the north star stipend

THE NORTH STAR STIPEND, an annual allotment of state support for the arts. I badly needed the money and I badly needed help with my project. I decided to go visit Christian and Anita, who live down the street. They’re both heavily involved in the arts scene and have been awarded various state honors, medals, sashes, and accolades and have had their words chiseled into granite. Christian has been passed up too many times for a Nobel, but will surely receive his invitation to Stockholm someday. The residence is brimming with stacks of books, a lovely old fashioned-drawing room where Christian sits, thumbing a gray beard and smelling of pipe smoke. There he reads Bergman’s The Magic Lantern and contemplates existence. I knew Christian would help me win the stipend. Yet he was not at home. His wife Anita was. She beckoned me to the second floor, and then into her bathroom, complete with large windows and big white bathtub, and thus began to undress herself from a loose-fitting gown. Anita was a much older woman, with white hair and light eyes. She was once a stage actress, a contemporary of Jane Fonda and Catherine Deneuve and other legends, heavily courted by many of the world’s most decadent and monied men of industry, but chose this life instead, a life of letters, libraries and literature, a life with Christian. She was visibly older now, with plenty of wrinkles everywhere, lines no cream or cosmetic could conceal from the cruel illumination of the sun. There she was beside me, undoing her shirt slowly, and I felt at her breasts, which were still quite smooth, supple, and firm. It went on from there, slowly, deliberately, as a connoisseur sips a well-aged wine. We were only disturbed by good-natured whistling of Christian coming in downstairs, jingling his keys. “Honey, I’m home.” Anita dressed, and I came down the stairs alone, holding my head as if wounded, trying to look nonchalant. “Aha, Christian, it’s you.” “What are you doing in my house?” I was stricken with shame and embarrassment. “I came to ask your advice on a project. I am applying for the North Star Stipend.” “The North Star Stipend! Why, yes, of course. Of course, I myself received it many times. Even the first time, back in 1968. Or was it in 1969?” In my flustered, post-adultery mindset, I couldn’t express myself quite well. I stammered and mumbled, and couldn’t even remember what my idea was about. I left their home feeling like a true savage loser, and knew Christian would look at me differently the next time our paths crossed. I had so wanted to be a great writer, that was all I had really wanted, but I was just some actress’s part-time bathroom consort, it seemed, good for wet kisses and thespian breast fondling. At my own apartment, I could see my fellow writer Eeva out on the terrace. She was now living next door to me and seated in a chaise lounge reading a book, dressed up nicely in an old-fashioned 1940s Hollywood dress, complete with a hat, and her blonde hair was drawn about her shoulders. She had some visitors too, but when I called out to them, Eeva said that they were from Russia and didn’t speak any other tongue. “Ah,” I said then. “Harasho!” Everybody laughed, and for a while I forgot all about the North Star Stipend. Later, I returned to Christian and Anita’s house. Christian wasn’t home again, but Anita was, and again we repeated the bathroom sex scene. Again that feel of eerie sensual decay. I enjoyed it. Who wouldn’t. But it troubled me so, the whole sordid thing. After a long lingering kiss, Anita looked at me and said, “You know, I think we should stop this thing between us. I can’t really see it going anywhere.” We agreed, and I left soon after, never having consulted Christian, not having made progress. Later, my application for the North Star Stipend was denied by the review board, on which several of Christian’s colleagues sat, but I was fine with this dismissal, just fine to leave this bizarre macabre tale of secret loving behind. I still had my novel. I should concentrate all of my energies there. I went back home to the apartments, where Eeva was still lounging on the terrace, reading a paperback and eating an apple. She looked quite nice there in her old-fashioned dress and the Russians were long gone. It was nice to have such a pretty and talented neighbor, even if she always had her nose in a book. I decided to join her on the terrace with my writing machine and she never stopped reading. Then I sat down behind my clackety typewriter, rolled up my sleeves, and got back to work.

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