. She was insulted – as if she’d let anyone hit her! They were all in the living room. Things were at a standstill.
That’s when Lenny picked up the TV. It hadn’t worked for months. He picked it up like some strong man at the circus. When it went through the window glass tinkled to the floor in a sound that somehow made her think of Christmas. The set landed with a tremendous crash on the paved walkway outside.
The moment hung in space. Lenny looked at Vivien in a way that no one had ever looked at her before. He needed her to understand. And she did. He had opened up a passageway for them both, an escape from all that had come before. Sure he was extreme (a warning pain started just behind her eyes; she labeled it her bourgeois instinct), but they now had the chance to be brand-new: marvelous and strange.
The next morning Lenny brought over a can of putty, a spackle knife, and a sheet of new glass. He picked out the old shards and fit in the new pane, smearing putty to keep the glass in place. Vivien’s roommates were not impressed. Vivien watched Lenny, knowing that she had already put him above all else. The absolute nature of the decision thrilled her. A small shift in focus, from herself to the two of them, and everything would be different.
The van shifts into low, climbing a long grade. Lenny shifts in the back, his boots thudding hollowly against the side of the van. He has insisted on keeping fully dressed even while wrapped in a blanket. He’s cold, and also, what if something were to happen? He needs to be ready.
What’s going to happen, Vivien wonders, that she couldn’t handle? Over the years, she’s somehow abdicated responsibility to him, signing on to the idea that he’s better with people and better in a crisis.
Now she’s wondering, who says she’s no good in a crisis? Look at her now, at the wheel,
“Vivien,” she thinks she hears from the back. She thinks she hears tenderness, but look where that kind of thinking has gotten her.
“What,” she answers flatly.
“It hurts.” He rides the last word along on a groan.
“I’m sure it does.” She is brisk as a head nurse.
At the next town Vivien stops for gas. She pumps it herself, and washes all the windows carefully, so that no streaks show. Lenny doesn’t stir, not even when the squeegee squeaks loudly against the back window. It’s early afternoon and the town looks deserted. The clerk has never heard a Sycamore House. Vivien expertly jump-starts the car and they’re on their way.
Ten or so miles later, just after a sign for Cairo, Lenny speaks in a wide-awake voice. “Why are you so mean to me?”
“Mean?” Vivien echoes. The question seems almost whimsical. And she can’t imagine that her small but fierce efforts have has much effect beyond herself.
“I promised I’d quit and I’m trying really hard. But you’re so cold.” He sounds sincere. But it seems so off the point that Vivien has no answer for him. Soon he has fallen back into a restless sleep.
Of course it would be better – will be better – when he quits. But his promise to stay off dope, besides being the latest in a long line of promises, is not exactly what Vivien wants to hear. She’s tired of the focus always being on him: his habit, his recovery. Whether it’s addiction or sobriety, it still belongs to him. She briefly imagines that woman in white at the rehab place, welcoming her in and leaving Lenny outside. Once again she wonder where she is in all of this drama – is she part of the problem or is she the one supposed to make everything better?
In Cairo, she parks in front of the post office. Inside, an old woman takes her time coming to the counter. She’s never heard of Sycamore House either.
“It’s a drug treatment center,” says Vivien.
The woman doesn’t seem to hear. “Did you come for the postmark?” she asks. “Most people come for the postmark.”
Vivien looks at her.
“Cairo?” the woman clarifies.
Vivien sends Blake a postcard of the town’s new bike lane. “You had it backwards,” she writes in crowded capitals. She addresses it to General Delivery, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Across the street is a tackle shop that sells snacks. Vivien buys a bag of peanuts in their shells. She sits on the curb, cracking them between her teeth, careful to put the empty shells back in the bag. She can’t find Sycamore House, but even so she feels good, as if she’s in the place she should be. The peanuts are roasted a deep brown, just the way she likes them. She realizes she hasn’t had much of an appetite for a while. Now she does. It probably has something to do with the fact that Lenny hasn’t been sharing his dope with her. Years from now, she will look back and thank goodness for an addict’s inherent selfishness.
She’s sitting on a high curb in a clean, quiet town. The tackle shop clerk stares at her, a woman alone – the clerk probably thinks – traveling in a beat-up van. Vivien doesn’t care. There are clouds at the far edge of the sky, the promise of a storm. And there’s a current, from the approaching storm or from deep in her own body, that makes Vivien feel electric. When she jump-starts the van, she feels like she’s the source of the spark.
On the road again, the sky clouds over, and a smart wind starts up. It ripples the hair on Vivien’s forearm, draped along the open window. The air becomes colder, but Vivien leaves her arm where it is, even when big drops of rain start splashing down, marking her skin and splattering the windshield. The rain drums against the metal roof. Inside the bare hull of the van, the sound is deafening.