Prufrock in Love
J. was lining up his coffee spoons. How many would he need to measure out his days and ways? He was getting older, his head grown slightly bald, and the women weren’t lining up at his doorstop as they had been (or so he remembered it) some ten years before.
He finally dared to eat a peach, and lay down in the middle of the floor on his kitchen as the evening spread out against the sky, reminding him of a patient under operative sedation.
He left his flat and walked aimlessly through the streets of London, thinking of London as it had been not so very long ago, something which inspired in him much doleful nostalgia. In those days, there were braceleted and evening-gowned women of scandalous attraction with whom J. had fallen in love (sometimes reciprocally). There was Anne, whose arms were white and bare, but in the lamplight downed with light brown hair. After a fortnight with Anne, J. had fallen in love with another remarkable creature, Helen, whose arms were also light and bare (but not downed with hair), and who wore an exquisite and fashionable perfume that alone made it difficult for J. to achieve an audible speaking volume. As a result of this affair, Anne made it very clear that J. was not to return to her apartments on the high street without some kind of protection for his head.
Helen and he had spent quite a few afternoons of tea and marmalade planning their future in a place like Morocco or Southern France. But then along came Esther, whose arms, when lain across a table, were decidedly even more enticing, and J. realized his attention to arms might be his undoing.
Yellow smoke filled the city, itself seeming to have almost supernatural powers, barking and pawing at buildings. J. was feeling ill. It seemed like everything that was going to happen to him in his life had already happened. He went through his old address book, reading through the names, some of which he had forgotten: “Pauline,” with an excellent address in Richmond; “Ophelia” next to which the word Harrods was placed in parentheses (had she worked there, or had he met her there?); “Agatha” whom he remembered, but there was also an “Agnes” whose name provoked memory of the same face. J. lay face-down on the kitchen floor, surrounded by coffee spoons, each representing evenings, mornings, and afternoons now long gone. It was June 1915, and J. was living in the future, while everything around him was in the past, like the ticking seconds on a clock driving everything, second by second, further into the past.
But there was still time. He wasn’t dead (with a bald spot in the middle of his head). There was even a little bit of time for all of us, for a hundred indecisions, visions and revisions, and even plenty of derision and circumspection, before the taking of toast and tea.
J. took a carriage to his friend the painter’s house. There, suspended from the ceiling, the young artist was working on something transformative, his great oeuvre, that was certain to bring him much admiration. J. said he hadn’t come to interrupt, but to seek advice.
The painter, pulling himself down by rope to the ground, said, “You’ve come to me for advice. Your flattery is appreciated, but I’m not especially gullible. In fact, I’m an unrepenting skeptic.”
“Well then, I’m jealous,” said J. “And not of your talent. It’s your following. How many nagging devotees can one man have?”
“You wouldn’t be comparing me to Christ, now would you?” the painter said with a laugh. “In whose honor I am painting this…thing.”
“No,” J. said, straight-faced. “But everywhere I go, it seems like all they do is talk about you. I’ve come to add some kind of defect to your pulley so that you’ll plunge abruptly to a tragic death. Might we step out for a tea while some of my associates make the necessary arrangements?”
The two mounted J.’s carriage and took it to Covent Garden, where they went to the restaurant Rules, which had begun as a place of oyster shells. The painter looked through the menu, but J. said he’d lost his appetite.
“You should have something,” the painter said.
“I can’t face it,” J. said.
“You don’t think you’re being a bit dramatic?”
“I don’t think so…”
“What’s eating you, really?”
“I think you know what. Or rather not what, but who…”
“Then I’ve been tricked,” the painter said, and then, turning to the waiter, “Check, please.”
“No check, monsieur,” said the waiter. “You haven’t ordered anything yet.”
“Just play along,” the painter said, and the waiter winked charmingly and left them.
“I’m getting older,” said J. “Would you believe it, just this morning I actually started measuring out my life in coffee spoons. How should I begin to spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?”
“I’m sorry now, you’ve…you’ve taken up smoking?”
“This is the problem,” J. said. “You don’t even know what I’m talking about. No one does.”
“You’re talking about Priscilla, right?”
“P,” J. said. “Let’s just call her P. I dare not utter a name so sweet, so divine.”
“Whatever you’d like,” the painter said.
The painter’s sumptuous feast was soon laid out before him. He had an imperious appetite, which was also a part of his reputation, and he made quick work of the fowl, which he washed down with two glasses of port, as J. sat sipping his tea and grimacing at the talented, handsome man who did not chew, but rather inhaled, all things comestible.
“When was the last time you saw our lovely P.?” J. asked, staring intently at the painter’s face, sure not to miss even the slightest detail of its expression.
“A while,” the painter said.
“Could you perhaps be more precise?”
“In coffee spoons?”
“If you’d like.”
“Yes…?” J. said.
“Hours,” the painter said, tentatively. “I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”
“It’s okay,” J. eventually said, swallowing what saliva he had left in his mouth. “I’m sure her visit served no purpose.”
“By which you mean—”
“That she spent all of her time in my bed.”
“She doesn’t belong to you!”
“You filthy Italian!”
“How dare you!”
“I don’t dare enough anymore. That’s part of the problem.”
Everyone in the Rules had turned to watch the shouting match between the two celebrated men, one whose light was solid, the other flickering (at least that’s how J. saw it). As the rules of Rules go, the audience members were appalled, mortified, and shaken, but also simultaneously entertained, well-fed and, for a sacred fleeting moment, rather happy.
Sitting again at his kitchen table, several days later, J. penned a letter to his mother, informing her of his disease. The only person to whom he wrote love letters was in fact her. Despite his awareness that no one on this Earth could internalize and feel his pain quite like his dear mum through his sharing with her his battle with Time, he proceeded anyway, threatening to wear white flannel trousers and walk on the beach, employing a comb-over (for what was only really a slightly balding head—but one she hadn’t seen for some time…), and going to hear the mermaids sing, believing these fictional characters would not sing back to him.
J. would be forty-five in exactly two weeks. Yes, he was turning forty-five. Only forty-five.
But forty-five is not forty, nor thirty. Where had the years gone? Age seemed to cast itself upon him like a joke with a punchline of insidious intent. The eternal Footman had snickered. In short, he was afraid.
He found himself wandering streets that were deserted, but only halfway, streets that started where they ended, that spoke to him. He had to think of how to get P. back from the painter, whom we might as well call M. But he needed a daring plan, and he was not a daring man. In a certain sense, he needed to disturb the tiny universe in which he dwelt. (He knew the universe wasn’t silly, and would spit him out like the petty thing he was).
As M. well knew, J. was not at all a murderous type, and, for that matter, had no associates. But in war, all is fair, J. thought, thinking of someone else’s love song. And M. didn’t love P., not as he did; that was more than clear. But, even if J. wouldn’t end up stealing P. away from M., J. knew that he could never actually get angry at M. Charming as he was, even J. was under his spell.
J. contrived to meet P. by accident (which is to say on purpose) the next day at H.’s bookstore in Piccadilly, which she frequented on Tuesdays when returning from lunch at her aunt’s nearby. P. would typically linger there for hours, where she read novels, the plots of which she sometimes shared with J. when they met. On this particular Tuesday, she was buying a new Wodehouse novel, which the merchant dropped several times while wrapping it up for her, a layer of sweat on his forehead incompatible with the chilly December weather. So it was clear P. had at least three admirers about whom J. knew, which, multiplied, quickly turned into the whole of London. J. appeared at the door to the shop, also apparently leaving, and, after celebrating briefly the happenstance of their human simultaneity, J. offered to walk her. “I’m going in the same direction,” he said, which was true but only insomuch as he was now slavishly motivated by his desire to dismantle the invisible barrier dividing their destinies.
P. and J. arrived at her home far more quickly than J. had anticipated. It was only in the final two minutes of their conversation that he had felt, briefly, at ease, after he’d mentioned having supped the last week at the home of a writer whose book P. had read and adored.
“I’ll introduce you,” J. said.
“I wouldn’t know what to say to a man like that,” said P., timidly.
A few hours later, J. came up with a superior response to the one he gave to her in this moment. The revised comment was: “With a charm and beauty like yours, you’d only have to be present.”
Instead, he’d said, “You wouldn’t have to speak,” a phrase he was rather pleased with at the moment but that, upon reexamination hours later, he found sounded even insulting, but by then he could no longer remember what look she’d had on her face in reaction.
Indeed, he thought, there will be time, but only time to make many more stupid mistakes.
The next week one of J.’s longtime friends, an editor, suddenly died of inexplicable causes: speculation was that it had been either a heart attack, aneurism or stroke, all of which terrified J., who only saw this as evidence that the end was drawing closer for himself. “Every person in my circle who dies just brings me one body closer to death,” he said to himself on his kitchen floor. The only thing worse than these news, J. thought, would be to have been in the room during this unexpected departure. At the funeral were gathered many of their mutual friends, including J.’s former publisher, the obtuse Y., the lanky W., the exuberant A., the ineffable M., and R., P.’s mother. M. and R. stood close to one another, each without realizing who the other was. R. said she was shocked about what had happened, and M. agreed, saying that the editor had been in impressive health the last the two had seen one another, when he had visited the artist’s studio to see his expansive, terrifying artwork.
“I’ve heard about your piece,” R. said, “through my daughter. When do you expect to be finished with it?”
“I don’t know. Not before it’s finished,” he said.
“Has anyone put out an offer on it?”
“It’s a commission from Rome,” M. said.
Given R.’s devotion to the church, and the preponderance of God during the present ceremony, it struck J. that few circumstances could have been more propitious in offering M. a decided advantage than having met P.’s mother in this context.
M., in order to gloat, or perhaps because of some opposite sentiment (pity?), or perhaps because he wanted to keep a closer eye on J. (in the spirit of keeping one’s friends close and rivals closer), or because, in the months that followed, the two men did in fact develop something closer to intimacy and friendship (but perhaps only because J. wanted to keep a closer eye on M.), or because M., as a remarkable and indefatigable artist who really did devote an impressive amount of time to his work and so had very few truly close friends (possibly because he had left behind his native country and moved to London and, only upon return had secured this incredible contract from allies of the pontiff), or because M. liked to play with fire, preferring spectacle and conflict and expression in place of passive hesitation and indecision and revision and all of the other things J. was famous for, or because he didn’t take his friend very seriously as a rival, or because he viewed it as a rather bold chess move, or because he had greeted J.’s no longer mentioning of R. in the covetous, objectifying manner in which J. had previously often seemed to as evidence that he was either no longer interested in her or had surrendered his position as rival, or because J. was among the only artists M. actually respected, whose work could actually stand on the same fictive plane as M.’s, or for reasons that would never become known to anyone, including J. or P., and maybe even M. himself, M. asked J. to be his best man at his wedding to P.
This, naturally, infuriated J., whose interest in P. now left little breathing air for other interests, especially as the three had spent so much more time together, on multiple occasions even watching the sunset together, sometimes walking in the romantic, impetuous rain without umbrellas (which J. thought he would pay for later in illness—that animated, lingering precursor to an abrupt, still death), and on too many an occasion just the two of them, J. and P., lingering for hours discussing literature in the dooryard, rendering J.’s previous fumbling attempts at conversation (the ones he later revised) retroactively moot.
P. had accepted the proposal with her youthful enthusiasm, and J. had accepted M.’s subordinate proposal with enthusiastic acquiescence. Only the date of the wedding, one year from the date of the proposal, offered J. any glimpse at hope. This hope was but a small flicker—not even a flame. It was all his fault. He had cast himself an attendant lord in a production of Hamlet, a bit character, glimpsed as a shadow of the self he had once been or aspired to be: deferential, glad to be of use (and all the rest…)—a thinly limned archetype, one, if this is the story of your own, real life, indeed, rather ridiculous.
“Look at who I am in this story,” he said to himself—“the Fool.”
J. returned to his motherland on the eve of his 46th birthday. He hadn’t seen her, his only living relative, in close to six years, and didn’t know if he’d ever see her again, given that she herself had climbed to a precarious age, 79, even though when she picked him up from the harbor, she looked and seemed like she might go on living in this state for a much longer time indeed, reassuring J. genetically while also frightening him since he found her more vigorous than he was.
It wasn’t until the last day of his visit that he shared with her a dream he’d had aboard the ship that brought him across the ocean: he was at dinner in Victoria, with M. and P. and a politician or two, P.’s mother and father and her younger brother (who did not exist, except for in the dream). Everyone was talking about the meal to come: escargot, duck, quail, truffles. The waiters and restaurant owner all emerged and stood with one hand resting on each trencher and platter, but there was a lengthy delay and, while many of the guests went on with their conversations, occasionally they would look at one another in wonderment. The faces of each of the waiters were void of expression, and each peered directly before him. Finally, they each lifted off the cover, and from the guests, there sounded a collective gasp. Inside was J.’s own head. J. reached for his face, which he could not find with his fingers, and he stood from his chair and realized he couldn’t see what was in front of him; he could only hear the reactions of the people, who, like himself, had not realized until now that his head would be served as dinner.
“It is my fault,” his mother exclaimed, almost as if the dream had been real and she had witnessed this spectacle herself. “I had all of the same insecurities until you were born and, when I gave birth to you, they left me, likely because once a woman brings a child into the world, she has accomplished what she is born to do, and I felt satisfied. Each of your successes on the long gilded road of life—well, it’s a long road, dark and bright—has been nothing less than a pleasure for me. But now you suffer, you who for me are perfect. And yet to yourself you are imperfect, suffering from hallucinations that follow like a tedious argument. I know they are but dreams, yet we dream vividly, you and I. It is time I share your burden, and admit to myself what horrible fears I have passed along to you.”
J. did not fully appreciate the degree to which his mother bore presently his burden, and when he left her to return to London, blind as he was, he was still mostly thinking of his own fate, and head.
J. prepared a speech, one composed in verse that could be understood in at least two, at times perhaps even three different ways. It was a love song, one that evoked feelings that were indeed universal; but in its generalities were hidden particularities that J. sought painstakingly to obscure beneath all of the dazzling distractions, including, of course, the purpose of the speech and day; its placement in the evening’s program after exchanged vows and rings and promises having to do with eventualities bespeaking responsibility, but also with its office; and details that only P. could have decoded, but only if she weren’t sufficiently diverted by this other love that, that day, would be lifted from the abstract world in which it had theretofore dwelt, and transferred onto the legal plane, the two bound up (J. and P.; the abstract and the concrete;…) publicly, with all of the relatives and friends around, alongside music, alongside many different stages and stations, one of which was J.’s alone, as he would stand in front of the entire crowd, and say something that came, as it were, from somewhere very specific, but understood as general. He would say that he had gone at dusk through narrow streets and watched the smoke that rises from the pipes of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows. (And how could this not say it all? How could it not tell her all? he asked himself). And yet: it was still too little; only he would understand, which is, he thought—and is becoming, he felt—too often the case, especially as time slips along (and yet, in a minute: so much time!).
On the day of the wedding, he found he could not move his head. The neck on which his head rested rotated, but only with excruciating pain, and it took him a half hour to emerge from his bed. He’d waited to shave until the last moment, and now he would pay for it. All of the things he might have done easily the evening before were now difficult and painful. He put on socks whilst lying on the floor, his feet in the air. He put on his waistcoat, struggling to stuff his arms into the intended holes. And he walked down the street turning his entire body to look out for passing coaches or horses moving down the streets, making sure none were close enough to disturb his fragile rapport with perpetuity. He walked to the church where, just inside, mobbed by admirers, he came upon M., standing, grinning, robust as he was handsome, not looking even the slightest bit nervous while inside J.’s stomach was knotted, the blood drained from his face, as he shifted from side to side.
“There you are,” he said, when he saw J. enter the room. He excused himself from a group of admirers, his smile beaming, his posture erect, to cheerfully shake J.’s hand.
J. was beginning to think the Italian might actually be fond of him.
The moment arrived, and J. stood and walked to the center of the floor. Because of the stiffness in his neck and back, he walked without moving his head, and any re-positioning meant turning his entire frame and even taking several steps backward, as if he were a wheelbarrow trying to fit through the narrow alleyways of Venice. He was accustomed to speaking in large crowds, and was known for entertaining them, but, as he began his discourse, his voice broke and, as he couldn’t move his head, he felt like an insect pinned and wriggling on the wall. Worse, he found the audience was not moved to laughter or any reaction communicative of comprehension, because in his toast were embedded more clins d’œil and allusions that only those intimately acquainted with M. and P. and J. would understand (which is to say only M. and P. and J.).
He looked out into the crowd of guests and saw P., radiant, looking to him with expectation, seemingly more attentive and receptive to what he might say now than in any other previous moment. Seeing this, J. abandoned his speech and instead found himself praising the lights, and the decoration, the waiters and the champagne from the Château des Archers. This drew nods and approval from the crowd. He next praised M.’s artwork, saying it was as ambitious and substantial as the Italian himself. He praised his smile, comparing it to a ship gliding gracefully along the sea. But, even with such qualities, he said, the Italian’s virtues were so extensive as to make him seem less and less believable, and more and more like a character in a fairy tale. And in this fairy tale was also P., whose pale skin required hats, whose nose in the sun was the first to turn, before the rest of her face, a cherry red; she loved books, and he loved that for her there was no need after she finished one to analyze it according to fashionable schools of thought; and M. was lucky to be so able-bodied, because it wouldn’t be so difficult for him to carry all of the many trunks she required for trips to destinations even a few streets away. Inside these trunks, J. said, are books and dresses and potions and a diary, one that he said most people, men and women, if given the chance, would part with a favorite novel, or the attentions of a lover, for the opportunity to read, just to know what details piqued the curiosity of this magnificent being, moving her to record them. These details we must all, he said, be envious of, for they captured her attention and might even be the details she’d hold dearly in her mind until her dying day. And M. was the luckiest of them all, because when he was in the room, she saw nothing else. But that’s also because, J. added, he is so large, and his paintings fill the rest of the room. So you don’t have much of a choice, J. said, smiling, realizing that at this much less subtle game of words, he had won a small victory, one the audience had not interpreted as a kind of love song, but poetic license and rhetoric.
M. and P. left for the Far East for several months, and J. returned to his kitchen, where he spread out all of his coffee spoons on the floor. He dared again to eat a peach, and thought about heading to the sea.
Once, he dozed off and dreamt of his mother, who, in the dream, was dead. She said she had come, like Lazarus, a long way to speak to him, and that soon she would tell him everything. “All,” she said, peculiarly. I will come to tell you “all,” she said, as if she meant something rather specific. He woke, sweating, and sent off a letter that morning. His mother’s response came two weeks later, and in her letter she offered news that weren’t new, and instead focused mostly on details about her routine, adding only at the end that her only wish was that her son be happy, something his hastily composed letter (which he had written only because he feared she was dead) had failed to convey.
In the weeks to follow, J. felt an occasional surge of happiness. He enjoyed a brief flirtation with a woman a few years older than him, and then, a few months later, with a woman a few years younger. Neither provoked in him the same profound feelings as P. had, but he did find both more interesting conversationalists. M., who hadn’t set foot in London since the morning after his wedding, also wrote, inviting J. to Rome, where his great artwork was soon to be revealed for the Pope, who was, in M.’s view, much holier in person than in the imagination, something he said didn’t come across in books or photographs, but must be experienced firsthand. M. and P. had traveled directly there from Ceylon. J. wrote back saying that he would come, but he missed his train by failing to turn up at the station.
Finally, when P. was back from Rome for a week, J. was invited to M.’s and P.’s newly arranged home, where P. was hosting an intimate gathering for tea. J. spent twenty extra minutes frivolously attending to his thinning hair. He rehearsed certain questions, topics of conversation, local themes she may have missed in her absence, even though he felt that he no longer cared about P.’s attention. Still, memory turns us into effigies of our past histories and obsessions. All of this was forgotten the moment he walked into the room and laid his eyes on a noticeably pregnant P., who greeted him with a fondness that could have almost been mistaken for love. The lone male figure in a room full of women, some whose seductive arms succeeded in briefly distracting him, J. felt his embarrassment in the face of P. had reached a new milestone, and he excused himself a few hours later, just shortly after the first guest, also pregnant, had been collected.
“Wait,” P. said, leaving him in the foyer for too long, as he shifted from side to side and smiled occasionally at the women, who glanced over at him from the sitting room. And then she arrived and pressed a note into his hand.
He told himself he would wait until he was home to read it, but he opened it a few minutes later along the road.
When he opened it, he saw that it was actually from M., who wanted to share again with his dear friend his desire that he visit him in Rome.
J. saw P. only once more. She was pushing her young son in a pram down Grosvenor Street. While he saw her eyes from a distance, eyes that reflected the blues of the sky or of the seas or of a certain mood or temperature, eyes that could fix you in a formulated phrase, he didn’t raise his eyes to her as he passed, and didn’t know whether she noticed him either.
Instead, he looked at the boy, whose face was round and eyes preternaturally patient. J. thought, My God—what a beautiful child! And what wisdom! He looks like he has seen it all, like he has seen everything. (And how will he unlearn that? he thought.)
It was as if the boy somehow understood that he was like a tiny seed that would grow miraculously into a grape, so slowly and stoically that by the time it happened it wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, least of all himself (as he himself would never know or realize it), and that, until that far-off, fugitive moment, the world would wait for him.♦