May 25 / 1979
I arrived at JFK not knowing if I would recognize him, wearing what I thought a man my father’s age would find attractive ~ something from the 1940’s. A long pleated skirt, platform shoes and a prim white blouse with a tweed jacket.
I did recognize him, and I’ve never forgotten the funny, toed-in way he walked. He was wearing what he thought a 22-year-old woman from the 70’s would expect ~ a vinyl jacket, multi-coloured polyester shirt and a pair of flared jeans.
He grabs the child-sized red Samsonite suitcase from my hand and leans in to kiss my cheek. A silver chain with a silver and turquoise bear paw amulet dangles from his grey-haired chest. He seems smaller, younger and frailer in his personal life. I can’t see his eyes behind the tinted aviator lenses ~ but he mentions straightaway that he’s been up all night.
We stop at the A&P all-night supermarket in Fort Lee to pick up a few supplies (hot dogs, Pepsi and cigarettes for him ~ soda water for me). And while we are standing at the check out counter I can’t help but wonder if people think I am his daughter. This gives me a little kick. Like we are getting away with something. The idea that everything is not what it seems.
Apartment 9A / Completion and Beginning
His place is immaculate, not a crumb in the galley kitchen where he will show me how he has perfected the one egg omelet and brew his “chock full of nuts” coffee. The spotless fridge holds a few cans of Pepsi, his preferred drink, and I add the bottle of club soda he purchased for me at the A&P.
In the living room, everything feels spacious, serene, orderly. There are no newspapers strewn about ~ or ashtrays overflowing or unfinished projects piling up in corners. Everything in the room seems unified by order and function.
The Zen surrealist atmosphere ~ white walls, tidy bookshelves, careful arrangement of art ~ all nesting around the piano, the Chickering baby grand. Only the piano has the look of being lived in. Sheets of music on one side of the worn padded bench and an ashtray on a stand on the other side. This is where he lives.
He shows me his bedroom. The green on green on green room. No curtains, a single window covered by a roll-down shade. The Spanish Modern furniture.
And offers me a gram of cocaine neatly folded into a piece of magazine paper. He slides it across the chartreuse bedspread.
“For your personal use,” he says, “while you’re staying here .”
I am touched by his inclusiveness and accept the package politely. I carefully open this expensive gift and take a bit of the white powder onto my fingertip and apply it to the end of my unlit cigarette.
He has several lines of the stuff laid out on the back of the same magazine. I watch as he slowly clears them one by one, snorting them up a rolled dollar bill until the glossy magazine is empty.
I light my cigarette and inhale deeply. The cool chemical sensation of burning cocaine and tobacco hits the back of my throat and slides down my spine, numbing my mind and opening up my body.
I have no idea how our chemistry will play out ~ his hand reaches to touch mine, our eyes connect. I am slightly high from the cocaine, his eyes seem magnified by the removal of his tinted glasses. His quiet confidence draws me inside.
He begins to disrobe, shedding his street clothes , revealing pale thin legs scarred and cratered, something like the surface of the moon. I am seeing his body for the first time. I’ve never seen scarring like this. Something about the mid-calf length dress socks reminds me of my Dad standing in his boxer shorts.
The look he gives me in this moment has no shame, no regret. He explains to me not how he came to be scarred this way, but that they are old scars and don’t hurt anymore.
His hands begin to explore my body. I am amazed by the sensitivity of his touch. His intense desire to give me pleasure overrides my need to stay in control and I am surrendering to this experience of pure bliss.
Waves of orgasm travel through my body and exit through the soles of my feet.
This is how he hooks me. I am insatiable after this first lovemaking session.
At 22, I am like soft wax, waiting to be impressed, and Bill does impress me with images that will last a lifetime.
For All We Know
The next morning I creep quietly out into the living room. The hazy Jersey sun fills the room; it must be noon . As I lie back on the white sofa to light my first cigarette of the day, Bill shuffles into the room in his red pajamas and asks me if I drink coffee.
I wonder what I look like after a few short hours of sleep. Bill’s sheepish grin let’s me know that I am looking rather fine in one of his white v-neck T-shirts.
I agree to a coffee and finish my early morning contemplation. I guess he’s not a maniac, I would have sensed that by now ~ but he’s not as conservative as I thought either.
Bill serves the coffee in the living room and pulls out an orange and black album from the book case on the wall behind his piano bench.
“This is Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack,” he says. “There’s one track on here that I’ve been listening to a lot lately. It’s called “For All We Know”.
The piano begins very softly and then I hear Donny Hathaway’s voice. A mournful call to attention. I am immediately transported to another state. His voice is pure emotion ~ beyond Billie Holiday. I’m stunned.
We listen in silence together, Bill seated at the piano, me still reclining on the sofa.
At the end of the song, Bill lifts the needle off the record and begins to tell me the story of his brother Harry’s battle with schizophrenia, about the hours he spent listening to his paranoid ranting about the nature of the universe. How he really wanted to believe that Harry was just ahead of his time, onto something the rest of the world didn’t understand yet.
In the end it was a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head that took Harry out.
Bill goes on to tell me that Donny Hathaway had suffered from depression and that he had been found dead on the sidewalk, outside his Hotel, a few months ago. They said the windows in his room had been carefully removed. He was 33 years old.
Then he sits down at the piano and plays for me the tune he had been writing for Harry just before his death and tells me that he has decided to title it “We Will Meet Again”.
This is how I learn to be present.
He draws me in.
Makes a place for me beside him.
And the experience of knowing someone this deeply is irresistible to me.
This is where my mission impossible begins ~ the one where I drop off my dry cleaning and slip through the back of that Manhattan storefront directly into the underworld.
This is where Persephone goes underground.
excerpt from “The Big Love: Life & Death with Bill Evans