Were you in love with her?

The question is in a way meaningless, she knows, but one must ask. Love in such situations is rarely real. Sex is the engine, exalting and ruining people, sex and frustration. Love is what people believe is worth the path of devastation.

During the first part of your life, you only become aware of happiness once you have lost it. Then an age comes, a second one, in which you already know, at the moment when you begin to experience true happiness, that you are, at the end of the day, going to lose it. When I met Belle, I understood that I had just entered this second age. I also understood that I hadn’t reached the third age, in which anticipation of the loss of happiness prevents you from living.

Your only chance of survival, if you are sincerely smitten, lies in hiding this fact from the woman you love, of feigning a casual detachment under all circumstances. What sadness there is in this simple observation! What an accusation against man! However, it had never occurred to me to contest this law, nor to imagine disobeying it: love makes you weak, and the weaker of the two is oppressed, tortured and finally killed by the other, who in his or her turn oppresses, tortures and kills without having evil intentions, without even getting pleasure from it, with complete indifference; that’s what men, normally, call love.

‘They look so fine, and young, and wrapped up in each other. Love is so fresh and clean at that age. Don’t you think?’

‘Margareta! I’m surprised at you! We both know there’s no such thing as love!’

‘What do you call it?’

Tatyana snuffed our her cigarette. That sly smile. ‘Mutations of wanting.’

‘You’re not serious.’

‘I am quite serious. Look at those kids. The boys want to get the girls into bed so they can have their corks popped off their bottles and forth. When a man blows his nose you don’t call it love. Why get all misty-eyed when a man blows another part of his anatomy? As for the girls, they’re either going along for the ride because they can get the things they want from the boys, or else maybe they enjoy being in bed too. Thought I doubt it. I never knew an eighteen-year-old boy who didn’t drop the egg off his spoon at the first fence.’

‘But that’s list! You’re talking about lust, not love.’

‘Lust is the hard sell. Love is the soft sell. The profit margin is the same.’

‘But love’s the opposite of self-interest. True, tender, love is pure and selfless.’

‘No. True, tender love is self-interest so sinewy that it only looks selfless.’

Christ, he thinks, by my age I ought to know. You don’t get on by being original. You don’t get on by being bright. You don’t get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook; somehow he thinks that’s what Norris is, and he feels an irrational dislike taking root, and he tries to dismiss it, because he prefers his dislikes rational, but after all, these circumstances are extreme, the cardinal in the mud, the humiliating tussle to get him back in the saddle, the talking, talking on the barge, and worse, the talking, talking on his knees, as if Wolsey’s unravelling, in a great unweaving of scarlet thread that might lead you back into a scarlet labyrinth, with a dying monster at its heart.

But just as I didn’t want to resent my kids, I also didn’t want to find myself too much in love with them. There are parents who don’t like to hear their little girl crying at night, at the vast approaching dark of sleep, and so in their torment think why not feed her a lollipop, and a few years later that kid’s got seven cavities and a pulled tooth. This is how we’ve arrived at the point where we give every kid on the team a trophy in the name of participation. I didn’t want to love my kids so much that I was blind to their shortcomings, limitations, and mediocre personalities, not to mention character flaws and criminal leanings. But I could, I thought, I could love a kid that much. A kid really could be everything, and that scared me. Because once a kid is everything, not only might you lose all perspective and start proudly displaying his participation trophies, you might also fear for that kid’s life every time he leaves your sight. I didn’t want to live in perpetual fear. People don’t recover from the death of a child. I knew I wouldn’t. I knew that having a kid would be my chance to improve upon my shitty childhood, that it would be a repudiation of my dad’s suicide and a celebration of life, but if that kid taught me how to love him, how to love, period, and then I lost him as I lost my dad, that would be it for me. I’d toss in the towel. Fuck it, fuck this world and all its heartbreak. I’d tell that to Connie, and she’d tell me that if that was how I felt I was already a slave to the fear, and good luck.

In the hospital men’s room, as I’m washing my hands, I glance in the mirror. The man I see is not so much me as my father. When did he show up? There is no soap; I rub hand sanitizer into my face–it burns. I nearly drown myself in the sink trying to rinse it off.

My face is dripping, my shirt is wet, and the paper-towel dispenser is empty. Waiting to dry, I carve Jane’s name into the cinder-block wall with the car key.

A hospital worker almost catches me, but I head him off with a confrontation: “Why no paper towels?”

“We don’t use them anymore–sustainability.”

“But my face is wet.”

“Try toilet paper.”

I do–and it catches in the stubble of unshaven beard and I look like I’ve been out in a toilet-paper snowstorm.

Everything failed to subdue me. Soon everything seemed dull: another sunrise, the lives of heroes, failing love, war, the discoveries people made about each other. The only thing that didn’t bore me, obviously enough, was how much money Tim Price made, and yet in its obviousness it did. There wasn’t a clear, identifiable emotion within me, except for greed and possibly, total disgust. I had all the characteristics of a human being–flesh, blood, skin, hair–but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning. Something horrible was happening and yet I couldn’t figure out why–couldn’t put my finger on it. The only thing that calmed me was the satisfying sound of ice being dropped into a glass of J&B. Eventually I drowned the chow, which Evelyn didn’t miss; she didn’t even notice its absence, not even when I threw it in the walk-in freezer, wrapped in one of her sweaters from Bergdorf Goodman. We had to leave the Hamptons because I would find myself standing over our bed in the hours before dawn, with an ice pick gripped in my fist, waiting for Evelyn to open her eyes. At my suggestion, one morning over breakfast, she agreed, and on the last Sunday before Labor Day we returned to Manhattan by helicopter.

For although a man is judged by his actions, by what he has said and done, a man judges himself by what he is willing to do, by what he might have said, or might have done – a judgment that is necessarily hampered, bot only by the scope and limits of his imagination, but by the ever-changing measure of his doubt and self-esteem.

A secret always has a strengthening effect upon a newborn friendship, as does the shared impression than an external figure is to blame: the men of the Crown have become united less by their shared beliefs, we observe, than by their shared misgivings–which are, in the main, externally directed. In their analyses, variously made, of Alastair Lauderback, George Shepard, Lydia Wells, Francis Carver, Anna Wetherell, and Emery Staines, the Crown men have become more and more suggestive, despite the fact that nothing has been proven, no body has been tried, and no new information has come to light. Their beliefs have become more fanciful, their hypotheses less practical, their counsel less germane. Unconfirmed suspicion tends, over time, to become wilful, fallacious, and prey to the vicissitudes of mood–it acquires all the qualities of common superstition–and the men of the Crown Hotel, whose nexus of allegiance is stitched, after all, in the bright thread of time and motion, have, like all men, no immunity to influence.