Sporadically, I get these letters from my friend Ada. They are usually very intricate documents that include arbitrary post-cards of places she’s never been to, scraps of colored paper, pieces of string, sparkles… Her writing covers all the available surfaces in lovely, but also mostly illegible, higgledy-piggeldy eddies of free-associating streams of consciousness. The point of the letters, of course, is never really to impart information; rather, they are phatic gestures — empty of anything but their peculiar charm and the friendly intention to maintain some sort of contact. I answer them as best I can, but usually in a boring, linear fashion, with humdrum accounts of how I’m doing, what I’m up to, and so on. I find I can’t quite bring myself to play the proposed game and respond in kind. On occasion, I do throw in the odd doodle, in a rather feeble attempt to reciprocate her ambiguous signals. And then maybe twice a year, I get a phone call. It always takes a while before I can figure out what she really wants to talk about: many pleasantries have to be offered and discarded. Feelers have to be extended, and the waters tested. Direct routes are to be avoided, it seems, at all costs. They are dangerous, I suppose. They are bruising. And hopeful moods are fragile things. We always end up talking for a very long time, and afterwards, what remains for me is a strange mixture of exhaustion, joy, irritation, and anxious solicitude.
When I was about twenty years old, Ada asked me to drive her to her grandfather’s summer house in Maine. At the time, she lived alone with her dad, Alyosha, in a rambling old house overstuffed with potted plants, books in three or four languages, and mismatched furniture. He was the kind of academic who, early on, writes the massive, definitive treatise on some hopelessly recondite topic (I seem to recall something about the influence of Milton on Russian satanism…), and then spends the rest of his career limply recovering from that promethean feat. He was a nabokovian character both in the palpable aura of madness which infused his curious manner and the indeterminacy of his Old World origins: he spoke in a middle-class British accent and had read history at Cambridge, but he was also supposed to be Russian, or perhaps Dutch. On fair weather days, he liked to drive around in a vintage Aston Martin.
He also owned a dowdy family van, which he let us borrow for our little trip. We set out on a radiant summer day, and I really don’t remember what we talked about along the way. Art maybe, or the future. Ada kept insisting that she should drive, even though she didn’t have a licence. We had met in our early teens at the international school we both attended, after she settled here. (She had been living in Austria.) With pale blue eyes, a marked carnation, and a wild, unruly coiffure, she looked like a dainty porcelain doll, but one that was the product of homemade craft. This impression was reinforced by her fashion sense, which ran to the odd, the colorful and the disparate. From moment to moment she could be alluring, graceful, and alternatively, unkempt and slightly repulsive. She habitually spoke in a capricious babelian jargon based mostly on English and French, but which also included words, expressions or whole sentences in German, Spanish, Italian, or whatever else occurred to her as she tried to give voice to the breathless rush of her thoughts. At one point, for a few weeks, I had a crush on her, but nothing came of it because I was too morbidly timid to declare an interest. And then, for no special reason, the covetous longing lifted, and made way for a warm, easy friendship. We were in a school play together, and she turned out to be a wonderful actress: sensitive and touching and expressive. At one point, my parents, who quite liked Ada, invited her, along with my damalige girlfriend Abigail, to stay with us at the beach bungalow they had rented on Cape Cod. On that occasion, we swam, we played cards and, to occupy the hazy idleness of interminable seaside afternoons, we memorized baroque poetry from an anthology one of us had stumbled upon at a used bookshop.
Donna che si lava le gambe
Sovra basi d’argento in conca d’oro
io vidi due colonne alabastrine
dentro linfe odorate e cristalline
franger di perle un candido tesoro.
O (dissi) del mio mal posa e ristoro,
di Natura e d’Amor mète divine,
stabilite per ultimo confine
ne 1’Oceano de le dolcezze loro.
Fossi Alcide novel, chè i miei trofei
dove mai non giungesse uman desio
traspiantandovi in braccio erger vorrei.
0 stringer, qual Sanson, vi potess’io,
chè col vostro cader dolce darei
tomba a la morte e morte al dolor mio.
Contending with the crashing surf, we would yell this beautiful nonsense into the wind.
At the end of a long gravel drive, Ada’s grandfather’s stately home came into view. Northeast Harbor, Maine, is a place where moneyed WASPs from Philadelphia, like Ada’s mother’s family, come to summer. Ada was there for a family gathering, and maybe twenty people, kith and kin, were staying at the house. We were welcomed by Agamemnon, the lanky and elderly paterfamilias, and his much younger second wife Athamanthis, a bona fide Italian countess, no less, who sported a short bob and whose thick-rimmed glasses amplified her air of proprietorial aplomb. I ended up sharing a room with an entertainment lawyer from Los Angeles, who had quit his practice to become an opera singer. He suffered stoically from his not-so-secret unrequited love for one of the three blond sisters, of whom Ada’s mother, Chrysothemis, was the eldest. Chrysothemis was a plain, high-strung and overbearing woman, who worked as an economist. She had once single-mindedly hunted Ada’s father down and tracked him over several continents, such was his reticence and such her lust to acquire him. If he was a character by Nabokov, she was a foil out of Henry James. In literary terms, they were manifestly incompatible — and indeed, the marriage fell apart early during Ada’s childhood. Chrysothemis was now remarried to a singularly humourless and stodgy British Petroleum vice-president. The supporting cast included an impish entrepreneur from San Francisco, who was squiring the youngest and fairest of the blond sisters, and who insisted on peppering his conversation with Austin Powers impressions; it could also claim one of the directors of a famous cable series called something very like “Promiscuous Twats In New York” that was quite popular at the time, as well as a former Wall Street trader, who, having accumulated an obscene fortune, retired at the ripe old age of twenty seven to dedicate himself to the meritorious pursuits of shredding hard on the electric guitar, practicing “extreme” sports in exotic locales, and fashioning life-size wooden sculptures of large predators. So, we went sailing. And there was tennis. And the lovesick ex-entertainment lawyer taught us how to sing Blue Velvet in bel canto. And on Sunday morning, we solemnly sat through a soporific Episcopalian service given by a lady priest. And at one point there was a formal dinner, followed by an appeal to “liven things up” — in response to which, the boldest among us started to dance awkwardly, miming “fun” to the best of their ability. I thought it was terrific.
Some time later, the restless Ada ended up flying away to read biology at one of the old Spanish universities — one of those with gargoyles, saints, strange animals, and dancing skeletons carved into the stone facades. Later still, I went to visit her briefly at Cambridge, where, listlessly, she kept changing rooms, disciplines and boyfriends, withal under the gaze of malevolent gargoyles. In Berlin, she was caught up in some sort of existential crisis, never clearly outlined to me. It involved a drug-dealing lover and a large windfall, stipulated by a family trust, which she quickly squandered, perhaps fearing some sort of contamination. She came back here after that, and things just sort of fell apart. I don’t remember the exact sequence of events that lead to the dramatic discharge of the centrifugal forces that had always threatened her fragile core, but, for a while, she unravelled and, for a moment, was unable to gather herself again. I remember I couldn’t get in to see her in the psychiatric ward where she was confined. She had been arrested for dancing naked on her father’s front lawn — babbling incoherently, in the throws of a manic episode. At the time, I guessed that the proximate cause was something to do with a shift in her father’s allegiance. Indeed, while Ada was away in Europe, he had started cohabitating with a lady who turned out to be a manipulative slavic shrew. One who had no use for such a problematic step-daughter, and desired to eject this distraction from her partner’s life altogether, because she was jealous, and Ada represented a threat to her imperium. Alyosha’s attitude proved equivocal, and subsequently, in what from the outside seemed a rather shocking betrayal, or at least the symptom of some deep underlying unsoundness, he appeared to acquiesce to his new wife’s rule and became unavailable to his daughter. They would not speak again for years. In time, Ada did manage to recover however, sort of. She flirted with therapy for a while, and once the crisis had subsided, she actually contrived to obtain a law degree, of all things, to prove to her smart set American kin that she had become sensible once again. With this sacrifice to convention, she secured their weary sufferance and support. However, having never entertained the slightest intention of ever practicing law, she presently moved to British Columbia to live in a New Age ashram to practice yoga and meditation, and otherwise fill her days with the endless menial labor prescribed as discipline by that community for the next few years.
Ada is wonderfully alive and clever. She is very sensitive and has a great talent for inarticulate expression. I think she could have been a great actress, saying other people’s words, imbuing them with her vibrant bodily presence, her charisma and the raw feeling that is always so immediately accessible to her. But this would have required a wilful focus she could only intermittently manage. Having no solid ground to trod, the urge was just too strong to disperse her energies in a thousand flights, acting out wildly, grasping in vain for an ever elusive sense of freedom. She could have been a dancer or perhaps an artist: at one point, I remember, she made these poignant, feminine drawings composed of fragile lines and sudden bursts of color. They always seemed to be attempting to coalesce into some whole, but somehow falling short — like Ada, never quite escaping their childish, primal openness.
She left the ashram eventually, and she now lives somewhere lush and green and out of the way, on Vancouver Island. I think she has a job at a botanical nursery, or maybe she gives yoga lessons. I can never get a clear picture.