Birute Serota >

Swimming Against the Current


It was the beginning of the holiday season. One party followed another. I didn't care. The Los Angeles sun shone weakly on the other side of my drawn vertical blinds. I sat in my bathrobe sipping lukewarm coffee trying to decide whether or not to eat, to dress, to talk, to get up out of this kitchen chair, to ever water the grass, to care about the dailyness of life. I had been hiding for weeks. The phone rang.

After the eighth ring, I picked it up like it was some curious specimen from another era, an archeological find. I put the strange thing to my ear.

"Hello Gabriella?" It was my friend Ellen, but I couldn't get my mouth to say hello.

"I know you're there. Say something, for God's sake."

I tried hard. "The weather refuses to change."

"Will you stop being Sylvia Plath for one night please." Ellen wasn’t buying my act. "So, are you coming tonight?"

"The sun is too white," I said. "I need grayness—fog, clouds, drizzle, slush."

"You're in the wrong geography."


"For Pete’s Sake, Anne Sexton went to parties, you know. So did Sylvia. Even Diane Arbus had to hang out with all those weirdos she photographed. Frieda Kahlo, Kate Braverman, they went out. All your depressive soul sisters had more fun than you’re having. Come on, for one night and get out and see some new faces, get those juices flowing."

"I don't have any more juices."

"Stop it Gabe, you're coming even if I have to come get you."

"I have no costume."

"I’ll bring one. I'm coming at six."




The Santa Ana winds were blowing hot air through the canyons. We drove the silver Bronco up the coast to the hills above Malibu. The house was one of those Los Angeles hybrids-- Mediterranean Tutor, I'd guess. Ellen led me by the hand into the party. It was 7:30 and she was pissed at being late to this Hollywood Halloween party. Ellen had dressed me in a dominatrix outfit. She said it would catch people's attention and it was so wildly out of character for me that it made her laugh just to look at me. I was too depressed to even feel mortified. I held the red whip in one hand. The handcuffs dangled from my other wrist as I drank glass after glass of Merlot. My red mask felt comforting. I wore jeans and a tank top and a spiked leather collar around my neck. Ellen had wanted me to wear her spiked heels. I had told her that was where I drew the line. Let them use their imaginations.

The party had a couple who wore an O J Simpson and Nicole Simpson masks. Very passé. There were the standard dead rock stars—masks of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison. There were a pair of Bush masks—pere et fils. The rest were standard fare: cowboys, French maids, one Dracula, a pope and three cat women and strangely, one Zorro. Ellen was dressed like Vampira, a long wig camouflaging her lack of cleavage. She was talking animatedly to an Elvis impersonator. A shaggy grey-haired man dressed in a corduroy jacket, oxford shirt and jeans came up to me. He had that rumpled professor look.
"Norman Mailer, right?" I guessed.

He half-smiled. "And you? Kitten with a whip?"

I saw his whole history in a flash. His sincere but resentful ex-wives, his sullen children, his paltry fantasies. I excused myself and as I turned a corner to look for the bathroom, I saw that a whole wall of the dining room was a long aquarium, only instead of tropical fish, there was a man swimming against a strong current. At first I thought it was a mechanical dummy of some sort, but as I came closer I saw that he was real. I stood there watching him lift one arm and then the other, taking measured breaths, working hard to stay in one place. It took my breath away.




Two years ago, I had briefly been happy. It was like a flu. I was living with Alek, my poet from Bratislava. He asked little and he gave little. It was perfection. We made love and had delicate conversations about life. I loved his poems because I didn't understand them. And he wrote so few of them that they seemed all the more precious. They were dark and brooding. He said that fifty years of gray Communism could do that to the most hopeless optimist.

He didn't come home one day. A message on the answering machine said that he had to fly to Bratislava to visit his sick father. I don't know why but I was deliciously contented for three weeks and then I heard that he was arrested for transporting and soliciting drugs. He had been selling drugs in L.A. as well. Afterwards, I found them everywhere: in the garage, in the closets, under sinks. How had I not known?

"Think of it this way," said Ellen. "You still have the capacity to be surprised."

"Is that good?" I asked.

"Imagine life with no surprises."

Ellen had a point.





"Did I hear someone say handcuffs?" I turned around and saw that it was Zorro. He was masked and had a penciled Ronald Coleman mustache over his weak mouth.

I sighed heavily. "Hey Zorro, got a cigarette?"

His lip rose in scorn. "You smoke?"

"Yeah, is it against the law yet?"

"No, but it should be." Zorro was turned off. I loped off a chunk of Brie and spread it on a cracker. I ate it greedily. It tasted like disappointment.




I stood there staring at the man in the aquarium still tirelessly swimming against the current. Was this his hour for aerobic exercise or maybe he was some kind of exhibitionist. Who knew why anyone did anything anymore? I was simply mesmerized by his persistence.




Last winter I retreated to a cabin in Michigan, not far from New Buffalo. I was trying to see where I was in my life. For two weeks I read obsessively: Primo Levi, Pushkin, Bulgakov, The Story of O (left by a former tenant), and all of Annie Dillard. The next two weeks I spent staring at the snow and the grey, frozen waves on Lake Michigan. I used to be a singer, but now I no longer knew what was worth singing about. I sang songs of love without knowing what love was. My heart, poor invalid, was worn and frayed like the lace train on an overused wedding gown.

A group came into the party dressed like Renaissance dukes and bishops. A woman was dressed like a bird of prey. She had a raven headdress and she was chained to a leather-suited falconer. Zorro whispered that the Grand Duke was a famous producer who has a taste for young boys and that the raven was the falconer's fourth wife and an actress on one of the soaps.

"Hmm," I said sipping my drink, "The National Enquirer is probably dogging their tails."

Janis Joplin walked over to the duke. I heard her telling him how much fun she had roller blading all morning in Venice Beach.

"I loathe exercise," I heard him say.

"Don't you even like hiking. Everybody likes hiking," said the bouncy Janis.

"Its so unpleasant hiking in the mountains around L.A.," said the duke straightening his crown. "Everyone’s always bumping into dead bodies."

"Huh?" she asked.

"You know, the mountains and the canyons are the favorite dumping grounds for grisly murders."

The door opened again and cameras flashed their lightening strobes. Instantly the party livened up as the cameras searched the painted faces for celebrity status. Everyone wanted a little bit of that celebrity patina on them. Fame was a pie that was sliced very thinly these days.

I looked over at the swimmer. He hadn't noticed a thing. He was moving his arms and legs rhythmically, one arm over the other. He looked so serene, almost Zen-like. So patiently getting nowhere.

I watched the duke take off the woman's Janis Joplin mask. Her own face had a silly putty look to it; almost melted. I wondered if it was one too many chemical peels or was she just another victim of bad plastic surgery. Oh we've all known them—the nose jobs that look like hot dogs, the cheeks that have been pulled back so far that you can only smile forever, the silicone hard spots on a face or the breasts you could mold into any shape you wanted, even a square. And let's not even start with Michael Jackson? I wondered if there was a twelve-step program for botched plastic surgery.

A man with an Einstein mask came over and handed me a plate of sushi. I like the way his white hair floated around his rubber head like cotton candy. He seemed nice, he asked me questions about my life. He talked about his divorce, his loneliness. He took off his mask and I saw that he was older than I had imagined, but his eyes were soft, his mouth was relaxed, not tight like Zorro's. He asked me out to dinner. I felt my heart, poor invalid, warming. I wondered if I should go. He held my hand and I noticed that his responses were off. Something about his timing seemed strange. I asked him if he was on some kind of drugs. I was thinking that his Prozac dosage was too high. He said he was on Elavil and Lithium and several other medications that I had not ever heard of. He talked about his nervous breakdowns. I started to think we were all like characters in Brave New World, taking pharmacological "soma holidays." I also had the strange sensation that once he'd taken his mask off, he became even more bizarre than he was with it on. Like the princes in fairy tales who have become enchanted by an evil spell. Only instead of turning from a beast into a prince, he turned into something not quite human, (or maybe all too human) like a bug.

I returned to the aquarium to see the swimmer—his answer to all of life's questions—keep swimming. He was gone. The aquarium was empty. I went into the next room to look for him. It was a bedroom with a bed full of coats. A woman was lying on top of the coats with her legs spread. A man was kneeling on the floor giving her oral sex. She turned to look at me with such a bored expression, with eyes that were as old as the ice that formed on Lake Michigan every winter for endless millennia.

I found the swimmer on the wooden deck jutting out into the cool Los Angeles air, on the edge of a hill overlooking the Ocean. In the other direction was the valley with its million lights twinkling below. The swimmer had on a white terry bathrobe and was staring out at the empty ocean; a darkness with a string of lights along the shore.

"Thank you for coming to my party," he said without turning around. "Wouldn't miss it," I answered. His face was wet. Were those tears? No, he was still wet from the swim.

Edith Piaf was singing her little sparrow guts out on the CD. "Je ne regrette rien."




Zorro called me a week after the Halloween party. I let the answering machine pick up his call.

"I've got two passes to Paramount for a preview," he said without tripping on the alliteration. "Want to come." He left his number. There was the call of sex in his voice. I could picture it—hard, dry, fast, full of antagonism. I didn't have the energy. The trouble with my generation, I thought, was that the sixties had made us all hungry for experience. But by now we had all had too much of it. We had lived in too many places, we had had too many relationships, jobs, complications in our lives. We had developed the ability to look at a new person and see how they would play out in our lives like a trajectory into our future. We could see the lovemaking and the arguments and the boredom before we even learned their last names.

I thought of the man swimming in the aquarium. I couldn't get him out of my mind, yet his image always took my breath away. Something in that image spoke of futility, of loneliness, of perseverance. I closed the blinds against the white sun, I pulled my bathrobe closer around me. Maybe I should go back to bed and hope to dream of bad weather.

"Oh, what the hell," I said aloud as I picked up the phone to dial Zorro's number. "There was still Thanksgiving and Christmas to get through."