Paris, France, 1952, 3 a.m.
By Sarah Schulman
Reeves McCullers was only in his late thirties but that is when the monster devours the child. Drunk and dirty, he seemed barely able to stand and yet he was determined to complete the Devil’s whim. Chestnut eyes paled, suntanned skin the color of milk. Hair to straw, but a great smile, yes a stupid girl could still fall in love with him on a bar stool especially if her English was not very good. Their apartment was stark, one of those Parisian walk-ups, no elevators like Manhattan. The maids came from old French villages, where their grandmothers climbed the hillside at the end of the day toting their buckets of milk. Now, aging as well, they drag mop water up the stairs. It’s because of that view—that gorgeous town. Everyone wants a peek of Paris with her lost and future empires, the brutality, the glamour of gold and lucre of glamour. Columbus, Georgia has nothing to look at but the river on a lazy day. Those buildings are low and hide from each other except for insistent Baptist steeples and the highbrow Methodist tower. Paris is a star! Paris shows herself like a young girl at the Folies Bergère. Paris is the pearl in the necklace nestled between the showgirl’s breasts. Unique, hand-crafted, expensive. Whoever possesses Paris is loved. Even the most gorgeous lady is outshone by her city.
Is this how Reeves really experienced Paris? Now, in his moment of disaster? Dusty and dense, Reeves was a shitty walk-up, riding on the belief that it held its own charm. But Carson was becoming more and more critical. His decline left her alone, something she did not ever want to be. They were away from the suffocating cloister of the house in Nyack, New York, and Carson rarely went home to Georgia any more except to renew her sense of horror. That left just the two of them, against the background of washerwomen and bartenders, children with insight and loose animals. Once again it was beyond two a.m. at this point and Reeves was drunk and deranged as usual, but this time, finally, entering the living room clutching some rope in his hand. Occasionally a car rolled down the cobblestones, but otherwise the noise was within. Within their souls. These two. It had finally come to this.
Carson stared at him, fed up with this repetitive drama. Does Reeves understand that he is being deranged? It was easy to gild the self-deception in demon rum, but rage comes from truth, that’s its enticement, and Carson was becoming enraged. It felt like an act of goodness to spill a facsimile of truth. No blood-letting of real hatred came from a complete lie. It would be like claiming the wind through the windows that both chills and warms us, claiming that the goodness and threat of the natural world originated in a human heart instead of from God. What would be the point of lying? Her rage was at his own … well failure to do what he was put on this earth to do. Reeves was still a writer, even if he never practiced. It was just his own damn … inconsistency, Carson believed, and she intended to say so, with her own blistering drink in one hand and sweaty gesticulation. Her tears, her loud scratchy voice never getting to any real point. They were both loaded and that was the blame … Carson did not want to be blamed! There was nothing she could make of blame that would enhance any feeling or sentence, it was no help at all. She sipped her cocktail and kept one eye on her cane. What was he going to do now with all that rope? Reeves had to be completely disregarded, she decided, no matter what the consequence. After all, Carson McCullers was more than herself and Reeves was not, and that was true.
Reeves, though young, carried the weight of decline and could have passed for sixty, he knew it. Carson, at thirty-five, through his eyes seemed even more broken. She was drunk and shrunken in her workout robe that deprived her of detail. Half her body was paralyzed now, from a series of avoidable strokes that she had not avoided.
“When I die,” Reeves sweated, as he wrapped the rope around his fingers and pulled it taut. “You will have no one to take care of you.”
Carson felt frightened this time. And that was a first, to be wide-eyed. Yet she behaved in her usual dismissive manner towards her husband, purely by habit. She no longer made decisions to be hurtful or mean. It was no longer a mask of deeper feeling or a way of conferring her own anxieties onto the person in front of her. By now, these escalating cruelties were compulsive. The machine was in play with no one at the wheel. Given that something dreadful could easily occur, she might have been more strategic, but Carson McCullers had lost that option three drinks before. In order to get what one wants, one has to know what one wants, after all. And it has to be attainable, or there is nothing real to try to get. In order to feel endangered, one must above all, feel. These were the complications engulfing her that night. She had no idea who or what she was and no map of how to live her life. Yet, she had determination. But for what?
“Don’t start,” she whispered the way one does to a tiny child when Mother has better things to do.
Reeves’ face softened. “Admit it.” This was not an act. This was as real as he had ever been. “The best thing would be for the two of us to die together.”
“Stop that,” she spit.
It was one of those moments. What if Carson had let go the pretense, the tale, the story she used to create her life? What if she had said “Reeves, I don’t want you to die. I love you.” Then the evening would have played out so differently. But since she was drunk, she wasn’t kind. Instead she made accusations, she used a tone that absolved her of anything but innocence. It was the fork in the road moment, and she made the cheap choice. The one almost everyone makes.
“It’s true,” Reeves whimpered. He was very weak right now.
“All my books,” Carson … well, explained, and then in a true desire to wound so as to not see herself, she named them. “Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Member of the Wedding, Ballad of a Sad Café.”
Reeves could not believe she had gone so low. He was trying to help her. He was always trying to help her. Why didn’t anyone love him? “Carson,” he recited from memory, all the hours he had practiced this. “You are an invalid. You are never going to get better. Let’s end the suffering, now. For both of us.”
“It’s not my fault,” she said reaching for the most powerful word as only she could do, even when plastered. “It’s not my fault that you don’t mean anything.”
Perhaps there had been a kinder way to dissuade Reeves. But now it was no longer an option. He had pre-cut the rope into two even pieces and threw them up around the rafter.
“Oh, please, Reeves,” she slurred. “If you must commit suicide, please do it somewhere else.”
“I tell you,” he swayed, eyes unfocused, hair flat with sweat. “It’s the best thing for us both.”
“Freshen my drink.”
Ever obedient, even on the brink of disappearance, Reeves turned into the kitchen. Carson then began to slowly inch off her chair. No shoes, no cane, in her robe.
“Where is the brandy?” he called.
“Under the sink. And Reeves, wash the glass and chip the ice.”
Yes, she was thirty-five years old, but with three strokes at this point, Carson lacked a forceful body, while possessing a sense of belonging to the hearts of others. It was an exterior connection, but a lifeline, nonetheless. She existed beyond herself, in the eyes and hearts of others and this gave her the power to survive. So, as Reeves prepared their final cocktails, she dragged herself out the front door and down the staircase on her boney behind.
When Reeves staggered back, the room was empty and he was too blotto to do anything about it. Yet later he did succeed in taking his own life. Only his own. With a handful of pills. Carson sailed home to New York harbor and told everyone about “the accident.” A car, it seems, had crashed.
Sarah Schulman is a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, nonfiction writer and AIDS historian. Her twentieth book is Let The Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP, New York 1987-1993.
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