Game of Unknowns

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By Diane Mehta

“Growltiger was a Bravo Cat who lived upon a barge,” he snarled. I had asked G to memorize and record several lines by T.S. Eliot for his first assignment. I listened, entranced. We had met the previous night at Brazenhead, a secret bookstore on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a cozy warren of four rooms packed floor-to-ceiling with used books and stocked with every hue of liquor. G was Australian and an artist. We fell into a conversation about who was bossier.

“Give me your email,” I commanded, “we’ll see who’s bossier.” He obliged. I would give him a task, which he’d agree to do promptly, after which he would assign me a task, which I’d agree to do promptly, and so on. Along the way, we’d see who was bossier. We’d be treading a fine line between bossy and compliant, with the challenge of switching roles instantly. We had two rules: Each had to carry out the other’s command promptly and make a serious effort to do a good job.

We began exchanging emails several times a week. My first task was to secretly photograph people in their apartments. I walked around my neighborhood, pretending to be intrigued by design elements in front yards: stoops and iron railings, close-ups of stairs, details of fences. When homeowners stormed out, weaponized with accusations of snooping, I calmly asked after their window grills and beautifully woodworked doors. G was in my mind and we had a secret.

The game, with its expectation that you’d drop everything to produce for the other person, had an urgency that was thrilling. Emotionally, there was no question of disappointment because we had an arrangement. Back then the relationship seemed like a coy game, a diversion. But it would deepen and morph. An artistic exchange promised to be compelling. From the beginning, the correspondence was full of surprises.

In his 1925 book Essai sur le don (“The Gift”), the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss probed the meanings behind the cultural exchange of gifts in archaic societies. Because your identity is bound up with the object you give, Mauss said, the recipient is compelled to reciprocate.

In every relationship, you pay a kind of debt. From a practical point of view, G and I had a commitment to exchange goods. But the nature of what we each created for one another made a difference. “Rings and other jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts,” Emerson said in his essay Gifts. It is only when you give something of yourself that you are truly giving, Emerson was suggesting. “Thou must bleed for me,” he urged. Giving was not a commodity but an act of creation in someone’s honor. “Therefore the poet brings his poem; the shepherd, his lamb; the farmer, corn; the miner, a gem; the sailor, coral and shells; the painter, his picture; the girl, a handkerchief of her own sewing,” Emerson said.

And that is what we did. I gave G my full attention and hard work, and he in return gave me his. I wasn’t connecting to the novel I was working on and had burned through a number of relationships. Here was something I could commit to, an arrangement that gave me everything I asked for. I had nothing to lose.

A few tasks later, I asked G to buy me something under $10 and find a way to get it to me. We could have fun with this. He called me at 10 a.m. the next morning and told me to hurry to the Brooklyn Ferry Terminal. I had 15 minutes. “Look for an immigrant man flanked by two cyclists,” he texted as I stepped onto the pier 30 minutes later. I thought we were meeting. It hadn’t been clear to me whether the exchange would upshift into a love affair or casual sex, the natural denouement, I knew, of an intimate correspondence. Or it could be fodder for a book, like Barbara Browning’s playfully interactive novel, I’m Trying to Reach You.

There was no one waiting with the package. I called him. Maybe they left the package on a bench, he suggested. We chatted for a few minutes, and I hung up, feeling morose. I depended on receiving the cheap gift he had bought me, and I couldn’t cope with what suddenly felt like a calamity. I walked to the Brooklyn Book Fair nearby, where a friend, seeing how disappointed I was, told me to amp it up, to find out what was going on. Did I want a relationship with this guy? Probably not. He seemed way too young. I didn’t remember exactly what he looked like. But the correspondence was thrilling. My friend took my phone and handed it to an intern at her magazine. “Text this guy something provocative,” she said. The texts got out of control and G stopped emailing. A few weeks later I apologized and G promptly sent me an assignment. The rules were clear again. We were both crazy-eager to create.

Over the next four months, G and I exchanged hundreds of emails and completed dozens of assignments, dropping everything once a directive came in. I wrote about news events and documented my rituals to commemorate them. I loved making things for him and I knew the feeling was mutual. He was younger, and for him it was also an education. From another angle, we were procrastinating beautifully. I spent four days writing a story about characters with different sexualities on either side of the Mason-Dixon line. I wrote an essay on a Christmas lunch symposium during which Anne Frank, alive and embittered by having led a life of secrecy in light of being cast as a cultural icon, told the real story of her life—working as a secretary and occasionally doing tricks. I rewrote a section of my son’s book, The Other Side of the Mountain, with a shift in perspective to the falcon. Orders piled up: a Borgesian essay based on the first phone call of the day, an echo poem where one sonnet phonetically riffed off another, a retelling of an incident during the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny based on five personas.

G wrote a poem from the perspective of a de Kooning woman at MOMA, 18 epigrams telling a story in 18 voices, a poem based on an Eric Rohmer film, a prose piece in the style of Bataille, a letter with a story spiraling around cut-out magazine pictures, an interview with a performance artist in the style of the Paris Review, a potboiler story of a man who witnesses a traumatic event, and an essay dramatizing the time he got in trouble with the cops, in the style of Thomas Mann’s Hans Castorp obsessing over a pencil.

This last task he said he couldn’t do. It was too personal, and he was good at seeing others, but not himself, clearly. I was the opposite: capable of deep self-exploration but unskilled at understanding the motivations of others. I urged him to try. Encouragement suddenly became part of our game. Here was a variation on reciprocity that I hadn’t expected. He wrote me emails analyzing his mother and his parents’ relationship, reflected, in the assignment on the incident with the cops, on how certain moments turn out to be pivotal, and considered how some decisions are those in which you know what’s at stake and others are private, like prayers or farewells or letting yourself fall for someone. We set up our own game, of course, with low stakes and no variables.

As the months went on, we exchanged missives and rebuttals about the process of making art, and engaged in cheap philosophical debates and lost ourselves in the nuances. He admitted that his dates were an excuse to drink a lot and talk about ideas he was already mulling over. I admitted that it was far more satisfying to email him than to go on lousy dates. We tweaked our assignments around one another’s interests. This was implicitly a gift—to nudge one another artistically in ways we needed. When we got stuck or needed a deadline for our own writing or art, outside of our agreement, we asked the other for a two-hour deadline. (It always worked.)

Everything changed when I asked him to babysit my son. He showed up on time and off they went for the afternoon. Later he told me that my son, while they were walking, had volunteered the information that he had written a poem.

“Divorce,” he said, when G asked him what it was called. Then my son told him that he wrote another poem.

“What’s that one called?” G asked.

“Divorce Two,” my son replied.

“Is there another poem you’ve written?”

“Yes.”

“What is that one called?”

“It’s untitled.”

“What’s it about?”

“Divorce.” (The following week, my son told his father G made him jaywalk.) When they got back, we all sat down and leafed through books while my son pretended not to listen. G wanted to learn how to write a poem, and I was a poet. It was startling: We could be friends.

The next day, I realized I couldn’t keep creating. “Where is this going?” I asked in an email, “I can’t continue unless this develops into some sort of intimacy, because if I’m going to spend my time writing and creating for you, I need you to matter, and I need me to matter to you.” I wanted some formal statement to back up the semi-contractual relationship we were in. I wanted to know if we would sleep together. Was he attracted to me? “That’s not the point,” he said, “I don’t want to go there, because then I’ll stop writing to you.” I sent him a list of the intimate things I wanted from the relationship, with a caveat, in all caps, no sex.” He insisted intimacy was sex. I insisted it was not, knowing quite well that it could be, and recognizing that I had a penchant for longing because it fed my writing. He was 30, he said finally, when I announced that I was 47—as a way of emphasizing to him that I was not after a romantic relationship.

“I like it when you email me back,” I explained, “Reciprocity is what I’m after.”

“So you want me to be a lover without the sex,” he accused. Yes, no, sort of, I thought. “If we were sitting next to one another, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation,” he suggested. I picked up the phone. “Do you care about me?” I demanded. “This is like being in a serious relationship,” he said, emphasizing that the need to discuss things was cultural. In other words, he cared but refused to tell me. Only Americans needed to express it. We spent a half hour on the phone, after which we took to email, again, to discuss the differing emotional tilts of Americans and Australians. “A caring friendship is fine,” G wrote finally. I imposed a new rule: We must meet every once in a while. And it would not lead to sex. He agreed. 

We continued the game but increasingly emailed outside of our assignments, when we were bored or excited, to exchange news about our lives, to talk about books, movies, sex, and our families. We held each other up when we felt artless or depressed.

Then we met for a drink. We hugged like old friends. He was taller than I remembered, a symmetrical smile and a solid frame, and an expression that conveyed a sun-bred sort of enthusiasm mixed with the sly cynicism of someone newly at ease in New York. Five hours and numerous scotches later, it was obvious he cared about me. I told him that and he grinned. I noticed he was drawing while we talked. I’d never have known he could illustrate if we had not met. He appreciated the mentorship, he said, and had learned, because of me, that he liked writing. He wanted to work it into his art. Because of him, I knew I wanted to do something with letters. I realized I could undergird the dialogue in my novel with longing; after all, I also understood that I was a sucker for the art and work of longing. Here it was in full-color, evoked and given structure by the correspondence I was so utterly engaged in.

Around that time, I listened to a podcast of Elizabeth Taylor story called The Letter Writer, on The New Yorker’s website. I listened to it four times, completely in its grip. It told the story of an epistolary correspondence between Emily, a woman in England, and Edmund, a famous writer in Rome. For ten years, they spun stories, slightly larger than life. Her letters gave him a foothold in England. (“As she wrote, the landscape, flowers, children, cats, and dogs sprang to life memorably.”) He gave her a chance to write what essentially amounted to a novel in letters, and a reliable and private correspondence. (“She had confided such intimacies in him, and that distance he was safe as the confessional, with the added freedom of hearing any words said aloud.”)

When they finally met, it was a disaster. Emily had fallen in love with him. Edmund cared deeply for her. But unlike the woman he cared for in the letters, Emily was frenzied. She bought lobster for lunch but the cat got to it first, then bloodied her cheek. She had green slime on her dress from the well where the wine was cooling and the cheese was too hard. He was shorter than she expected. They drank their sherry. The formal and limited structure of the epistolary relationship was perfect, but the briefest meeting damaged the unreality of it forever. But it also marked an evolution. “You preposterous old trollop,” Edmund though viciously,” when Mrs Waterlow, the neighbor who he knew from Emily’s letters, invited herself in. He made up macabre and outrageous inventions to unseat the nosy Mrs. Waterlow when Emily couldn’t. Their meeting caused grief, but they had a history of confidences and their friendship remained in tact.

What writers used to get from letters is reciprocity, an ear, a prompt, and caring. The physical act of taking time to write creates an understanding on the page. Writing feels permanent and can circumvent or fix insecurities of all kinds. There are certain literary friendships, conducted over the course of years in letters, that became profoundly intimate: Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray were a tender pair, and Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell were the best of friends. But artistic reciprocity creates an emotional connection that’s deeply meaningful. In Dorothy Baker’s Young Man With a Horn, based on the life of the trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke, Rick Martin, a poor white orphan, age fourteen, befriends Smoke Jordan, an eighteen-year-old black kid, and they become back-window customers at the Cotton Club. They get invited in, and spend the next few years working out their art together: The great Art Hazard teaches Rick to play the trumpet and Smoke became an ace on drums. Their friendship hinges on their shared devotion to, and explorations of, rhythm. Much later, we see that for Rick, the relationship with Smoke is only one that ever mattered.

Several months ago, a friend at my writers’ space told me that emailing G was keeping me from meeting others. I disagreed but knew he was right. He shook his head and told me to watch the movie Her, about a man who writes love letters for those who cannot and who finds fulfillment in a relationship with the female voice in his computer’s operating system. Others at the writers’ space chimed in and said he was right. I frowned at them and said, “Well I’m not interested in dating anyway.” That’s the point, their expression said. When I finally saw the movie, the kicker came when the man discovers that his computer, while discovering herself, had fallen in love not only with him but with approximately six-hundred others. Theirs was a structure, built on reciprocity and constant access, that no real relationship could ever replicate. 

I was struggling to write. The more G and I emailed outside of the tasks, the less I wanted to complete the tasks. I had a book to write, and inched forward unhappily. Was G a heightened and highly satisfying form of procrastination? Was our relationship real or was it not? I asked G to meet again. He got the flu, and cancelled, and was interminably sick (for weeks). We had barely communicated. G broke our agreement to stay in touch. Our daily correspondence, and the joy I derived from it, vanished.

One day G emailed and said, “I’m back,” and apologized. He wanted some tasks and asked what was outstanding. “I can’t do this anymore, it’s not reciprocal,” I explained, though I knew in plenty of ways it was. He would never forget me, and we had both grown from it. We had exposed ourselves completely and hadn’t betrayed one another. But the urgency of the project had lost its purpose and the fun just couldn’t last—unless it turned into serious art or serious love. The whole endeavor was a back door to intimacy and I knew it. Here was the intimacy, and reciprocity, I should have been seeking with my fictional characters—who were waiting for me to return to 1946 and tell them what to do. In turn, they would tell me how to proceed. That was the relationship I was really in, but I couldn’t commit. The exchange between G and I had to end. “You email less than me and email isn’t a friendship,” I said. (“The wish to be friends is a quick growth, but friendship is not,” Aristotle said.) I told him we were procrastinating by working for one another when we should be working for ourselves.” G agreed. We stopped emailing. I went on dates. I turned to my book and made an outline.

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Diane Mehta is a writer in Brooklyn. Follow her @DianeMehta.