Ann; “Death and the Maiden”

by David Lazar


When OJ Simpson was leading the police on the errant chase on that freeway in L.A., I was in Madison Square Garden in New York, at the famous Knicks playoff game where the monitors switched to the chase, to our astonishment, but it didn’t register as surreally or wildly as it might have otherwise because I had been in the middle of telling my brother about Ann.

I was a young professor, thirty-seven, and she was an older doctoral student, thirty-four, and we had fallen for each other, and I thought it was going to be a big deal, in the way you know that someone is going to come into your life and the tectonics are going to change. I thought she might just be the girl for me, excuse the language, and was all aquiver in telling my brother the news, must have felt, I suppose in thinking back on it now, rather certain about my feelings, and about it, which is to say the prospects of where this new thing was headed.

Ann killed herself about a year and a half ago. The details are vague, because no one seems terribly willing to yield them up. She had attempted suicide a few years before, slitting her wrists, but she was discovered or didn’t quite go through with it—I’m not quite remembering which. It was serious enough for hospitalization—terrible, terrible, but not life-threatening, at least not the cuts.

She had been on a downward trajectory for years.

I haven’t been able to quite stop thinking about her, or to quite think about her since I heard about her death: the once promising career, writing about Virginia Woolf, that heavy eastern Kentucky accent, laden with irony and graceful goodwill. Her extraordinary recklessness. Her generosity. A bit like Zelda Fitzgerald gone in self-immolation. She was manic-depressive, as probably was Zelda. She looked a bit like Zelda, gamine and dark-eyed. When I say I haven’t been able to quite think about her I mean that as much as she comes into my mind a kind of creaturely sharp pain accompanies the thought of her, and I jump away as though I had lain my hand on a hot stove.

Twenty years ago, an affair du coeur between a professor and a graduate student not her or his own was not much of a deal in many places. In some places, geographical outposts, even encouraged. Younger, post-internet readers perhaps won’t quite understand the human urgencies of being alone and being isolated among rolling hills and aging colleagues in the earlier days of academe. To this sector of audience, the emotional premise of my memory might seem politically nauseating. What can I say except I understand, times change, etc. People communed where possible, even when the tincture of taboo tinted the edges of relation. They still do.

We met furtively at first, after a series of notes she had sent me towards the end of a seminar. We did meet, I must stress, after the seminar ended. But, and I suppose this is among the reasons I turn to writing these things, to see what repressed details show their hoary heads, I remember now that she was actually separated, and moving towards a divorce from her third husband. But they hadn’t actually, which is to say formally, made plans to divorce yet. That, no doubt, was part of our film noirish meetings in back alleys and cheap motels. It was one thing to date an available graduate student of one’s own age. Quite another to be perceived (albeit wrongly) as a homewrecker, sharpest edge of a triangle.

We decided to go for a road trip. We would go to Louisville, Kentucky, to see George Carlin, and stay in the Brown Hotel. What could be more alluring: how could I refuse a hotel whose history contains Lily Pons, Al Jolson, Marie of Romania, and Joan Crawford? I was hooked. I remember nothing of the drive there. And I do remember George Carlin then (this would have been around 1995) as harsh, funny, brilliant. I loved all his phases, even his dark, more existentially accusatory last phase. The drive back from Louisville to Athens, Ohio, was kaleidoscopically strange. Ann talked, virtually without pause, for the entire ten hours. I remember trying, at various times, to get a word, a question, a pithy aside in, to virtually no avail. She was the Louisville Southern Railroad and nothing was going to derail her. At the end of ten completely confusing hours, I felt like my head was going to explode; we finally made it back to my house in Ohio. Ann crashed, badly. Inconsolable, on my bed, she could only speak about the blackness of the world and how miserably unnecessary most things in life were.

Well, the virtue of love, one supposes, is sympathy. I didn’t bail as she told me that she was bipolar, since of course that was beyond her control, and she had been the person I had fallen for, which the scary blip in the car didn’t seem to have altered. But a second item concerned me more: she had been prescribed lithium, but didn’t want to take it because she put on weight on lithium. As she put it in her eastern Kentucky accent, “Honey, it makes my stomach all poochy.” I never liked that last word; it sounded like she had a small dachshund in there.

This (1995) was before the flood of memoirs, articles, etc…about bipolarity, so I was only vaguely aware of what it meant. I imagine I looked it up. I know we talked about it quite a bit, Ann and me. I also know that she was adamant about not treating it clinically, despite her own misgivings about doing so. Like many manic-depressives, she was more than a little addicted to her mania, despite the price she paid with her depression. I have hundreds of pages of letters that she wrote to me—this was still the era of physical correspondence, and Ann was both intellectually and emotionally engaged with the epistle, Woolf’s, Millay’s, her own, and would pour out letter after letter to me, really lovely missives, at first, before, over the three years we spent together, they turned, first melancholy, then accusatory, occasionally incoherent, at times, rarely, strange, spooky. While never explicitly self-threatening, there was a just-wasn’t-made-for-these-times, shouldn’t-be-here note she would hit, which would give me chills. When we would reconcile, she would laugh it all off: “Honey, don’t make too much of it.”

It’s almost too painful to admit this, but I had a glimmer that she was dead from Facebook. This was about two years ago, and she and I hadn’t spoken for about a year, but had thrown a few messages back and forth about how we were overdue, as though we were desultory library books that someone had forgotten to levy fines on. A post on her webpage had struck a valedictory note that gave me pause, and there hadn’t been any other posts for a long time. I’ll tell you exactly what I did: I went to Google, and typed in Ann ______ obituary and it came right up, the details of her death, the service in Ashland, Kentucky, at the Lazar funeral home. I really did think I had snapped for a moment. Then, what’s a Lazar doing in Ashland, Kentucky. As they say, as we say, you can’t write this stuff. But more to the point, there was that sudden feeling that something is missing in the world that you suspected had been missing in the world. It isn’t quite confirmation; it’s more like a very sudden and ruthless sense that your teenaged angst-ridden feeling that absolutely nothing mattered was completely to the point. A feeling of nothingness, absolute degree zero.

Things started to fall apart between us rather quickly. Rather than take her lithium, Ann self-medicated with drinking. And, I’ll tell you, I joined the party. We drank like the proverbial fishes. There were wonderful nights. Lots of sex, lots of talk. Lots of music and dancing. But also: lots of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. After a while, I think we refined bitter repartee down to the point where Albee had nothing on us. We even had the missing child, since I very much wanted one, and she couldn’t have one, and refused to consider the idea of adopting one. And what would any relationship purgatory be without a parade of others. I think Ann knew, fairly early, that her instability was difficult for me to hold onto. So, like any R(r)omantic, she went all out to make things impossible.

Polymorphous Ann, in a state you’d kiss a telephone pole, while looking over your shoulder to see if I were witnessing it in sorrow or pain. Can you imagine the scenes? Have you versions of your own? They were intense and recriminatory and full of a sense of the inevitable. I remember trudging off to a party one night after a particularly cute ronde of accusations, whose against whose escapes me, but we were determined to socialize in the way that younger people think that socializing while miserable is part of some dark gospel of experience. Our general dark economy of failure and heartbreak meant that I could usually get the better of her (though just) through daggers of insinuation and insult, whereas she would always one-up me through behavioral outrageousness. In short, no matter what I would say to try to let some of the blood drain from my wounds (and in the process from her heart) she could do something to wound me further, deeper, more painfully. At this particular party (which could have been Anyparty) no sooner did I have my coat off, reaching, rather desperately, for my first drink of the night—there, I should specify—than I noted one of my colleague’s arms around her, stroking her back, her head leaning towards or into him. Feeling my gaze, the point, of course, she turned and gave me one of those looks, or rather, not one of, because I think of it as distinctly hers, so heartbreaking was it, so incapable was I of responding to it at the time, a look that would have done Henry James proud, part hopeful, and part self-loathing, part pleading and part lower grade spite. In the spirit of sinking to the occasion, I shrugged a shoulder and turned away, walked off. Is there such a thing as having the final gesture? What’s final, after all? I suppose when I spotted them making out in his car later that night I might have asked the same question.

Writing this makes me queasy, I hope for obvious reasons. Not because I care particularly about giving details about my own brazen bad behavior. Well, brazen? I was in the middle of an insoluble dilemma, seeing a wild, wonderful woman who wouldn’t control her demons, her mischemistry. If ever anyone I’ve known had a sense of determinism, a fatalistic sense that things were going to go badly, it was Ann. In this, however, or the way she carried this, she was very nouvelle vague-ish, very light on the we’re all damned so let’s all have a damn good time. She managed to pull it off because she meant it, because she was sincere. It didn’t come across as a superficial quality, her carpe diem. And I’m not reading backwards from her death. I’m reading backwards from a closely remembered sense that her death was waiting up ahead, not very far up ahead, for her to be cast in its light. She was a post mortem avant la lettre, but with a kind of wicked gaiety. It you’ve never been around anyone who created that kind of dark vortex, of wit and energy, of the world as our own small apocalypses just waiting to collapse on us, of the contradictory pressures of having to actually succeed at something colliding with a sense of the utter temporal meaninglessness of trying to do much of anything, you may have some sense of the cosmic charge of their pull, why that hand of theirs reaching out of the whirlpool seems more attractive as a way to be pulled in than as a moral imperative to save the drowning, though that, too, is listed on your day’s list of things to do. But when they hand you your glass of bourbon and sit in your lap and say, “So, honey, let’s talk about us, and Orlando, and the end of the world,” you’re hard-pressed not to set your stopwatch to Finis. This was her effect on me, a sense of not caring about consequence or time. It was liberating and horrifying, destructive, intense.

We really liked each other. We were quite hot for each other. After some dark night of the relational soul, when things were said that never should have been thought, and one of us had threatened to leave for our cars, after three or seven martinis or shots of Jack Daniels—rather vain threat, or was it, those were the days when I still might have done something that stupid—she would break the tension with a sexual tease, some honey-dripped request to scratch her back, or she would merely start laughing, which would infect my infected rage, and break it.

One time she came with me back to New York, a family visit, and we planned a day walking around the city, museums and such. She wore high black heels, which I suggested was a bad idea. “Honey, I can’t walk around New York in anything less than stylish shoes.” By the end of the day, she couldn’t walk, feet cramped, I, well I was younger and full of reasons to be pissed off. You can be angry about anything if you’re tending toward anger with someone. Nothing much will make you angry if you don’t want to be angry. Oh, the delightful perquisites of age. I was annoyed as she walked barefoot down 6th Avenue toward Penn Station, an image I now find equally winsome, delightful, heartbreaking. My own inability, at the time, to be charmed, though I haven’t the slightest doubt I wanted to be and wouldn’t let myself, is beyond unnerving. And you can’t reminisce apologetically with her. But to whom am I speaking, other than a sentimentally guilty conscience.

One year I gathered my family in Ohio for Thanksgiving, the only time we’ve been together for the holiday in the thirty-five years since my mother’s death. This overweighs the story from the outset, but that was my experience. I cooked everything, for fifteen people. I should have known trouble lay ahead. I mean, how many movies had I seen? My father and his wife arrived first and a freak snowstorm hit. They decided to walk in the picturesque paths near my house; except that five feet away from the house, my father’s wife slipped and broke her wrist. Emergency room. Weekend in pain.

Ann arrived with a good head start on being pickled. That part’s ok—I drink during the holidays. Sometimes I think the best thing about the holidays is an excuse for having a drink in the afternoon. Sometimes I don’t need an excuse for having a drink in the afternoon, but during the holidays it’s like a free pass. But Ann started hitting the bourbon hard after that. My most vivid memory of the day was of being in the kitchen, adjacent to the dining room, where everyone had started gathering, and cracking the door to see what was up. Ann was sitting astraddle a chair, skirt hitched up, and I caught her saying, to my father, REALLY LOUDLY, “I don’t see the problem with my dating a Jew.”

I closed the door and grabbed a bottle myself. The only other thing I remember is getting her a ride home early, and a slightly wounded expression she gave me—kind of toasted, sardonic and hurt.

Why am I writing about Ann? Why am I thinking about Ann? Guilt is a privilege of the living. And it’s certainly one of my defaults, one of the feels I leap towards, or is it crawl into, whenever pressed, even when or perhaps especially when the pressing is internal. An old familiar, and yes, in some ways an easy one. I’ve always argued that going towards darker feelings too quickly, too easily, is just as sentimental as Hallmark brightness. Why do I feel so automatically guilty about Ann, why for example in this essay, while mentioning her wildness, her mania, skimming over what became a kind of tic towards betrayal (“I only fuck you over because I love you so much, and I’m afraid I can’t really have you”) do I feel like I betrayed her, that I’m somehow responsible for the hole I feel in the world, the absence of her, even though we were not so much in touch.

It isn’t that we were not so much in touch. Nor do I think I’m suffering from the delusion that I could have “saved” her, though I may be in a bit of denial about that. After we broke up, I had one of my scariest dreams ever. I was in my house, with the woman I was going to marry (rather quickly), and later divorce (rather belatedly), and dreamed that Ann was something like a witch, or perhaps a daemon, a very powerful and dark spirit who was trying to break into, or gain entry into, the house. The entire house was surrounded by the suffocating air of her presence, and the door was creaking at her hot breath, which would melt the locks. Should she enter, terrible things would happen. That’s what so awful about the dream, the lack of specificity—terrible, terrible things would happen, like I had never experienced before, and all would become horror, and loss.

Just as the door was giving way, I woke up. And the house was quiet, and the woman next to me was quietly sleeping. Ann was miles away, in her bed. The woman next to me would cause me much more harm than the figure in my dreams.

But Ann figured for me…as a loss of control. I have managed, barely, to keep things together through the years of my adult life—doing all the things one needs to do. And I think the face I show to the world is a very functional one. Yet I frequently feel as though I were a breath away from losing it, and I’ve wondered all my adult life what it would be like to let all caution, all responsibility, all care for self and public esteem go. I seem to have gravitated frequently to people who were very irresponsible. My dear friend Tony, dead this spring of a heart attack—and he just a month younger than I—spent much of the last thirty years wearing down his body with vodka. First he was just drinking a lot. Then he was married with kids and was passing out in the street. There were interventions, rehabs, and he couldn’t keep a job or finish his degree and he just kept falling and falling and breaking things and turning his insides into a stew. And he died alone of a heart attack in a motel in Vermont a few months ago. He called me drunk all the time. He called all his friends drunk all the time. We stopped taking the calls because who had the time to hear Tony go on and on and not listen to a word you’d said. But he’d sober up and we’d talk and I’d see him when I went to New York, at his apartment on 9th St.

Once I tried to surprise him on New Year’s Eve. The doorman shook his head and waved me in. Tony’s doorway was ajar and I found him naked on the floor, moaning like Caliban, looking like Caliban, bloated and dirty. I got him covered and over to the sofa. We talked for a bit. And I said, “Tony, you have to clean up.” That was it. As messed up as he was, he threw me out.

But we talked a few days later. When you know someone for decades, it’s like that.

Have I been a flaneur of some of my own darkest impulses with some of my friends and a woman I’ve loved, being close enough to my own worst case scenarios to feel their hot breath, while watching others take the heat? That, too, would be too hard on myself, and thus too easy, though it’s also not completely untrue as my own psychic précis.

After Ann and I moved into a post-relationship but still who knows what’s going on state, I was in a rather dark place. I may have left a lot of bottles at her place, but I hardly left the bottle. Trying not to hit something in the road (like a projection of her face over Myrna Loy’s? Or a vision of her walking into a room with her cheekbones flaring?) I flipped my car three times and almost died. I was on my way to a liaison with another woman, but I had them call her and my best friend from the hospital. Apparently, I do have a bit of a problem with guilt. When the doctor came to sew up the cut over my eye, I told him not to use any anesthesia (I was still in shock). They all looked at me like I was mad.

Occasionally, after a cooling down period, while I still lived in Ohio, I would meet Ann for lunch. And then she moved back to Kentucky, too distracted to keep working on the PhD, got a job at a high school, was fired. We talked on the phone occasionally. She was funny, incredibly sweet, every time sounding a little more broken. She’d always say that her craziness with me was her biggest regret, which was, I think, supposed to make me feel better, but somehow always made me feel worse.

Ann, I think, felt the sting of her lost promise. As I and a few of the people who loved her do. But disappointing oneself is worse than anything else. She fled to Florida, was seeing a considerably older physician, in whose bathroom, apparently, she attempted to cut her wrists. She survived that, with a sense of ignominy added on to everything else.

She would always ask about my son, and with a genuine interest and sweetness that always made me think of her insistence that she didn’t want children. But then I have to remind myself that there is a difference between not wanting children and thinking oneself incapable of raising them. Most of the people I know who are choosing childlessness are doing so because they simply do not want children, a perfectly respectable choice, if one inimical to my own essential emotional character. If anything in my life has given me consistent joy and satisfaction, it’s childrearing. I’ve, arguably, been a bit of a washout at relationships, at least romantic relationships. But I seem to be pretty good at the parenting thing.

Ann, however, thought herself an impossible mother. I forget that. And I think at the time of our relationship I fused or confused that with some hostility to kids. Absurd. She was lovely with kids. But in her imagination she would have ended up the crazy mother, incapable of caring for her charge, or charges. Who knows which of our decisions are sane, self-knowing appraisals of our shortcomings, and which are self-rationalizing justifications of what we really want? Half the time they overlap. Or as Yogi Berra might say, “half the time they’re seventy-five percent the same thing.”

We talked, but then there were gaps. I’m sure you have your own versions of this. Friendship, relational sinkholes where people you care about still manage to disappear, drop away for periods of time as you attend to your children, your books, your winter clothes and your mortgages. It was during a fall, a winter when I was listlessly trying to get in touch with her when I found out that there would be no more getting in touch with her. This is a new category of social experience, the Facebook memento mori, and it makes me queasy I must say, the way pages linger on after death like newspaper stories from the past that people can make continual addenda to, but why . . . I understand the argument that they remain as monuments of a sort, although I think of a rather desultory sort. An editor of mine lingers on in my contacts after death, as do Ann and one or two others, their pages a form of accidental literary cryogenics.

Someone had written something on Ann’s page about not forgetting her. That’s what sent me racing to the obituaries, marked with my own name.

I’ve been listening to “Death and the Maiden” as I write this. I listen to Schubert a reasonable amount, the Winterreise, the Impromptus…and I was reminded of how much I loved the Quintet in D minor recently when I was watching Crimes and Misdemeanors with my son. It’s so muscular in its tragic overtones, and so unrelenting in its oceanic grief, its continually enlarging beauty of unknowing that signifies the end, which is the end of music. The motif began as early as 1517, in Hans Baldung Grien’s “Death and the Maiden,” a mournful young woman pulled by her hair by the skeleton of doom, and then there are countless variations through the Renaissance, in the Romantic era . . . One of my favorites is Adolf Hering’s “Death and the Maiden” (1900), in which the scantily clad fin de siècle nymph is in a swoon, about to be romantically devoured by the black shrouded figure, the Ur-mourner who devours what he wants, Death as Dracula, an obvious connection, turning our fears of dissolution into, ironically, a gothic nightmare of endless life. Talk about displacement.

Speaking of displacement, in Crimes and Misdemeanors, the difficult woman, the troubled woman, is killed by Martin Landau, the Jewish man, to the strains of “Death and the Maiden.” Unlike the character of Judas, I haven’t killed anyone, but ironically, while Judas realizes that he can shake off his burden of guilt in a Godless world, continue with his life, his family, I find my own sense of guilt less labile, more burdensome. The older I get, the less interested I find myself in changing feelings that, even if harrowing, are still somehow true to my essential nature, or some part of a series of experiences that jive with my sense of emotional necessity. One could say I want to keep feeling them because feeling them seems emotionally right, even if neurotic in a classic sense, and thus truer to me. Does this classify them as “sentimental” according to my earlier definition? Perhaps.

I feel responsible for Ann’s death, as though if she hadn’t met me she would have been better off. Yes, who can possibly know this kind of thing? Who can rewind and untangle the currents of necessity and self-determination? Who can predict the pitiless fortunes or absurd graces of those who come into and out of our orbits? Who can keep friends and lovers alive when they won’t take their medicine or won’t put down their bottles? Who can forgive in just the right measure, and with transcendent language? Seriously, tell me—I mean it. I’m easy to find. I spend half my days sitting around waiting for a knock on the door, someone standing there with a paper full of accusations. They would always all be just.

DAVID LAZAR was a Guggenheim Fellow in Nonfiction for 2015-16. His books include the just published I’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays and Aphorisms from the University of Nebraska Press, Who’s Afraid of Helen of Troy, After Montaigne, Occasional Desire: Essays, The Body of Brooklyn, Truth in Nonfiction, Essaying the Essay, Powder Town, Michael Powell: Interviews, and Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher. Eight of his essays have been “Notable Essays of the Year” according to Best American Essays. He created the PhD program in nonfiction writing at Ohio University and directed the creation of the undergraduate and M.F.A. programs in Nonfiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago where he is Professor of Creative Writing. He is founding editor of the literary magazine Hotel Amerika, now in its seventeenth year, and series editor, with Patrick Madden, of 21st Century Essays, at Ohio State University Press.