Claude Monet, Le Pont d’Argenteuil (1874, detail)
Leaving Small’s Hotel
listen:there’s a hell
of a good universe next door;let’s go
e. e. cummings
WHEN THINGS GO WRONG, I sometimes wish that I were someone else, somewhere else, living a different life. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that you sometimes feel that way, too. In my case, it isn’t necessarily a better life that I wish for—my life is rich, surprising, and, on the whole, quite pleasant, and I recognize that—but a different life, in the hope that by studying the differences I might learn something, not only about my life but about myself and even about my place in “it all,” in the scheme of things, in all that is, and in the hope that by measuring my own life against another I will be reminded of the specific bits and pieces that give mine the flavor I used to enjoy and so come to enjoy it again every bit as much as I once did. I suppose that all I want, really, is to be away from my life long enough to grow homesick for it, so that I will want to return to it, to pick it up where I left it off and carry on with a renewed appetite for it, with renewed vigor and stiffened resolve. I want a vacation, in other words. I want, for a while, to vacate the place where I presently dwell and inhabit some other place, as some other self.
For years, I have found these other places and other selves within myself, in my imagination. It is the cheapest place to visit, the nearest getaway, and I go there often, with the result that there are so many other selves residing there now that when I make the inward leap, I find all those other selves there waiting for me, clamoring to tell me what they’ve been up to while I’ve been back at home trying to keep Small’s Hotel from collapsing into a pile of old lumber. Like a family reunion, these visits can bring on a headache, and sometimes I find myself packing my bags and heading back to Small’s Island before I had intended to go, pleading the thousand things that I have to do at home, arguing that the tide is favorable, the time is right, and when I have returned I find that the trick has worked, that I’ve been refreshed, that I see my life in a different light, that I’m ready for the next thing, as ready as I’ll ever be.
I have used that trick, the inward leap to somewhere else, for as long as I can remember, but I have another, younger, trick up my sleeve, a trick that I discovered about thirty-five years ago, when I was a young man temporarily stuck in a romantic funk. (I had originally intended this romantic funk as a kind of costume, to add a little mystery to the first impression that I made, but like the grotesque faces that our mothers warn us against making, I had gotten stuck with it and couldn’t figure out how to get rid of it.) I was sitting on a bench at the town dock, trying to drift into one of my other selves, when, instead, another self came drifting into me. A long time passed before I realized that I had made an outward leap instead of an inner one, that I had imagined yet another self, but this time a self who assumed that he had imagined me. Over the years I have developed this other, outer, self into an alter ego and persona who, within his world, has devoted himself to the exploration and elaboration of my world and my self, for motives much like mine, since for him my world and my self are another place, another self, a vacation. He has become a useful fiction, but much more than that—don’t think me mad for saying this—a friend.
Here is his standard version of the story of our first meeting:
I first met Peter Leroy one cold afternoon in the winter of 1962, in Lamont Library at Harvard, where I was a sophomore. I was sitting in a chair at a large table, studying a German lesson. I had my chair tilted back, my legs crossed, with my feet up on the edge of the table and the German textbook in my lap. The library was crowded, the room was warm, and I was tired. I dozed.
When I woke up, I was lying on the floor. My books were scattered around me, people were laughing, and I was embarrassed. I gathered my things and rushed out of the library, and in the cold air the memory of a dream returned to me. In the dream, or at least in the memory of the dream, I saw an island, a small one, and on that island a nameless little boy sitting on a dilapidated dock in the sunny warmth of a summer day, dabbling his feet in the water, playing a game: he was trying to bring the soles of his bare feet as close as he could to the surface of the water without touching it. The memory of that dream has never left me, and even all these years later the dream and the world that has grown from it continue to surprise me. The center of that world is Peter Leroy, the character who grew from the little boy on the dilapidated dock.
I have told that story so many times now, altering the details in the telling, that I’m no longer certain which parts of it are facts and which are inventions, but the point of the story has never changed, and that point is its single essential fact, its truth: that the memory of that dream has never left me, and that even all these years later the dream and the world that has grown from it continue to surprise me.
My version is a little different. One cold winter afternoon, I was sitting on a bench at the town dock, looking toward Small’s Island, feeling desperate and alone, and I let myself drift into a daydream. In the dream, I was about seven. I was sitting on the dilapidated dock on the island, in front of the abandoned hotel, dabbling my feet in the water. A sudden sound surprised me, and I raised my head. There, in front of me, not more than a few yards away, was a young man in a rowboat, staring at me. He wore a puzzled look. I waved and smiled. He seemed to be astonished to see me, and at first I couldn’t understand why, but then I began to realize that it was because he hadn’t expected to see me in his daydream any more than I had expected to see him in mine, and that is when I understood that he and I were having the same dream.
That night, lying in bed, I figured out what must have happened. On that cold winter afternoon I somehow insinuated myself into the mind of the young man I saw in the rowboat, a student at the time, dozing over a German lesson in a college library, sitting in a chair propped precariously on its back legs. Suddenly he woke up and found that he’d fallen to the floor. People were laughing, and he was embarrassed, so he gathered his things and rushed out of the library. Outside, in the cold air, the memory of a dream returned to him, surprising him. He recalled seeing a little boy sitting on a dock in the summer sun, dabbling his feet in the water: me.
I have been living in his mind ever since. He calls me Peter Leroy. I call him Eric Kraft. He thinks he invented me. I think I invented him. He thinks that his interpretation of the facts is correct, but I am convinced that my interpretation is correct, since from my point of view all the evidence tells me that it must be true. From his point of view, matters are a little different, something like the situation that he suggests when he begins readings from my work with this invitation:
Imagine, please, an island, a small one, not in some pellucid subtropical sea, but in a gray bay, shallow, often cold, and on the island imagine an old hotel, where an aging dreamer, Peter Leroy, lives with his beautiful wife, Albertine Gaudet.
Albertine runs the hotel, and Peter spends much of each day sitting in a room on the top floor, writing The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences & Observations of Peter Leroy, his life story.
If you could look over his shoulder and watch him at work, you would be likely to find that he was re-writing an episode from his past, making of his life a story that it never was, because when he reminisces he finds that he’s as interested in the possibilities as he is in the facts, and also because memory, like an old radio receiver, picks up a lot of static.
It is a curious kind of partnership, Kraft & Leroy. The usual descriptions—author and character, ventriloquist and dummy, left brain and right brain—are inaccurate and inadequate. When we were just beginning to work together, Kraft may have thought that in me he had merely found a way to write about himself, and I may have thought that I had found a ventriloquist who was willing to play the straight man while I got the laughs, but as time has passed, each of us has found himself liberated by the other, and each of us has found that to a certain degree he has become what he is through the agency of the other. We are not the same person, though we share a mind.
In the thirty-five years that have passed since that afternoon in the library, there have been many days when he has wished that he lived where I live, on Small’s Island, days when the world he lives in has disgusted him and he would have liked to live apart from it, in this little spot that he supposes he has imagined for me, a place where he imagined that I was living an ideal life (though it has turned out to be the case that boats leak and bills come due in my world as often as in his). In a sense, of course, he has lived here, in what is for him that other place, a place apart from the place where he really lives, for at least a little while every day, because he has come to think of “Peter Leroy” as the name he gives to his imagination, and of “Small’s Island” as the place within his mind where his imagination resides, and every morning, when he takes his place at his computer, he goes there, comes here. Sometimes the trip is easy, and sometimes it takes him a while, and sometimes worrying over the household budget or some other crap keeps him within himself for a long time, but he always manages to break free eventually, and when you turn the page, you will find that he has made the inward leap, that he’s exchanged the painful world of time and place for the world of immortal hilarity, that he’s escaped to Small’s Island. I think he’s on his way here now. You come too.
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