William (E)

William turned forty. For a lot of men it is an age that calls for some retrospection. William wanted more. He wanted to be surrounded by his best friends at an exciting, international location. That choice location turned out to be Manhattan.

William lives and works in London, where he is a successful producer of commercials and corporate films. He has friends everywhere. In a number of European countries, but also in the United States, in Japan and in New Zealand.
With a few exceptions, they would all be there. Fifteen people were to meet each other in a bar near Times Square. Not just any bar, of course, but a trendy bar. I had been there once before. Its tables and chairs were designed by Philippe Starck. An American interior decorator did a botchjob on the rest of the bar. In my eyes, he had been gloriously succesful in massacring the stylish French basis with bad mirrors and a lurid lighting scheme. That mutilation did not make the bar any less popular: ever since its opening which could easily have been a year ago, it was jam-packed night after night. If you wanted to belong, you would have had to set foot in it at least once.
Darrell and I arrived a little early. We walked around searchingly. That was a rather abstract activity, because Darrell knew almost no one of the expected guests. I saw William’s Australian friend, Patrick, once. Patrick had been trying to survive as a graphic designer in New York for quite a while. Without a green card. At a party somewhere he had told me how frustrating that struggle for survival is at times. If I ever wanted to stay in America, I should guard myself against that. The rest of the party was unknown to me. I had never seen the host before, not even a picture of him. I was the prototype of the friend-in-law, who was eagerly trying to get some insight into his partner’s past. Up front two women tried to understand each other in less than fluent English. We decided to chance it. They were Japanese Sumiko and Swedish Selma. Right, girlfriends of William, women he had worked with at some time and who had remained faithful to him, stimulated by their good memories. Surely but slowly the other guests announced themselves. A colorfull group of people. Well-matched as far as their age was concerned, but any more than that was something to find out, because nobody knew anyone there. An intriguing basis for a special gathering. William, accompanied by Patrick, was the last one to arrive. This was not just an entry, it was truly an ‘appearance’. It was as if time had stood still; Oscar Wilde approached our table with a casual smile. Under his black cashmere cape he wore a completely buttoned-up, knee-length black jacket and a pair of black slacks. His white dress-shirt had a round starched collar. Even William’s physique was reminiscent of his illustrious fellow-countryman. A rather bloated body, a round somewhat fleshy head and sleek dark hair that made its way down from a part in the middle. A half sentence sufficed to notice that his English was marvellous. Precious, quasi-intellectual, completely in accordance with the finest Oxford tradition. William was an anachronism in the flesh and Patrick seemed to be standing next to him to confirm it, with his bleached short haircut, his Calvin Klein t-shirt and his sloppy Diesel jeans. Besides, it was only at that moment that I saw the sophistication of choosing this spot. It had to be this bar. It seemed as if William himself might have commissioned its kitschy design excess. He wanted to detonate. The eccentric birthday celebrant received a hearty welcome from everyone. He handed his cape and flambard to Patrick who called out in jest: “Garcon, champagne.” His French was an earache, but the waiter arrived speedily with what was ordered.
I saw Darrell in an unusual role. Because he still had to get acquainted with everyone and because William demanded all the attention, he stayed in the background. I knew that somehow or other he would retaliate later that evening. He could not tolerate anyone else taking center stage. It embarrassed me to see that he was consuming his champagne as if it were cold coke. The waiter could not keep up with him.
After a good half hour the entire party moved to the other side of the street, where the banquet would take place. I was very curious to find out where this scenario would take us. It turned out to be a nineteenth century building with an interior from the same period. A modern elevator, hidden behind two wooden doors, brought us with great speed to the fifth floor. Our host apparently had the whole floor reserved for the occasion. A large hall with an enormous dining room on the right and a large salon on the left which extended into a library that smelled of good cigars. I had absolutely no problem imagining Oscar Wilde in this entourage. In the dining room stood a fully set, long table. White,starched table linen, antique silver cutlery and crystal glasses, a centerpiece of fabulous flowers. . A symphony in white. Two impressively dressed men were looking down on us from the walls. Although everyone knew William and was aware of his thrills and frills, I noticed that I wasn’t the only one who was slightly taken aback. In all their artfullness, the style and the taste of this man were completely authentic.You probably had to belong to the English aristocrcy in order to understand its origins. And, however civilized we acted or even were, we all knew that we were not brought up in this fashion. Because we had an occupation in the arts or the would-be arts, because of the way we dressed and because of the money a number of us made, we knew that we had risen above the man-in-the street level, but we also knew that real class was out of our league. William had us where he wanted to have us. At his feet.
We were asked to be seated by a man in tuxedo. William asked him to wait a while with the first course. He wanted to say something first. With a brilliant flourish of words , slowly coming to the point, he welcomed us all and thanked us for our presence. Following that he addressed everyone personally. I could hardly imagine a better intro-duction of my table companions. Within ten minuted I knew what everyone did for a living and what their relationship was with the birthday boy. He had a few words even for me. A couple of generalities which he could assume might apply to me. His judgement of me was not far off.
Following that, he suggested that we all open our presents and then commence with the banquet. There was a small present on our plates, wrapped in gold. Mine happened to be a booklet about the turbulent sixties: when I was allowed to do what Wilde had to abstain from. A good choice. All the guests gasped in surprise at the aptness of their booklets. Darrell sat next to me and grumbled. He did not like booklets, let alone reading. He was past the stage of being accommodating and friendly. He was getting noticeably anxious from all this organized refinement and artificial civility. He wanted action. If the meal should not be served quickly, he would arrogantly start to demand attention.
He got his way fairly soon. Dinner was served. Everyone abandoned propriety and ravenously lunged at their plates, while exchanging a few words with their neighbors. William leaned back and saw that all was well. He whispered something to Patrick who nodded with a smile.
A rather colorless man flanked me on my right. He asked me politely how I made my living and when he heard that I was in the arts, he blazed away, in a monotonous, boring tone of voice. Just my kind of luck. He had given up his job as a teacher a few months ago in order to completely devote himself to his artistic calling. He was fed up with swaying back and forth between two occupations. His wife earned a lot of money in the advertising business, so they would not have to starve. Nevertheless, he felt enormously pressured: he just had to come through now. His wife had respected his decision, but in return something substantial had to come out of his hands. He went to his studio in Brooklyn every morning and every morning he stared again at the white linen on his newly acquired easel.
He did not have the nerve to put his first brushstroke down.
I looked at his tormented face and tried to imagine his desperation. That wasn’t easy, because Darrell, sitting on my other side, was throwing anecdotes around in an increasinly loud voice without asking himself whether anyone wanted to hear them. I threw a quick look at William, who answered my glance with a ‘that-is-just- like-him’ face.
Meanwhile, my artist went on and on with his story. That he had to give himself some time and that writer’s such as I also suffered from ‘writer’s bloc’ occasionally, were consoling words that did not reach him at all. Van Gogh did not listen, he talked. When he started on the negative effect Brooklyn had on his inspiration I was glad that Darrell rudely interrupted my conversation.
“Are we being serious again. Can’t you ever just have fun?”
“My neighbor isn’t fond of fun, he likes to suffer.”
“Then talk to someone else. Let him drop dead.”
Darrell doesn’t have any sympathy, especially when he is drunk.
“Do I have to act like you in order to reach someone?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I keep hearing your voice towering out above everyone else’s”.
“Oh, why don’t you go back to that dreadful bore. He really gets turned on by people like you.”
It wasn’t my intention to make him angry, but at times his need to manifest himself was hard to take.
When I turned to my right again, I looked into a talking face. Van Gogh had seen no reason to interrupt his lamentation. But all of a sudden he stopped. As if he had heard a bell ring.
“Couldn’t you come for a studio visit?”
“But you have been telling me that there is nothing to see.”
“I did make all sorts of sketches and concepts.”
I knew I had to get out of this, but didn’t immediately know how.
Fortunately, William just interrupted everyone. He wanted us all to move to the hall where a performance would take place.
There were chairs grouped around a small stage. The space was darkened. As soon as everyone was seated, there was some music and a spotlight was turned on.
To my amazement Patrick was laying there with a bare torso. I had not seen him leave the table. He danced a sad swan song to Wagnerian sounds. He defended himself unsuccesfully against supposed aggressors. He tried to push over fictitious walls, but they remained standing. He tried to passionately embrace someone, but the object of his attention kept slipping out of his arms. He pushed himself up time after time but he kept landing on the floor.
Because I thought I heard an unusual sound after a while, I turned around for a moment. William was drying his eyes with a large white handkerchief. Awkwardly I focused on Patrick again. He had given up. He lay with his face down, while the spotlight slowly dimmed. The applause started rather hesitantly. In these situations Darrell was invaluable. His ‘bravo’ helped the others to conquer their hesitation. Patrick bowed for us. With his tired, trembling body he stood there being vulnerably beautiful.
For dessert we returned to the table. Because a couple of people had changed places, Van Gogh came to sit next to Sumiko. I saw that he immediately latched on to her. William was alone for a moment. Because his tears had put me on the wrong foot for a moment, I went over to him.
“ Are things O.K. with you?”
“Yes, excellent. Everything is going as I hoped it would.”
“You managed to create a very special evening.”
“So you are having a good time?”
“Oh, definitely. I will not easily forget this.”
“It is a pity that we did not meet each other earlier.”
“We can still make up for lost time.”
“You never know.”
He did not really sound convinced.
After dessert we were asked to take place in the hall again. The chairs were now grouped around small round tables with burning candles on them. The lights were turned off again. Only a piano and a a microphone were accentuated by a spotlight. We were curiously awaiting what was coming next. What apotheosis had William to offer his guests? A black man sat down at the piano. He played an intro. A small black woman took her place behind the microphone. She did not say anything, but just quickly glanced at her accompanist and then started her first number. A fantastic, full voice filled the room. Within a few minutes the floor seemed to be moving up and down. I saw various people swaying in their chairs. One or two individuals chimed in. I felt excited too. The music swung as only black music could swing. Incredible that this could all come out of such a small body. With the second number, the first tables were pushed aside. And with the next one everybody stood on the improvised dance floor. All inhibitions were forgotten. The politeness that had subdued us for most of the evening was thrown overboard. Darrell finally got what he had been waiting for so long. Action and attention. Nowhere else could he make himself known as much as on the dance floor. He even convinced our host to shake a leg. William moved his full body around with wooden movements and out of rhythm.
The party continued for more than an hour. The singer could not be stopped. She enjoyed her success and grew with each number.
We were exhausted when we finally dragged ourselves to the elevator and William and Patrick stayed behind in the salon. The first one with a cigar and a glas of cognac, the last one with a blue cocktail. We had ourselves taken home by limousine.

The following day I came home at four. I had done a studio visit in Harlem.
Darrell was sitting on the couch looking defeated.
“What’s wrong with you? Suffering from a hangover?”
“William is dead.”
With tears in his eyes, he looked at me almost reproachfully.
“Probably suicide”, I said.
“What do you mean, ‘probably suicide’, how do you know, for God’s sake.”
“It was almost predictable. Yesterday’s dinner party was a production from the first to the last minute. He used us in order to die in style and I must say that he was perfectly successful at it. If you want to end it all, it is better to do it like this than to jump from a train anonymously.”
“But why didn’t I notice any of this?”
“I don’t know whether you did not notice anything. You were resisting the way things went all evening long. At first I thought you were doing it because you always find it difficult to accept that someone else is getting all the attention.”
The fierce expression in his eyes told me that Darrell did not want to hear this.
“But it is very possible that you showed subconscious resistance to such a threatening event.”
“ Oh, bull shit. Half-witted nonsense. I wasn’t aware of anything and I don’t understand it either. Someone who has everything: money, a good job, a beautiful house in London, an apartment in Paris. I would have changed places with him blindfolded.”
“I am glad you did not get that chance.”
He reached out for me and cried his heart out against my belly.

Rob Perrée

Translation Sonja Herst