“Parentheticals” by Tim Tomlinson

Touch 5, John Tomlinson

1. The Book I Read

I lived in the apartment below the philosophy professor and his wife, the painter. He had written several famous books; she exhibited in respected galleries. I imagined their apartment to be wall-to-wall books, interspersed with original paintings. It was the kind of apartment I imagined I’d inhabit someday, even if that day seemed very far off and I had no idea how I’d get there. From an earlier marriage, the philosophy professor had a daughter. She had short hair and short skirts and looked like Jean Seberg in Breathless. Sometimes she and the philosophy professor walked arm in arm up the hill toward Broadway, pressing books against their chests as they leaned into the wind. They’d laugh at how hard the wind made it to climb the hill. I thought, I’d like to have a daughter like that—someone I could laugh with at the silly things. And I thought I’d like to have a father like the philosophy professor—someone with big ideas but who could still find pleasure in everyday challenges. At the university, I’d seen men’s room graffiti about the philosophy professor and his daughter, what they did with each other. It struck me as crude and unfair.

One day the daughter knocked at my door. I was playing the Talking Heads song “The Book I Read,” and she wanted to talk about the song. So did I. We had a long, meaningful discussion from afternoon to early evening. It touched on many significant points. I suggested how good it would be if her father the philosopher were with us. He’d have interesting philosophies to share. I mentioned the crude graffiti I’d seen in the university men’s room, how unfair I thought it was. She shrugged. They had seen it, too. It didn’t bother them, she said. She pointed to my T-shirt. It showed a picture of my favorite Rolling Stone, Brian Jones (deceased), sneering at the camera. “You want to trade?” she said, holding out the hem of her t-shirt. Hers was the Mapplethorpe portrait of Patti Smith that appears on Horses. I liked it well enough, not as much as my Brian Jones, but I said OK. What she did then, well, I still think about it. Without hesitation, she pulled the t-shirt right over her head. She wore nothing underneath. She was petite, small breasts, but not boyish. There was no mistaking what she was. That happened in my kitchen. It had grown pretty dark, and I hadn’t turned on any lights. Still, I lived on the ground floor. What would someone walking up the hill think, I wondered, if they looked in? I thought they’d think: How could that clown get so lucky? I hoped they did look in and think that. She didn’t seem to think anything. She handed me her shirt the way you’d hand a cashier a book; I handed her mine, then she went back upstairs. For the next hour or so I heard her walking around up there. I stared at the ceiling trying to picture where she was, the books around her, the paintings.

I saw her a couple more times after that, walking with her father up the windy hill, always carrying books. Later she moved to Berlin and published her own book—a memoir about growing up in New York City with a philosopher father. For her author photo, she posed in front of graffiti on the Berlin Wall. The graffiti struck me as crude, but I couldn’t read it. I had the impression that she could. Below an unbuttoned blazer she wore my Brian Jones t-shirt. In that way, I became immortal.

2. A Psychiatrist in Lower Manhattan

I knew a psychiatrist who lived in Lower Manhattan. His office was in his home, and his home had no windows. It was in one of those vast characterless buildings whose base seemed as wide and as square as the four blocks that enclosed it. Its interior apartments were vast as well, but all that space came with the drawback of no natural light. Across from the building, past a narrow sliver of park lined by benches facing the avenues, was J&R Music World. If his apartment had windows, the psychiatrist said, he could raise one and hit J&R with a paper plane, it was that close. He walked over there nearly every day. He visited the formidable classical music section, and on most days he walked off with several new purchases. He loved opera, orchestral music, vocal music, early music, keyboard instrumentals, classical contemporary—all of it, so he could always be convinced by one of the clerks that there was a recording he needed to own. On nice days he’d take his purchases to one of the benches in that narrow sliver of park, slip the cellophane off the discs or box, and study the liner notes or any inner matter provided. He especially liked to study the opera boxes, which often came with the libretto printed in three or more languages. The psychiatrist spoke Italian and German, some French, a little Russian. He liked to read the record company translations. He liked to see how closely their translations matched the ones he might have done had he been the translator. He knew most of the operas’ stories and many of their libretti well enough to essay translation from the original language into English and some English (Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, for instance) into Italian or German.

The psychiatrist shared his windowless home with his wife, a visual artist. She made installations. She might pile something in the corner of a gallery floor—laundry or garbage (which she called “found objects”)—and that would be the installation. She made other objects, too, things out of clay or yarn or canvas. Some things she nailed to plywood boards and hung around the windowless rooms. None were aesthetically pleasing, at least not in the sense of beauty. They might have been aesthetically pleasing in the sense of idea. One of the rooms in the windowless apartment was her studio. In some respects, it resembled the room of a child, the kind of child who never picks up after herself. She said that she would probably paint, would probably have been a painter, if her studio had windows, but without windows there is no light, at least no light worth painting. And if nothing else, she said, painting was about light. So was psychoanalysis, her husband said, but she disagreed. She said it must be about something else because her husband practiced excellent psychoanalysis despite the absence of light in his office.

In the room the psychiatrist used as his den—half a city block, it seemed, from his office—he kept a stereo system made of state-of-the-art components from Germany and Austria and Japan. His speakers—a pair of them—were the size of refrigerators. His amplifier and pre-amp powered them to the extent that, he was certain, they could be heard all the way down in Coney Island, where he was born and from which he escaped. Once he played Maria Callas singing “Casta Diva” for me—it made my jacket appear as if I was walking into a strong wind. The cilia in my ears remained down for days. In rock, he conjectured, only The Who could have played louder. I was thankful he didn’t have any Who or any rock for that matter. It was all classical for the psychiatrist.

I often wondered about the effect of living with no windows. Actually, I didn’t wonder; I felt quite certain that the effect would be negative. It certainly was, I believed, for the psychiatrist’s children: a boy, three, who was allergic to everything including his mother’s milk and a girl, six, who might come home from the park with a rock and hand it to you saying, Here, I brought you this rock from the park, to which you might say, Oh, gee, well thank you, and put it in your pocket since there were no windows through which you might throw it away.

Door Escape 6, John Tomlinson

3. Winona Ryder

There are women in New York City who look just like the women you see in movies. Beautiful, ethereal, sultry, soulful. I see them through the windows of my bus. They’re talking on phones or pulling carry-on luggage or looking down the avenue for the Uber that’s coming to cart them away. I see them and understand why people want to live in New York City, the men at least. They come for all the beautiful women, the beautiful women who look like the beautiful women they’ve fallen in love with in movies. Some of them, no doubt, are the beautiful women they’ve fallen in love with in movies.

Once, at a yoga studio in Lower Manhattan, I changed from street clothes to yoga shorts in the same changing room as Gwyneth Paltrow. This was before Paltrow won the Academy Award, before Goop, before she became the insulated bubble-dwelling dope everyone loves to hate with a kid she named Apple. So being in that room with her, watching while trying not to watch the utterly casual way she peeled her tank top over her head…I mean, you can imagine. And if it had happened in the days of iPhones you wouldn’t have to imagine, you’d be looking at an iPhoto. In my mind’s eye I practically am looking at an iPhoto—the smooth golden length of that immaculate body with its demure breasts (that I think Ben Affleck was sucking at the time)—tattooed, as it were, on my mental retina. Yoga practice, I guess it was supposed back then, would neutralize lecherous gawking. This was years before all the scandals with John Friend and Pattabhi Jois and Bikram Choudhury slapping their dicks against crevices in uttanasana.

Another time I saw Winona Ryder in the Strand a couple of years after her conviction for shoplifting. I didn’t follow her around, as such, but I did try to get a glimpse at whatever book titles grabbed her attention (two I remember were The Girl Who Played with Fire and Collapse). She caught me looking and said, “Are you the store detective or just some general population creep?” That made me feel bad for Winona Ryder. Christ, what happened to her consciousness to make her so paranoid, so aggressive?

These days I don’t even know who’s famous. I go into New York City on a bus that I wish was going out of New York City.


Tim Tomlinson is the author of Requiem for the Tree Fort I Set on Fire (poetry) and This Is Not Happening to You (short fiction). Recent work appears in About Place Journal, CHILLFiltr Review, Columbia Journal, the Good Life Review, Passengers Journal, Text (Australia), Poet Sounds: An Anthology Inspired by the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, and A Feast of Narrative: Stories by Italian-American Writers. He is a co-author of New York Writers Workshop’s craftbook The Portable MFA in Creative Writing, currently in use on four continents. He’s a co-founder of New York Writers Workshop, and a professor in NYU’s Global Liberal Studies.