Lynne Tillman

Cast in Doubt

Behind our thoughts, true and false, there is always to be found a dark background, which we are only able to bring into the light and express as a thought.

— Ludvig Vittgenstein

Then what is the question?

— Gertrude Stein

Part 1. A Dark Background

Chapter 1

Early in the morning, in this part of the world, in the summer, the sun is so strong and direct, I believe that all the spirits must be holding that fiery globe in its heavenly place and shining it down on us. This early in the morning, and before the first news of murder or robbery, of war or famine, the sunlight casts miracles across the dark, blue water and life itself seems to emanate from its movement. I’m not a religious man, but at this time of day, when it is not yet hot, the sky is so brilliant as if to mean that something, some great secret of the world, might be revealed. Later, it is too hot even to appear on one’s porch.

The summer’s heat may have been just what her doctor ordered. Though her doctor may not actually have said anything of the sort, maybe heat, perhaps warmth, and when he said it there may have been a paternal look in his penetrating eyes. She had printed “analyst” in block letters on the cover of a book, a diary meant for thoughts and dreams.

I saw the word the first time we met. That is, technically speaking, the first time we met she showed the diary to me. A friend had given it to her, she said. I imagined it was presented to her just before she sailed away from home, before she flew away from America and then sailed overnight from Athens to Crete. It was, she suggested, with a look or just so many words, an old-fashioned gift and gesture, one that might have no relationship to their lives. It represented instead a poignant moment others might have shared. It was a kind of wistful parody. She did say parody, I think.

The hotel where I have rooms is weather-beaten, but well-kept and clean. The small whitewashed building is stark. There’s usually a bright sky overhead, and it is hard to feel dark or gloomy, except during the winter months. Generally this island life is not the right background for depression; the sky here is not for secret thoughts or mean-spirited reflection. Yet murders are committed, vile acts reported. Though I’ve lived here for quite some time, I find this unnerving, in spite of the fact that, or perhaps this is why, I write crime stories. My fascination with the gory details of life that hurtle toward us unblinkered and appalling is unabated even here. Right now I am working on a mystery based on a real-life crime that was never solved. In my book I solve it, of course. Though some things will remain open to question.

People here are open. Nectaria, the concierge, told the American girl almost immediately that there was a house left by an English painter, left standing, barely standing, in terrible shape, nearly uninhabitable and with no hot water, but she could rent it for very little money. The young woman took out her traveler’s checks and offered six months’ rent. Nectaria pushed her hand away, to indicate that she needn’t give so much in advance, but the younger woman persisted and Nectaria took the checks somewhat reluctantly, placing them in a drawer in the reception desk.

I could have had the house years ago but I had not wanted it, preferring the ministrations of Nectaria, the concierge, and her husband, Christos, who manages the restaurant down the street. The American intended to stay. She would teach English, she told me. She would live abstemiously, I thought, like a nun or a recluse. If she had the talent for it, she might draw fast, uninteresting portraits of tourists for money, though the cliché might depress her, were she to turn out to be a sensitive soul. Nectaria called her Helen, which wasn’t her name but was close enough to it, and that’s how she became known on the island.

I met Helen then, some days before she moved into Peter Bliss’ broken-down house overlooking the harbor. It had just three small rooms on as many stories — a rickety structure, but still a charming antiquity, with romantic dilapidated walls and ruined floors. Across the lane lived Chrissoula, who was caretaking Bliss’ house in his habitual absence. Nectaria handed over Helen’s traveler’s checks to Chrissoula, I believe. Chrissoula and I alone took immediately to Helen, and in fact Chrissoula loved her from the moment they met. It was an unconditional love of a kind I’d not seen before, I think, and I use unconditional advisedly as Helen was an unusual girl, one an elderly Greek woman might well be wary of. Chrissoula wasn’t, unlike some of the others of my acquaintance. In any case, Helen happily settled into Bliss’ place, which had a terrace that looked out to the harbor and the sea. It was usual to find Helen there.

To myself I sometimes called her Smith or Smitty, because of an expression that came over her face as we talked, as if she were placing a hard metal object into a blazing fire and bending it to her will. I thought she was a tough modern type but then I am one of those old, older men who find young people, young women, in particular, incomprehensible. I’ve never slept with a woman, young or old, but Smitty, if I were younger, I might have wanted to. Perhaps she is androgynous enough for me or a little dangerous. I usually find women soft or vulnerable, and that frightens me. I have a horror of hurting people. It’s pathological, I suppose. But I am never afraid to stick the knife in when I’m writing.

It wasn’t that Helen let me drop in whenever I wanted. Even when she was with me, she kept to herself, held herself in check, which is strange, I think, for a girl or young woman who’s only twenty. She liked to go for car rides, and some trace of girlishness brightened her face when she entered my little VW. I like to drive around the island; it’s my escape from the book I’m meant to be writing.

My real work is based on my family; my great-grandfather was a man of some importance. The family are figures in a novel I have been struggling with for years now. When Helen entered my life I was stuck at the Civil War or rather that period just before it. My maternal line was feminist and abolitionist, and my paternal line was neither. Certainly not feminist, and some held slaves, probably using Mr. Jefferson as justification, though that’s nowhere in any of the letters or diaries in my possession. Helen doesn’t yet know about the mysteries I toss off, as if I were wanking not writing. Still I must admit I enjoy writing them very much. The other, purely literary venture is speculative and nonremunerative, but as I tell my young friend, if nothing else, it fills the time. I know Helen finds this notion abhorrent or worse. Young people don’t fill time.

I can see her from my small terrace. She is on her larger terrace wearing a romantic broad-brimmed straw hat; it is tilted back on her head. She is reading. She seems to be consuming all the books in Bliss’ library. I know he has everything Matthew Arnold, Flaubert, and Walter Pater ever wrote, and I’m sure some of these are curiosities to Helen, though she’s diligently plowing through each, I believe. It’s reassuring since one hears so much about how young people these days don’t read. When I awaken in the morning she’s always already there on her terrace. She’s adopted a kitten which the Cretans might have killed since they have scant affection for pets.

I awaken much later than my young friend and my mornings are groggy. I drink too much, particularly in the summer months, but I never drink before five, and then, if I do, I always dilute my wine with water. Some in my line were alcoholic but none died in the gutter. Some even died in bed. I imagine I’ll go quietly. That is how I envision it, my end. I will be content, happy to go, surrounded by angels that I’ve hallucinated, Caravaggesque ones that will dance around me, supple fleshy bodies cavorting as the light grows dimmer and dimmer. Wait, don’t leave, I’ll cry. I think about death rather a lot since having turned sixty-five.

Helen does too. She is eccentric in her young way. I suppose she’s been suicidal as she alludes to dark incidents that might make me shudder were she to reveal them. I try to put myself in her frame of mind but I cannot realize or fully imagine the murky deposits of memory to which she refers. Nor can I mentally fit my frame inside her frame. Helen is slender and terribly sweet-looking. It seems to me she should be happy as she is lovely and bright and, most important, has many years in front of her. She says this is why she is unhappy. What is she going to do? she asks. Life is overwhelmingly empty. Sometimes I think we are isomorphs.

Young women oughtn’t be so unhappy. I’ve read Madame Bovary but Helen’s unhappiness is not of that sort. Or maybe it is, in a revamped version. Perhaps she is an Anna Karenina in love with one of those long-haired and unpleasant rock musicians. Tragic love or bourgeois life may be pressing down on the girl. One day, I tell her, you will fall in love and marry, bear a child or find some good work to do. Helen laughs at me and tells me I am way off base; that her distress — angst, I say — is different. It quite escapes me. Much escapes me and I escape some of it. Living here, time just passes, and people come and go; it’s possible to fool oneself about what one is missing or misunderstanding.

When I first arrived, I kept to myself, the way Helen does now. I was suspicious of others like me. That is, those more like me than the natives. I avoided their company and posed as a self-sufficient litterateur who had come for reasons different from anyone else’s. This went on for months. Months and months. Gradually I was drawn in, perhaps first by Alicia, Alicia of the beautiful voice. Yes, I think so. It was Alicia’s inviting me to tea at her plain but sumptuous apartment, where she almost undressed me, figuratively speaking, of course. And once my clothes were off I found I couldn’t quite force them back on again. And then she had me to dinner with Roger and some of the others. Alicia was the queen of the scene then, the Queen Bee. She’d been an opera singer and had abandoned her career for reasons that were never spelled out, and that may have involved a man or men, or not; it may have been that her voice was giving out. Alicia never said. There are photographs of her in costume around her apartment, and occasionally I’ve commented on the beauty of her appearance, but that was years ago, and here she still is, still the Queen Bee. After almost twenty years the scene has become a bit frayed at the edges. Thinner, balder, less bright, more brittle. Like me.

Stephen was at that first dinner, and Roger, and Duncan, I think. Stephen fascinated me, as does Helen now. He and I necked one night; it was pleasant but not passionate and so we immediately became friends, never lovers. It is awful what happened to him. I hope Helen isn’t actually anything like him. He’s a cranky hermit and never bathes, and yet he was such a beautiful young man. His breath smelled of spring onions — is that what Auden wrote? I can’t remember. Helen probably isn’t anything like him, though at my first sight of her, he, Stephen — my Stephen Dedalus — came to mind. Helen might be Molly. She says yes from her bed, but of course leaves it too, which poor Molly never did. This is an argument I’ve had with Roger, about Molly’s ecstasy on the bed, from her small bedroom. He says my point of view is jaundiced by the ghosts of my feminist ancestors. I do practice, as Alicia has succinctly put it, a form of ancestor worship.

Helen doesn’t live abstemiously or like a nun, I’ve discovered. I take care of a young Greek named Yannis; he is my companion and lover, whom I help and will send to college should he want that and if he is bright enough. He has a terrible temper, and we fight when I’ve drunk too much. Before me, but very briefly, he was with Roger, another American. Yannis was considerably calmer then, Roger likes to claim. I do not believe this. Roger is from the South and is a braggart with the temper of a disturbed snake. My temper is not the best, either. My charge Yannis and I forgive each other, though. I never talk about him to Helen but he is with me at meals at the restaurant Christos manages. I don’t need to talk about him.

I have dinner at the same restaurant every night. I adore their lamb and fish, and their salads are always fresh. When I go to the movies I take Yannis, if he wants. Helen and Yannis appear to tolerate each other. She knows a little Greek and they transact whatever is necessary in a simple tongue. The foreign movies have Greek subtitles, are never dubbed, and apart from the noise of the worry beads that are swung wildly during action movies, it is perfectly easy for any English-speaking foreigner to follow them. We go often, Helen and I, at 6 P.M. generally.

It was Yannis who told me that Helen sleeps with sailors from the naval base. So it wasn’t precisely my discovery; it was Yannis’, and he is much more in the position than I to find out such material. When he told me he clasped his hands together and rubbed his palms in what amounts to a lewd gesture. He is a simple boy, after all, and simple peasant boys, even those who sleep with rich foreigners — foreigners here are thought to be rich and are, relatively so — these boys are terribly self-righteous and bigoted. My first thought was, when does she do it? because she seems always to be at home, on her terrace. Of course they may visit her in that decrepit house and leave stealthily in the early morning, when the sun is just nudging up over the harbor. Nectaria as well as Chrissoula must know what is going on, but neither has let on to me. Nectaria is terribly open-minded for one raised in such a seemingly rigid society. But then we are foreigners, and their rules don’t apply to us. No one can be as good as they are. I think I am slightly disappointed in Helen, my vision of Helen, though I hesitate to admit this even to myself and never would to the others.

I rub my hands, the way Yannis did but without the lewdness. Lately there’s been a numbness in my hands and feet. Luckily I’m not a painter like Bliss, wherever he is, with wife number-whatever-it-is, because my hands, when numb, are useless and couldn’t hold a brush or even a rag. They tingle annoyingly. Were my eyes to become numb so that they froze in their sockets, I’d be morbidly worried. I wouldn’t be able to read. And life would be over for me.

As if to forestall such a terrible fate, I vigorously shake my legs and arms. Yannis must think me mad. I leap up and down, stamping my feet and jerking my hands. Then I pull my short white terry around me and recline in my favorite chair. The blood must have shot to the colder points of my body. I’m not in good health, and in the States I’d receive better medical attention or be compelled to by high-minded friends. Still, I’m quite happy to be outside of Massachusetts and out of the reach of my brother and his Puritan wife, who would probably love to place me in a hospital.