Ezra was born in West Berlin but has lived just about everywhere. Most recently you'll find him checking a trail map in the Japan Alps, or writing a novel along the banks of the Mekong.
I get a phone call from the past saying “It’s time your son met his father.” There’s not a whole lot I can do because she’s flown him halfway round the world for the purpose. I remember some letter a couple months back, and with me busy it getting misplaced and forgetting about it and, knowing me, surely she can’t expect anything else. From experience I’ve found that most worries disappear when you stop worrying about them.
Then she calls and says, “Well, we’re here.”
“We’re staying with my friend Nikki. Let me know a good time tomorrow and I’ll bring him round.”
In our short exchange Elaine asks no question, makes no request, and I wonder what once drove me to love this woman who contributes to the conversation nothing but demands. When you impose yourself out of the bluest of blues a more conciliatory approach is in order.
Of course I’d like to meet the boy—if he is my flesh and blood—but I’m a private man with little enough time for myself, and on the phone I get a little agitated and Elaine gets a little heated saying I told you two months ago and this and that, as if blaming on me all miscommunications in human history. It’s a bit rich coming from her—but then I’ve always made it a point to be accommodating of the hysterics of women.
So a bony eleven-year-old with a running nose and a bowl haircut out of some forgotten century arrives on the doorstep still clinging to the hand of Elaine, who after all these years looks almost the same. The idea that I’ve fathered this boy who can’t even look at me is almost amusing, and I wonder if I should have paid all that money to Elaine a few years back without asking for a test to prove he’s mine.
“I’m sorry I can’t stay with the two of you,” she says, “but Nikki already got an appointment at the Homestead Clinic for the two of us, and those people aren’t very flexible, and—anyway, you’ll have a good time together.”
In Elaine’s mind she must think abandoning her boy with me for three days is good for us. Or it fits her scheme of how things can work. I’ve given up trying to follow her logic.
“I’ll be back Monday to pick him up.” She pauses, and before going out adds to me in a whisper, “Be careful with him. He’s a little sensitive.”
. . .
It began as a romantic story. I met Elaine in Firenze, we were travellers, a pretty young American with long brown hair, a thirty-three-year-old Australian. She was an art history student in Roma at the time. She’d come on a day trip with some classmates to see the paintings and we met in the Uffizi Gallery under a Botticelli. To a friend she was whispering something about symbolism, saying the sea was the Eternal Feminine, a celebration of woman’s cool triumph after man’s sexual exhaustion—or some nonsense you can only pick up in art history classes. I’m normally reticent with strangers but in this case I had to interrupt, pleading that a great painting must be felt, understood intuitively rather than analysed with preconceptions. For that is how paintings are created: there is no long map of formulas you can methodically steer in order to create an immortal work of art, rather the work comes out of the artist’s soul. Textbook vocabulary merely reduces a living painting back to dead formula.
Elaine was impressed enough by my conviction to give me her phone number.
When two weeks later I headed south and passed through Rome, we met for coffee. She taught me that the plural of our drink was cappuccini. She showed me the coliseum. I bought a bronze lion from a souvenir stand which, giggling, we called the Beast. I dropped her off at her student flat. I followed her up for another coffee. We talked haltingly about music and leaving our countries and anything but art. There was a tension in the room I wasn’t strong enough to navigate, so, awkwardly, I left. From her fourth storey window she leaned out and shouted down at me.
“You’ve forgotten the Beast!”
I ran up the stairs again, two at a time, and at the top she met me, and we kissed, embraced, and in that moment it felt like we held the world together. Whatever people want to say about the nature of love, this was love. In that instant we felt something eternal.
In the morning I decided to spend another day in Rome, before I travelled onwards, to Greece, into my work. Elaine understood that I couldn’t stay. If we had lost touch it would have remained the sweetest memory of my entire travels, that day wandering the alleys of Rome, sun shining, then making love again in the high grass of a forgotten field.
. . .
The boy’s name is Joe. A silly name for the son of an artist. I prefer “boy”, because at least it approximates the creature. Joe, scrawny and bowl-haired, looks nothing at all like a Joe.
I don’t know what to say him. He doesn’t seem happy or unhappy to be here, he follows me around as I show him my flat without a word, nose dribbling, then saying “That’s a nice painting,” as he singles out the most mediocre piece in the entire place, a gift from a student showing a rowboat leaving a tropical island and heading for deep dark ocean.
I show him a diary of mine, completed over a decade ago with an entry dated from Santorini, 7 April, 1995, in which I wrote, And, my God, I still love Elaine!
“You were born out of great love,” I explain to the boy in trembling sincerity, but he doesn’t seem particularly impressed, head tilting in what could be a shrug. “You were conceived in Rome,” I continue lightly. “That makes you a Roman!” I playfully jab at his shoulder, which seems to shock rather than relax him.
His indifference to my efforts makes me nervous, and when he stands there looking at his feet, I begin to resent the judgments he is making against me.
“What are you learning?”
“You like your teachers?”
“We have one teacher. She’s okay.”
“You have some good friends in your class?
“Well, you want to see what I’m working on?”
I show him my latest painting, which happens to be Nude Before the Act. It is a variation of one of my most recognized pieces and I’m very proud of the entire series. But he stands there, looking at it impassively, or uncomfortably. Don’t boys like to see naked women?
I can’t explain to him that if I can’t paint I might as well die, that this isn’t some personal choice, like I have chosen work over fatherhood. Sons and lovers and my own needs pale in significance with the forces that have given me this human flaw and continue to drive it into me like a stake to the heart. I can’t explain it and I can’t expect him to understand.
So I tell him how I am able to make judgments on people based on their reception to my art—those unimpressed are also uncultured and brainwashed by the fucking brainless popular culture. I get a little agitated, which is the only way to be when discussing absurdity, and again the boy is unresponsive.
“So what do you think?” I ask him.
What do you like about it? I should ask, but I doubt he would have an answer.
. . .
Of course I see in the oppressively silent boy an alternate version of my younger self. It took me decades to overcome a stifling timidity. But the very fact I can understand his reticence means he can also understand more of me than others, that he can recognize if I exaggerate my way out of nervousness, or speak inventions in the face of not having at hand the right words.
When I tell the boy about Sydney life I hear my own voice. I am conscious of its tinniness. My voice twangs—it doesn’t reverberate. The words are not what I want to say. I use words larger than what I normally use. I say sycophant and nonplussed and prodigiously. I also say fuck and whore. I grope more in the darkness than in the light of language. The boy’s silence accuses me of insufficiency.
“So now we’re back in the kitchen.”
“What did you eat for breakfast?”
He says banana in a nasal American way which makes me cringe.
. . .
It was five years after my Rome visit that Elaine tracked me down, finding my latest number through an art dealer. I was happy to get her call from America until she told my why she was calling.
“I named him Joe.”
“Why on earth would you do that?”
“We could really use some money to get by.”
“You think I have any?”
Every few years we had a short conversation like this. Sometimes I sent a little money, sometimes I argued I was sending money into a void; I should at least know who the kid was. Then she’d demand plane tickets for the two of them to visit, and we were back where we started.
. . .
There’s nothing more to see in my flat, and talking quickly winds down again to monosyllables. I take Joe to see a film. At this point I’m not choosy and go to the only cinema in town which still shows proper films. Even for the boy’s sake I’m not willing to sit through his idea of a film, which is some Star Wars Trek nonsense. The timing is good, when we arrive a film has just started. It is Australian, independent, and was released four years ago but recently it won some award so it’s in the cinema again. It turns out to be perhaps a bit erotic for an eleven-year-old, but he slides down in his seat as if he has never seen a naked body before—nervousness hums over his skin so thickly that I can hear it. In turn it makes me nervous.
Despite this, it’s a pretty good film. The director has since gone Hollywood and made some utter piece of crap, but this film moves me for part of it by having a young supporting actress with sensual eyes and pretty tits and by stirring up a bit of anger and a bit of sentiment. Then the film ends, we go for a meal, and the film’s emotion already begins to fade. The message doesn’t cling to memory. By next week I’ll have forgotten the film’s impact, will only remember a few details I can, if necessary, raise in future conversation.
But not in present conversation. The boy picks at his food.
Why is the world seduced by film? It’s no better than paint. Perhaps it’s worse. A painting lives with you. It hovers above the sofa in the living room and becomes a companion, or it hangs in a museum and, if good enough, leaves an imprint on its visitor. I must have made thirty visits to den Haag’s Mauritshuis. One dozen just to stare at Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson. That inverted hand still makes me shudder. Another dozen to watch Vermeer’s pearl-earring girl turn her head in perpetual surprise at my love for her.
Maybe the odd young fool goes to see Titanic a dozen times—but would anyone look at a single frame more than twice? The potency of film is in its movement. Like a shark, when it stops moving it dies. But a painting moves too, and it lives forever. The movement is subtle. It registers at a more subconscious dream level that has more power. A painting is like a monastic ascetic who will say only a few sentences a year but each of them are relevant and can potentially change your life. But a movie is like an American, bellowing out to the world the latest cliché which he thinks makes him look smart but in fact broadcasts his incapacity for original thought.
Film is too easy, too obvious. A scene of a girl walking to school can be enchanting simply because it dances. But a painting of a girl walking to school has a life’s story in each brushstroke, in every choice of colour, in every detail—book bag, pigtail, fleshy pink knee—stroked tenderly into the canvas.
“What did you think of the film?” I ask the boy.
“Good,” he answers. Then his silence shuts him up again. Is that his only thought on anything? Is good the only word of criticism he can utter?
. . .
Some aspect of the film, though, triggers a thought. I don’t know what part of the film or what thought. The thought is like a pointed shovel scraping at a sediment of sentiment imbedded in the brain. A clump is dislodged, uneven, small, but large enough to work with. When we get home I need to transfer this to canvas. No, not canvas, to something porous, to a block of wood. I grab a flat piece of cedar from the shed and get to work.
Good painting is connected to dream. The more nights I have in which to dream, the better my paintings become. That might explain why I was a late bloomer. It took me three and a half decades of living and dreaming until I completed the first painting I was proud of.
A shovel and sediment is a crass way of putting it. More eloquently, it is a purity, a timeless stream which brings me my inspiration. Something beyond that which is here—an absolute which dream imperfectly connects us to. Once in a while it weaves itself underneath and I get my feet wet. Once a year or so it is deep enough to bathe in. And once or twice in a lifetime it is a torrent, a waterfall so powerful it seems easier to drown in its currents than survive.
Much of the time I simply wait for this stream to reach me, or I trek through the mountains of my mind searching for it. During these periods it might look like I am doing nothing, to an observer like I’m gazing out the window, sipping whisky or surfing Internet porn, but in fact I am waiting for the water of insight to reach me.
Others speak of muses, bringers of inspiration, but this is too anthropomorphic. There is no person proffering apples of dreams, rather a stream of timelessness out of which every great work of art—and perhaps every exceptional work of science—springs.
Even my son is secondary to this force.
. . .
As I work I think I hear singing in the other room. When I need a break, I investigate. Sure enough, he is looking out the window humming something I don’t recognize. It isn’t a sad song, rather it is a little childish, but the way he is singing it hits some sad note that reverberates in me. The loneliness a human being feels in the face of an onslaught of absence. I go back to the painting but now it is all wrong. It isn’t sad enough, which means it isn’t true. It takes me most of the night to texture even the beginnings of truth into it.
By profession and by character I’m an artist. There are things I do well and things I do very badly. I’m poor at names. I can’t remember what days the rubbish goes out. I haven’t remembered a birthday in twenty years—including, unless I’m reminded, my own. I think I’m a good observer of people and nature. I like to think I see the true colours in things, or rather can almost feel their textures on my skin, along the contours of the brain. (No, that’s not right—I can only explain my thoughts using clichés, since verbalizing what I feel is not my forte either.) I’m hopeless in my personal relationships. Women come and go, as if my will was irrelevant in the matter. They insinuate themselves into my life, and then they go amidst a great show of tears and anguish. And then there is always another girl. It has always been this way, and even as I age it continues as before. Sometimes all these faults cause me great pain—a huge wall of insufficiency towers up and breaks over me and I suffocate in that darkness. And then I work. I work myself out of mind and time. This doesn’t mean my work brings me contentment—it would be a great lie to claim happiness. I work because no other life exists. Painting at its most vivid is a lifeblood-absorbing experience, like a wound, open, raw, festering. Art takes out of me the strength for most daily tasks, which no doubt includes parenting. If the boy comes to hate me for who I am, then he hasn’t considered how much I suffer.
. . .
The boy, like me, doesn’t seem to like the mornings. He comes to my work room looking irritated and sleepy. I never seem to sleep much any more and have been up for a couple hours already.
“Want some bread?”
The boy shrugs. In the kitchen I take two slices out of the package and lay them on a plate. I rummage in the refrigerator for some cheese. I find some margarine and an old bottle of jam with a few flecks of mould in it. I set them on the table with a knife. The boy smears a little margarine on one slice, puts the two slices together, rolls them and starts nibbling at the edge. His eyes move around uncomfortably.
I’m a good observer of people, but have no experience with boys. Except, that is, the children of my lovers. At my age a few of the women I attract now have children they try not to mention too often. These little boys and girls of theirs are abstractions to me, like the near mythical East European or East Asian villages their mothers were born in, or like one’s allergy to eggs, or another’s phobia of heights. One woman has a Ph.D in tidal pool anemones; another has a five-year-old boy at home with a babysitter for the evening. These abstractions, besides the details I paint, are all I know of children.
He seems uncomfortable that I’m watching him eat, so I go back to finish my painting. There are a few more strokes to make, a few adjustments, and then I can leave it for a while.
. . .
We take a long drive in the country.
I have to take the boy somewhere—he’s moped around my flat long enough, casting a silent web of nervousness through it—and I also have to pick up a painting in a cottage I bought in the country, near Lithgow, so it’s a case of two birds and a stone. On the way, I talk about my life a bit, to give him a sense of what adults are faced with in our lives. My struggles to fend off the bank, and having to sell some of my paintings cheaply just to have money to buy Christmas presents (two or three years ago I sent him a watch with van Gogh’s Bridge at Arles on its face that cost over fifty dollars—he probably doesn’t even remember), my fights with one of my tenants—all to give him an idea of the financial worries I deal with every day of my life. He seems unimpressed even by the beautiful stretch of forest we’re driving through. If I point out a particularly vibrant texture on a section of canopy or a dazzle of green where the sun catches a eucalyptus at the perfect angle, I can see the boy staring off in the right direction but have to wonder how much he really sees. He never complains once along the two-hour drive, though. The girls and models I take here invariably grumble about the distance or need for a toilet stop or pang of sudden hunger. But the boy is a quiet one.
When I ask, the boy mentions a few men in Elaine’s life the past few years, and I wonder how they would have interacted with him. Look, kid, you’re just one of my obstacles to boning your mother! They would have tried to play footy with him (or whatever sports Americans play), or teach him fishing in the hope it would impress his mother enough to open her legs for them. And they wouldn’t have known how to talk to him. Hey kid … So you’re eleven? You into girls yet? They would have struggled to get more than a sentence from the boy at a time.
I ask him what kind of house he and his mother have in Seattle and he mutters, without eye-contact, something about government housing, which must be some nonsense his mother is feeding him. As if America has government housing like some Scandinavian welfare state! The poor kid is forced to absorb whatever reality his mother insinuates herself into.
We reach the run-down little cottage I bought as an occasional rural escape and the boy runs through its corridors as if it is a grand old palace.
“This place is huge!” he shouts. “I could get lost!”
Maybe children, being smaller, have a different take on spatial dimensions.
In the room I designated as my painting den, my most recent nude is drying in the corner. The boy takes one glance and averts his eyes—as if the sight of a human figure can consign his soul to hell. It is the third time he reacts like this, and it makes me suspicious. Is the kid religious? Is his mother feeding him some nonsense new-age cult? Or just the normal old-age nonsense?
Outside it is getting to be late afternoon. In the new light I start noticing an inconsistency with perspective in the painting and feel a duty to change it. People think that artists make art but actually it’s the other way around: an artistic sensibility is a conduit for experiences which must be transcribed into a more permanent form. The poor artist is helpless in the face of the forces which drive him.
The boy is off in the back or in one of the rooms—I can’t well check the entire property, so I get down to work. By the time I find the perfect burnt shade of umber, though, natural light has all but faded, and artificial light is too fickle to be trusted. The timing of it irritates me; the conditions necessary for the accomplishment of art are as temporary as the right mood needed to paint. Both have to be synchronous, and I blame the boy a little for skewing them; if he hadn’t been thrust upon my doorstep I would have finished the painting by now.
It would be unfair to blame the boy to his face and I don’t have to. Maybe he saw me at work and has the consideration not to bother me, running off somewhere to play Star Wars Trek or do whatever boys do on their own. I pull up a chair far across from the painting, light my pipe and pour myself a Scotch.
I have an inspiration completely unrelated to the nude. It’s a tiny spark of an idea, and suddenly I begin a fresh canvas, squeezing paints onto the palette and then, when that becomes too slow, straight onto the canvas. I grab one tube after another and squeeze out globules of pure red or orange, working them in with the help of a brush. In a flurry of energy I take the pallet knife and smear the background until it is a moving, flowing force of lust which surrounds the intangible girl in the middle and describes perfectly what she feels.
“Are we going back soon?” asks a little voice from somewhere, and the answer is so obviously no that I don’t bother to answer.
A while later it comes again: “I’m bored.”
“Only boring people get bored!” I snap, as I am in the midst of creating probably the most vivid backdrop in my entire history of abstract portraits.
It isn’t until dawn that I find the boy curled up in the corner of a room on the bare floorboards.
“Why didn’t you hop into one of the beds?” I ask him, but he shrugs. Strange little kid!
. . .
On the way back I am almost falling asleep at the wheel, but I feel a little proud that I could finish an entire painting despite the distractions.
“What did you do last night?” I ask. To minimize diversions the house has no television or much else that could pass for entertainment. I am always either there alone painting or, more often, have a lover or model along for a weekend escape.
“Ah, you found the games drawer. Why didn’t you read the Trivial Pursuit questions or something?”
“I didn’t wanna make a mess.”
“You could have cleaned up—or left it a mess. The girls when they come always seem to do some tidying up.”
He has no response, but a few minutes later asks suddenly, “Why is there so much nudity in your paintings?”
I laugh at the absurdity of the question, then I get irritated, then heated. It is his American upbringing, I tell him, that makes him think the human body is something fucking dirty.
He looks as uncomfortable as I’ve ever seen a person look. His gaze is into the sky, at the tops of the trees.
“What kind of paintings do you like?” I ask, to bring him back to me.
“Landscapes,” he says quietly.
. . .
I worry the boy is never going to understand. I wonder if it’s worth trying to explain things. My own childhood was long ago, I’ve forgotten the fears and dreams of little boys—but then, he’s not so little now, he seems to know more than he lets on, likes to observe and take things in. He already grasps something I never understood even at his age—that he still has a lot more to learn. So I can relate to him as an adult, I think. He might find me strange, a bully even, but he’ll understand we’re both human, both evolved out of the same human process, linked together by blood.
When we return to my Sydney flat, I think of Frankenstein’s creature. Born out of a scientific urge, this being was so overcome by the fact he was unwanted that he turned against everything his creator held dear. Could a child be the same? Could he grow to despise me, vowing vengeance, taking not my life—which holds little meaning to me—but what I hold more precious, mainly the beauty in nature, and my capacity for art? Would he learn the means to destroy it all until I suffer as he does?
I see him as my judge, the man most likely to one day become my executioner. The prophecy of Oedipus lives on as a fear in the mind of every father Laius. The son will kill you by becoming a greater man, by inheriting all the responsibilities that you in your aged infirmity can no longer manage. The son will claim all his mother’s love and affection, leaving you with only the scraps of duty. The son will shovel the dirt upon your coffin and inherit the earth.
I look on the boy. Just like I have little control over an artwork in progress, this boy has become who he is without any input from me. And yet he is perhaps my masterpiece, and I can sign my name to him.
“You should go take a shower,” I say.
From his bag he pulls out a change of clothes and a watch. He holds it up. “This is my favourite thing,” he says, “so I don’t wear it, to keep it new.”
It is the van Gogh watch I gave him years ago, when he still had never met me.
I lean down and wipe his nose with a tissue.
. . .
He sings in his room. I enjoy another Scotch. He comes into the kitchen looking cleaned up. I relax a little; Elaine when she comes in the morning won’t be angry that I’ve neglected him.
I ask him what song he keeps humming when he is by himself.
“I don’t know. I think I made it up.”
“I can’t figure out why, but it’s very sad.”
“Aren’t all good songs that way?”
I smile and shake my head. To disprove him I play some of my music. Greek bouzouki, Spanish flamenco, light gypsy ballads, blues rock. “The melodies make you feel like dancing.” He doesn’t seem convinced, so I play some uplifting Mozart piano concertos. “He almost never wrote a concerto in minor key, which are gloomier.”
“He just tried to hide the sadness better,” says the boy. “But it’s there.”
I listen and finish my Scotch. When I really listen, I realize he’s right. It all suddenly seems so sad that a tear almost forms. Then it does form and trickles down and another comes and I kneel down and suddenly can’t stop from weeping. I’m weeping like a child. Why do I weep? I weep because I suffer, and because the boy suffers, and since I suffer it is impossible to stop the suffering of the boy. I weep because I hated my father until the day he died, when I realized I loved him all along. And I weep for my insufficiencies, and I weep for my past crimes of weakness, and I weep because of this quiet little boy who I don’t even know but already love.
Then this show of weakness shames me. I find myself holding a boy who doesn’t want to be held, his body stiff, arms hanging awkwardly at his sides. But I feel a little unburdened, and I smile at the absurdity of our pose. And I laugh. And then the boy laughs too, and we laugh uproariously like two madmen.
. . .
Later it occurs to me that in recent years I have felt a full spectrum of emotions—I’ve wept, raged, roared in triumph, and cowered in loneliness. But it has been so long, many many years, since I lost myself to laughter, to a neck-arching, gaping-mouthed uninhibited laughter like that.
Is the timeless stream of purity wound in a coil around the boy’s solitude? When I hold him and when I laugh with him and when I paint passionately, the force I feel in my bones is the same.
. . .
When Elaine comes in the morning to take Joe back she asks, “And how did it go?”
“It went just fine.”
“I can take him off your hands now.”
I say, “Well, there’s really no hurry.”