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Seven Types of Ambiguity, Page 2

Elliot Perlman

  “Listen—all that she was then, all that she is now, those gestures, everything I remember but won’t or can’t articulate anymore, the perfect words that are somehow made imperfect when used to describe her and all that should remain unsaid about her—it is all unsupported by reason. I know that. But that enigmatic calm that attaches itself to people in the presence of reason—it’s something from which I haven’t been able to take comfort, not reliably, not since her.

  “It’s like the smell of burned toast. You made the toast. You looked forward to it. You even enjoyed making it, but it burned. What were you doing? Was it your fault? It doesn’t matter anymore. You open the window, but only the very top layer of the smell goes away. The rest remains around you. It’s on the walls. You leave the room, but it’s on your clothes. You change your clothes, but it’s in your hair. It’s on the thin skin on the tops of your hands. And in the morning, it’s still there.”

  4. Now can you imagine it? I am sitting in a large manicured garden at the back of someone’s renovated turn-of-the-century symbol of success. The sun is getting ready to call it a day, but it is still quite warm. I think I can see mosquitoes hovering over the edge of the pool. The outdoor furniture is comfortable even if it is some of the ugliest I have seen. The air is still, so it’s easy for me not to dwell too much on the prospect of the umbrella dislodging from the table and impaling someone.

  This charming young man is eloquently expressing his quite legitimate doubts about the science or discipline that has brought me to him. He seems to have a fairly common and not necessarily unhealthy antagonism toward his petit-bourgeois father, who it appears has a somewhat authoritarian personality. They don’t understand each other. They value different things but not different enough for the father’s alarm bells to ring hollow with the unemployed aesthete in front of me. It gets to him. But not as much as you do. He’s a romantic, focusing on some idealization of the past. He could have offered me at least an iced tea, but I was getting paid and he was, after all, the kind we dream of: one of the incurably worried-well. He was a little melancholic but not completely without some justification. There was no reason this could not go on for years. I thought he was normal, a bit unhappy—pretty much like everyone.

  We heard someone walking along the side of the house toward us. Maybe it was more than one person. Suddenly Simon grabbed me, putting his hand over my mouth. He was quite surprisingly strong. There was a hysterical efficiency about him. I thought he was going to kill me. I didn’t say a word. He dragged me behind some bushes near the edge of the garden where we both hid. He seemed to know where to hide, as though he had done it before. I was ready to jettison my first impressions of him. I was now convinced he was psychotic. We looked through the bushes at a man, your husband, entering the house with your son through the back door. It was your house.

  Simon had meant to show me he was serious about you. He had been to your house many times without anyone ever knowing he was there. Bringing me there was his way of demonstrating that he was willing to take me seriously, or at least try. When your husband and Sam were inside, Simon and I crept out. He took me to the Esplanade Hotel in St. Kilda, opposite the beach. We went in his car. I had never been there before. We have since been there many times. That first evening was my initiation into Simon’s life, the one he has kept hidden from his family. Within an hour I had witnessed a fight, heard a frenetic country singer (“rockabilly grunge,” he said it was), and someone had tried to sell him what they promised were amphetamines. I had also been introduced to his friend Angelique.

  When you left Simon he was angry with you. There was a tremendous sense of betrayal with the shock of your leaving. He could not understand your not wanting to share a common future in which, together, you would observe the world in all its sad and beautiful guises. The way he describes it, you could have been in different rooms and been able to predict the other’s response to something because it would have been your own response. You respected the same things—aesthetically, politically, morally. He felt the two of you were co-conspirators. You wanted the same things and laughed at the same things. But you ultimately needed different things. Simon was a phase. You began to find his optimism, opinions, and his touch too predictable and tiresome, stifling. You stopped wearing his T-shirts. You put them back. You pretended to be obtuse. Some nights no one could find you. Where were you? When his father, who never noticed anything, noticed your absence he blamed Simon and then, after a while, so did Simon himself. William was never so warm as he was to you when you had gone, while May would look out onto the street through the venetian blinds as though she were waiting for you. The other sons had gone, all good men, too, now with their own silent wives and good jobs, velour-clad children, and brand new axes to grind.

  Simon tried to find comfort in his reading, but one can turn only so many pages before the anesthetic wears off. He had hoped the two of you could survive and maybe even correct a few of the world’s imperfections. Perhaps his romanticism was always his biggest problem. Your inexplicable leaving was literally breathtaking.

  William came home from work one night and found Simon speaking out loud to himself in his bedroom. It was nine years ago. At his desk, he was talking to himself. William stood at the door and listened:

  And would it have been worth it, after all, . . .

  To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,

  Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—

  If one, settling a pillow by her head,

  Should say: “That is not what I meant at all.

  That is not it, at all.”

  For a man so obsessed with words and language, it is interesting that Simon remembers perfectly what it was he was memorizing that night but not what was said between him and his father that so quickly led William to strike him. He remembers clearly the seconds before the force of his father’s hand became a very personal heat in his lip and jaw. They said nothing more about it. He also remembers the breeze of his father’s moving hand and the cold of his wedding ring. Not long after, Simon left home. You met your husband at about this time.

  5. It was an accepted view for many years that pain avoidance and tension reduction are the major sources of a person’s motivation. This was challenged (principally by Maslow) with the suggestion that more meaningful or more subtle conclusions with respect to human motivation could be reached by examining people’s strivings for growth, for happiness and satisfaction. To this end, a distinction should be made between a person’s deficit (or lower) needs and his growth (or higher) needs. The deficit needs are the more powerful and tend to take priority over the growth needs. A starving person will be little concerned at the possibility of other people seeing the lengths to which he may need to stoop in order to eat. However, the identification of a person’s higher needs is more revealing. Moreover, any attempt by someone to satisfy his or her higher needs will suggest a state inconsistent with clinical depression. It is only when a person has at least partially satisfied most of the lower needs that he can begin to experience the higher needs and then attempt to gratify them. Such attempts at gratification are very likely to produce tension, but this tension is constructive; it is positive.

  Not long after Simon left home, he started teaching. It was his first permanent class. He was so full of enthusiasm for his new life that he sometimes couldn’t sleep. He had so many plans for his students and for himself. There was very little communication between him and William, although he spoke quite regularly to May. He still thought of you, but the pain was not acute. He was contemplating a master’s in either education or English. Education would have helped his career, but there was still that unrelieved passion for literature and especially for poetry. He was thinking of writing something on the work of his hero, the literary critic William Empson. You might remember Simon going on about Empson, the author of Seven Types of Ambiguity.

  Simon has tried to explain to me what is so fantastic about what he calls this landmark i
n the history of literary criticism (which, incidentally, is also the way it is described on the back of the book), but it’s all lost on me. He bought me a copy. To put it simply, or perhaps simplistically, it seemed to be an analysis of the effects a poet may achieve, consciously or not, through the use of ambiguity. I couldn’t get through the book. I suspect Simon knows this. As far as I was concerned, there were more important ambiguities than the ambiguity of poetic language that Empson talked about. There’s the ambiguity of human relationships, for instance. A relationship between two people, just like a sequence of words, is ambiguous if it is open to different interpretations. And if two people do have differing views about their relationship—I don’t just mean about its state, I mean about its very nature—then that difference can affect the entire course of their lives. Interestingly, this is not a subject Simon has ever wanted to talk about despite the number of times I’ve broached it.

  In any event, what was of greater interest to me than Empson’s work (everybody’s got to make a living somehow) was that he published it at the tender age of twenty-four, and, more particularly, that Simon mentioned this several times. I think this is significant. But of course, as Simon told me, Empson, who was later knighted, had the constant encouragement of his supervisor at Cambridge. William denigrated Simon’s efforts and early interest in teaching. His son’s love of poetry was a complete anathema to him. No one in the family, with the exception of May when he was a little boy, had ever encouraged Simon. You did for a while, didn’t you?

  Although the longing didn’t stop, he had for a time forgiven himself for whatever it was that he had done to lose you. He had left home and it was impossible to stop him from talking to his friends about his children, as he called his students. He told May and even his brothers all about them, the twenty-two eight-year-olds in his charge, the noisy ones, the naughty ones, the scraggly ones with one sweater and two shirts, the fast ones in sneakers, the pretty ones with skinny legs who followed him everywhere, and the very quiet ones who still were not used to having been born. There were twenty-two hopes to encourage and foster, little people to surprise and delight every day, to teach and to make happy with visits from Empson and, of course, to tell stories to. Can you imagine how they loved the way he told stories, with every word a song?

  It did not take long for the parents to come and see who it was that their children were talking about. Naturally, they fell for him too, some of the mothers quite literally. It would often begin with spurious concerns for a child’s progress and end in a proposition. Simon delicately rebuffed all such offers. It wasn’t that he regarded married women as sacrosanct. (Anyway, they were not all married.) It was more his commitment to the children. They were, each one of them, human beings, not devices for someone’s gratification. They were the future, not theirs or his, but everyone’s. You don’t sully the future, knowingly.

  Anyway, as you can imagine, his libido was being satiated elsewhere or, should I say, everywhere else. If one didn’t know him, one would call Simon a liar, but everywhere he went, he was almost inundated with propositions from women of all ages and backgrounds, many of which he accepted. He didn’t have to do anything. Indeed, it quickly got to the point where he had difficulty telling his friends what he had been doing because an honest account would sound boastful. It seems he got into conversations with women in shops, cafés, and even on public transportation. There was an exchange of telephone numbers, and the rest was usually fairly predictable and not so interesting. It is of interest, however, that he never formed attachments with these women and never permitted them to develop any legitimate expectations as to the future with him. He had a set speech, something like an emotional disclaimer, which he recited beforehand. Of course it did nothing to prevent recriminations on the part of the women, but it enabled him to stake a claim to the moral high ground and, as long as he required this (a higher or growth need), he cannot be said to have been clinically depressed. But, of course, it’s of concern in itself that he was unable to form close emotional attachments with other women and that he needed the flattery. You remained unreplaced. You wouldn’t let him move on. His self-esteem was completely immune to his carnal successes. They had no currency for him that wasn’t immediately devalued upon attainment.

  It was both the complications from the casual trysts and a certain amount of guilt that led him to Angelique. You would like her. I do. They have been friends for a couple of years now. The night she met his parents and the Osbornes was their first night together. An escapee from a feud with her Lutheran family in Adelaide, she had run away to Melbourne and landed on a onetime school friend whose boyfriend was a part owner of a nightclub. Together they introduced her to the city’s nightlife and when the free drinks and free passes ran out, so did her pride. She met Simon on her first night working the streets. He became a regular client, but it was very much on his terms. He told her that she was never to spend the night, never to call him without him having called her first, and always to accept full payment at the time of her visit, no credit. His conditions were designed to avoid any complications or emotional ambiguity.

  Simon discussed you with Angelique from the beginning. The very first time she came to his apartment she saw photos of you and said that she thought you were beautiful. She knows all about you, even the story of how your father left his family in Italy to be with your mother. Simon recruited her as he recruited me.

  She asked lots of questions about you and about William and May. She knows all about Simon’s childhood, his brothers, and the family holidays with the Osbornes in Sorrento. She enjoyed hearing about his students from the days before he stopped teaching. Angelique would like to be a mother someday. As you might know by now, she has met Sam. She has met your husband too but, I’m afraid, it wasn’t through Simon.

  Although perhaps even this, in a funny way, was through Simon. As you would expect, Angelique has had some quite terrifying experiences in the course of her work and, although Simon was trying to prevent any romance or dependency developing between them, he couldn’t hide his concern. He eventually convinced her that she would be safer (marginally, in my opinion) if she got off the street and worked in a brothel. I don’t know the mechanics of this, but I could ask her. It’s not important. Presumably one goes for some kind of interview. Maybe the more successful brothels use management consultants like you for this. Excuse me. I don’t mean to be flippant. I really don’t know. But I did learn, and this I must say surprised me, that some of the more up-market agencies are on retainers to certain corporations, some of them very large. It seems to be a prerequisite for being publicly listed. It is put on the company card like a meal or tickets to a tennis match. The brothel she’s now attached to services several merchant banks and stockbroking firms. This is how Angelique first met your husband one busy Christmas. I am sorry, but I really must tell you everything. It was quite an incredible coincidence without which everything would have happened differently, or perhaps not at all.

  6. I won’t ask you how much you already know. I don’t wish to deal here with the grievances you have against your husband, even the fundamental ones. He is by no means the worst of her clients. This might not surprise you. He is quite expansive. This might. You see, Angelique has no qualms about breaching your husband’s confidence and we learn quite a lot more about you from him than we ever could from simply following you.

  Of course, Simon did not always follow you. There was a time, a time I have spoken of earlier as a time of forgiveness, when Simon forgave himself for all that he was and all that had happened to him. He was teaching and knew he was good at it. He felt good about himself. Although he tried to fight against it, like most teachers (and parents), Simon had his favorites. Simon’s favorite one year was a little boy, small for his age and very quiet. Whenever Simon brought Empson to school, this little boy was always the last to come and play with him. His name was Carlo. He was shy. Although not really disliked, he was too quiet to be popular with the other childr
en and Simon thought he could see the beginning of a life of pain for him. He, perhaps arrogantly, thought he could change this. Simon likes to rescue people whenever he himself is not in need of rescuing. Do you remember?

  Carlo’s shyness made it difficult for Simon to assess accurately his reading and comprehension skills. He wasn’t sure whether Carlo’s slow reading was a reflection of poor ability or of his fear of reading out loud. He wanted to know what could have made this little boy so afraid anyway. He arranged for Carlo to stay after school a couple of days a week. Simon would read to him, children’s stories and rhymes. Afterwards Carlo would read back to him. Sometimes he even sang to him. Slowly Carlo was improving. Simon noticed he was even slightly more extroverted with his peers during the day.

  Unfortunately, Carlo’s story became public knowledge after this. You may not remember his name. Simon had always stayed in the classroom with him until his mother came to pick him up. Carlo’s father worked nights and slept during the day. His mother worked in a clothing factory. There were other children in the family, but because of the private tutoring Carlo got from Simon, they would leave earlier than Carlo and go home together. Carlo was the only one to be picked up by his mother after work.

  One day Carlo’s mother was working overtime. She instructed Carlo not to stay late with Simon that day but to leave with the other children. It will always haunt Simon. Carlo didn’t leave school with his brothers and sisters but, saying nothing about his mother’s overtime, he stayed after school as usual with Simon. When they had finished their reading, the two of them went to check on Empson. Carlo wanted to go to the toilet. After about ten minutes, Carlo hadn’t returned and Simon thought the little boy might have had an accident and be too embarrassed to come back to the classroom. He gave it another ten minutes or so before starting to look for him. The little boy was not in the toilets or with Empson. Simon could not find him anywhere in the schoolyard. He ran around calling for him, but the whole school was empty. It had never been so empty. As you probably know from the newspapers, he still hasn’t been found.