They met at the museum to end it. There, wandering through high barren rooms full of conceptual art, alone on a Thursday afternoon, Lucinda Hoekke and Matthew Plangent felt certain they wouldn’t be tempted to do more than talk. Too, driving into the canyon of vacated plazas of downtown Los Angeles felt suitably solemn and irrevocable. The plan was not to sever as friends, or as bandmates, only as lovers.
Lucinda saw him first. A tall, malnourished vegetarian, Matthew was obliviously handsome, lead–singer handsome. He was dressed as for his work at the zoo and for the band’s practices, in black turtleneck, jeans, and speckless suede work boots, which Lucinda knew he kept in his locker when he entered the animals’ habitats. Matthew had presumably been excused from his veterinary nursing duties for the afternoon, or possibly it was his day off. For the past four years Lucinda had been assembling espresso drinks and clearing dishes at the Coffee Chairs, but she’d quit her job the day before, part of the same program of change that included this final rupture with Matthew. Instead, to pay her rent Lucinda had agreed to work for her friend, Falmouth Strand, in his storefront gallery.
On her way into the museum Lucinda had paused at two heroic pillars of neon, mounted on either side of a doorway, and seen only versions of herself and Matthew: discrete, sealed, radiant. Now, sighting Matthew, she felt her senses quicken, her balance shifting to her toes. He squinted warily at a television monitor on a white pediment, some sort of video art. Perhaps it was the case that for him, as for her, everything in the museum had been reduced to an allegory of their dilemma.Exhausted by the old tug of his beauty, his scruffy intensity and lean limbs, Lucinda was ready to send Matthew and his allure out voyaging elsewhere.
She joined silently to his side, the tiny hairs of their arms bristling together electrically. The two wandered like zombies through the exhibition, hesitating for a long while at a pair of basketballs floating perfectly suspended at midpoint in a glass water tank.
“The thing is we’ve done this so much before we’re too good at it.”
Matthew’s gaze remained fixed on the tank. “You mean there’s nothing to say.”
“Yes, but also we don't believe it’s real because we’ve fallen back together so many times afterward. We need to make a difference between this time and all those others.”
“This time we're serious, Lucinda.”
“On the other hand, the advantage to so many practice breakups is we know we still like each other, so we don’t have to worry that we’re not going to be friends.”
“The band will be okay.”
“If we seem like we're barely speaking to each other Denise and Bedwin will be completely confused. We can’t let the band worry about us. Bedwin’s fragile enough as it is.”
“Is something else wrong?”
“It’s nothing. There’s a sort of crisis with one of the zoo’s kangaroos, that’s all.”
“You were thinking about a kangaroo just now?”
“I just kind of wish we were in someplace more private so I could hold you and maybe just kiss you a little bit.” His dark woeful eyes flitted past her, as if hounded. “I feel like I can’t even look at you.”
“I feel the same way, but that’s the point. We have to stop now, change our patterns.”
“I should stop having breakfast at the Coffee Chairs.”
“You can go to the Coffee Chairs all you like. I quit yesterday.”
“Are you serious?”
“I’m going to work for Falmouth.”
Matthew disliked Falmouth. Lucinda and Falmouth had been together, briefly, in college. Matthew had always behaved jealously around Falmouth, though he denied it.
“Work how? Doing what?”
“He offered me a job in a sort of theatrical piece he’s putting together. A fake office that needs fake office workers to answer real telephone calls.”
“Calls from who?”
“I don't know. A complaint line, he said.”
“I don’t get it.”
“I don’t either, yet. But Falmouth will make it clear. Speaking of which, he has a piece in here somewhere, he showed me once.”
“Is that why we’re here? Is this about Falmouth?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Are you trying to tell me you’re going to be with Falmouth now?”
“I could never be with Falmouth again. You know me better than that. He isn’t even going to be at the gallery most of the time, that’s why he needs to hire me. Come on, this way.”
She dragged him by the hand, through impoverished galleries, white rooms barely ornamented apart from seven tiny pyramids of wheat germ.
“Here, this is Falmouth’s thing.”
Falmouth’s object had been plopped ingloriously in the middle of an atrium, seemingly exiled. A white crate or cube. Matthew circled it skeptically.
“This white box is everything I can’t stand about contemporary everything.”
“No, wait, see, it’s not a box.”
Matthew read aloud the artwork’s identifying label, on the opposite wall. “Chamber Containing the Volumetric Representation of the Number of Hours It Took Me to Arrive at This Idea
, Mixed Media, 1988.”
“It has a door, look.”
“I don't know if you're supposed to—”
“Falmouth built it, don’t worry.”
“Hey, it’s a little room.”
“See, why would all this stuff be in here if we weren’t meant to see it?”
“It’s just like Falmouth to hide the good part.”
“I wonder if there’s anything to drink in that refrigerator.”
“It would have to be like airplane drinks, little bottles.”
“Let’s find out.”
Matthew touched her at the waist and guided her through the low entrance to the chamber. “Hurry,” he said, “before anyone comes.”
Inside, she crouched, seated herself on the sled–size bed. Then took Matthew’s hand and tugged him onto her lap. “Close the door, quick.” She slid her hand along his hip, to the waist of his thready, pale–bleached jeans. He wore no underwear. His smooth belly flinched to concavity under her fingertips.
“Does this door lock?”
“Who cares, no one’s here, we’re the only ones in the whole museum.”
Lucinda braced against the tiny bedposts as Matthew wrinkled her jeans over her knees. The refrigerator slid to the room’s corner as she batted it with her toes, but there was nowhere else to put her leg. Matthew arched low to keep from topping against the room’s ceiling. Lucinda kissed his craning neck.
“The last time,” she managed.
“For real, it has to be for real.”
“It is for real.”
“The band, we can’t mess up the band—”
“We won’t, they won’t know the difference, it’ll just be you and me as friends and the band will be fine.”
“Just friends now, Matthew—”
“There's a certain kind of talk I have with women,” the voice complained. “I say whatever I’m thinking about love and sex and blah, blah, blah, I’ve heard myself a thousand times. But as normal as it is for me—this kind of frank talk, I mean—for women it seems like it’s always the first time in their lives they’ve ever spoken that way.”
“There’s nothing so strange in that,” Lucinda suggested. “You’re accustomed to yourself, but you surprise others.”
“Surprise would be one thing,” said the complainer. “But I change
others. I affect people. Women. Something happens to them, but nothing happens to me. The sameness of my life is confirmed by the effect I have on women. They’re always changed. Maybe if I met somebody who wasn’t surprised by me something new would happen.”
“You mean falling in love?” Perhaps the caller was only some dreary seducer, impressed with his own unresponsiveness.
“Oh, I’ve fallen in love.”
Lucinda adjusted the telephone on her shoulder and craned sideways to peer beyond the edge of the cubicle. Falmouth wasn't at the storefront gallery's reception desk. She caught scent of his coffee pot, dregs charring to a shrill odor. Vehicles coursed outside. At four in the afternoon the sun on Sunset Boulevard was as pale and flinty as morning light. Cubicles at either side of Lucinda sat empty. The office was little more than library carrels that Falmouth’s carpenters had slapped together, then painted gray.
The yellow legal pad before Lucinda lay bare. She raised her pen and mimed script in the air. “Tell me,” she said.
“Look,” he said, “I fall in love every five minutes. I might be half in love with you now.”
“You’re not the first caller to this line to say that,” she said.
“Love is everywhere.”
“I’m supposed to be writing down your complaints,” she reminded him.
“Okay, right,” he said. “Well, today’s complaint can be about what happens when I fall in love. Though I try not to, anymore. It makes me bad at being where I am.”
“I don't understand.”
“If I really fell in love with you, then when we hung up the phone I’d be stuck halfway. I’d be all disjointed in time and space, half there and half here. And I don’t even know where there is. Whereas now, we get off the phone, no trouble. I’m where I am, like the Buddhists prefer.”
“We all want to keep the Buddhists happy.”
“The little Buddhists inside of ourselves, those are the ones I worry about.”
“But you still haven’t really told me what happens when you really fall in love,” she said. “Only that you want to avoid it.”
“My eyes destroy you.”
“I have this condition called monster eyes. I find something not to like and it becomes enormous, it becomes the whole world. Once it was a woman’s fingernails. I started to think they were too weird and short and stubby, and then it was all I could think about. I tried encouraging her to work on her cuticles, to push them up—am I disgusting you?”
“I told myself that if she’d just work on her hands I’d go back to adoring her. But really there were other things about her voice and personality and the way she fucked that were waiting to take the place of the fingernails. I’d begun to erode and degrade her in my mind. With my monster eyes.”
Cradling the pen at the point like chalk, Lucinda wrote, in block letters, M–O–N–S–T–E–R E–Y–E–S.
“So,” he continued, “sometimes I think the kindest thing I can do for a person is keep them out of range of those eyes. Like keeping a wolf out of moonlight.”
“You mean a wolfman,” Lucinda corrected.
“Well if he isn’t exposed to the moon it doesn't have to get to that point.”
“But isn’t a wolfman a man before he sees the moon? Rather than a wolf? But anyway, the danger in a wolfman seeing the moon isn’t to the wolfman—”
“Or the moon.”
Stymied, Lucinda drew a rudimentary wolfman on the pad: a smiley face fringed with snaky hairs. What seemed hippieish sideburns gained a fiercer cast as she scribbled them nearly to the eyes.
“The thing about a wolfman is that something repulsive emerges from hiding,” said Lucinda. “But that isn’t the fault of the person who sees it. Maybe she just had ugly hands—”
Turning, Lucinda found Falmouth scowling over her shoulder at the block letters and pie–faced wolfman on the canary pad. Where had he been lurking? Falmouth turned his wrist to show Lucinda his watch, then pointed to the phone, where a square red button of translucent plastic blinked. Another complaint, waiting to be recorded. She shrugged guiltily.
“I’m sorry, sir, our time is up,” she told the caller.
“Tell me your name,” said the complainer.
“You know I can’t do that, sir.”
“Okay, I’ll call again tomorrow.”
“That’s your prerogative,” she said into the phone. It was one of the generic replies Falmouth had originally scripted for her and the other complaint receptionists. She hung up before he could reply, and took the next call.
“Who were you talking to when I came in?”
“Who do you think? A complainer.”
“It sounded like you knew him.”
“He had a lot to say.” It wasn’t a lie. He’d had a lot to say the day before, too. That he’d called each day of the past week Lucinda left unmentioned.
Lucinda and Falmouth sat in white plastic chairs at the edge of Sunset Boulevard's sidewalk, under the shade of the Siete Mares patio. Falmouth faced west, squinting in the declining April sun. They’d departed the Strand Gallery for an early dinner, after the arrival of Falmouth’s two interns to man the complaint lines. Falmouth had culled the spookily young and confident interns from his students at CalArts, where he taught a class on installation art. At his gallery, a showcase solely for his own spectacles, Falmouth employed only women. Soon Falmouth would need more than three of them. The frequency of calls had mushroomed as word spread through Los Angeles, by means of bright orange stickers reading “Complaints? Call 213 291 7778,” mounted on public telephones, also by the interns, in restaurants, cocktail bars, and hotel lobbies.
Two ruined plates of fish tacos lay before them, the table covered with shreds of spilled cabbage and dots of red sauce and sour cream. Falmouth, though, sat unstained and impeccable in his trim brown sharkskin suit and vintage tie. He’d begun wearing tailored suits, polished shoes, and silk ties during his and Lucinda’s last year of college. The rest of their friends wore T–shirts and jeans, then and now. The suits debuted at the same time Falmouth had begun to lose his hair. Lucinda recalled poignantly the wisps that had wreathed Falmouth’s ears and neck, overlapping his collars, even as the bareness on top expanded, naked, undeniable, silly. Lucinda and Falmouth’s affair had been finished just before he began shaving his dome clean. Falmouth’s first and most successful piece of art was himself, installed in the larger gallery of the world.
“Don’t lose control of the dialogues, Lucinda,” Falmouth said. “You can’t begin thinking the complaint line is somehow a real service. The Echo Park Annoyance is coming tomorrow for an interview. We ought to seem institutional. As though we’re recording these complaints for some scientific or altruistic purpose, yet couldn’t care less about the yearnings of any given caller. It’s not a hipster chat line.”
Lucinda recognized Falmouth’s jabber as a symptom. “You're nervous about this interview.”
“Be dispassionate,” he said, dismissing her sympathy. “This piece needs to have a certain gloss.”
“Some men find it erotic to talk to a woman on the telephone, Falmouth. You underestimated the titillation effect. I get breathers.”
“You’re mistaken. I had titillation in mind. When you take a complaint you ought to sound like a beautiful nurse. Patient but slightly bored. As if you’re wearing a uniform that you’ll remove only after the conversation, not during. As if your real life is elsewhere.” Falmouth turned and bugged his eyes at an old woman laden with shopping bags who paused on the sidewalk, overhearing him. The woman shook her head and resumed plodding. Falmouth motioned with cupped hands, as if scooting the woman along the sidewalk by the buttocks.
“Maybe then you should have hired someone who had a real life elsewhere,” said Lucinda.
“Has it never been explained to you that self–pity undermines sarcasm? Pick one or the other, then stick with it.”
Copyright © 2007 by Jonathan Lethem. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.