Absolute Love

In the northern hemisphere summer or spring of 2014, Catt Dunlop, a middle-aged writer, was invited to speak at a conference on art in Wellington, New Zealand. Since Catt had lived in that city between the ages of 14 and 21, attended its university, and made yearly trips back to visit her parents before they returned to the US when she was in her late 30s, Wellington was where she was considered to be ‘from’. Catt no longer knew where she was ‘from’. She was then of an age where she thought about age at least eight times a day. Having spent parts of her life in New York and LA, she knew where she was ‘from’ didn’t much matter. When she was a student at Wellington High School, Catt recalled being told by the Head English teacher, a salt-and-pepper-haired man in baggy black and white tweeds who’d published critical essays on DH Lawrence, that because of her emigration from the US at such a formative age she had no nationality and therefore, despite her interest in literature, could not be a writer. Which is to say, Catt had lived through various eras including the demise of nationalism.

From the moment she stepped off the plane (arriving from Melbourne, where she’d attended another, more international conference) Catt regretted this trip back to Wellington. The weather was windy and cold, the bleak streets were festooned with banners that said Absolutely Positively Wellington, part of a civic re-branding attempt that even her professionally cynical colleagues seemed to find upbeat and promising. Except for the weather, the city bore almost no resemblance to the one that she’d lived in before. Streets had been rerouted to accommodate heavier traffic, and the low, earthquake-prone limestone buildings had mostly been razed and replaced with uniform, steel-reinforced high-rises. Shabby Victorian houses with bed-sitting rooms let by the week to unmarried secretaries and widowers now sparkled like jewels in the dung, transformed into bright spacious homes for professional families. The domed structure on Lower Courtney Place known as the ‘Taj Mahal’, built in the 1920s as public toilets but used mostly for furtive homosexual cruising and vice squad entrapment, had been turned into a boutique restaurant serving local cuisine. The local cuisine that Catt knew – egg and cheese sandwich, mutton and pickle, baked beans on toast – had long been abandoned.

Absolute Love by Chris Kraus

Conference attendees were housed at the James Cook Hotel, which Catt found deeply confusing, as well. Built in 1972 and backing on to the American embassy building, it had once been the pride of the city with its sleek glass façade and tube-shaped glass lift that rose to a sweeping view of the harbour. Catt had attended dozens of demonstrations outside the hotel, but had only once been inside, when she interviewed the Prime Minister’s wife for the newspaper’s women’s pages. The hotel had since been downgraded to a mid-market family accommodation. Its burgundy carpets and recessed lights lulled her ever more deeply into the numbing cocoon of international travel. Where was it?, she thought, where was the city? She went out for long walks, couldn’t find it. Preston Jones, her co-headliner, had flown in from London with his wife Rose two days before. Whenever she met them in the hall or the lift they were beaming and bright, on their way out to have breakfast or dinner or drinks with the New Zealand colleagues. Preston and Rose were more than a decade younger than Catt. Still, each time she slunk past she was impressed and amazed, wondering how do they do it?

The conference was held at an art school built on the grounds of the former Dominion Museum and Wellington High School. It went on for two days about things Catt mostly felt did not concern her. Whenever the lights weren’t dimmed for a PowerPoint presentation, she stared down at her lap reading a novel. But when Catt got onstage to read from her book, she felt herself locked in the gaze of a tall and lean elderly man in the dead center seat of the less-than-half-full auditorium. Why was he staring at her? The man had long, scraggly blonde hair. He wore Wrangler jeans and a black oilskin parka – a look that was deeply familiar to Catt, as it comprised the whole wardrobes of most of the anarchist poets, radical activists, graduate students and junior lecturers she’d met Friday nights in the pub, and often slept with.

During the break she signed books with smiley faces, flowers and hearts while the strange-but-familiar old man hovered alone close to the table. Glancing over the shoulder of whatever young artist or fan she was chatting with, she studied his slightly stooped shoulders, his gaunt face with pale Nordic eyes behind rectangular engineer’s glasses. And it was Luke! – she understood in a flash. Luke, the lone potter, who drove into the city most weeks for Friday night shopping, a three-hour frenzy that gripped the whole city each week and ended up in an intense crush of bodies and talk between 8 and 10 in the pub. For as long as she’d known him, Luke lived on a farm that he’d bought in the then-faraway Wairarapa Valley.

Luke belonged to a distinguished New Zealand intellectual family. His mother Jeanette had been an actress-turned-writer. Born on a small farm in New Plymouth, she’d gone overseas in her teens, settled in London and appeared in a few plays on the West End. When she met Alistair at the end of his study-grant year, she gave up her career and moved back to New Zealand with him. She was already pregnant with Luke’s brother John. Alistair, a radical educator, abandoned the family when Luke was twelve or thirteen, accepting a tenure-track job in the US at Rutgers. He moved to New Jersey and married a Jewish woman more than two decades younger. Jeanette prevailed after an ugly divorce. Exemplary of what an exceptional woman could do faced with bad, common circumstances, she raised her four sons alone, published book after book and became a grande dame in the small cultural world of her generation.

Younger than him by two or three years, Luke’s brother Mark was a philosophy lecturer at the university. Catt saw Mark most Friday nights at the pub and she slept with him on a casual basis during her second year as a student, the same year she’d been promoted from five grades at her job on the newspaper. One night, probably drunk, Mark grinned tightly at Catt while they were fucking and said I’m gonna make you pregnant, bitch … then we’ll see if you’re still a senior journalist. This shocked her enough to avoid Mark in the future.

Catt didn’t want to get pregnant. Getting pregnant in Wellington entailed the inevitable visit to Dr. Ballinger, who famously groped his clandestine patients while they were sedated and strapped to the table. Nor did she even especially want to be a reporter. Given a choice, she’d rather have been a philosophy professor like Mark, or a lost girl, or an actress. She saw no reason for Mark to resent her, and his outburst was hurtful. Catt had already had her fair share of perfunctory sex, but until now she’d never encountered a hate-fuck.

Mark’s brother Luke, on the other hand, always spoke to her kindly. After the ugly encounter with Mark, she found ways to be jostled and pushed next to Luke on those loud Friday pub nights, as if his recognition could somehow erase the night with his brother that left her flooded with shame whenever she dared to think back. Luke seemed to welcome these meetings. Each time they talked, he moved even closer to Catt than the Friday night pub-crush required. Catt came to see Luke as poetic and valiant … his retreat to the country and his work with his hands was a principled stand against glib intellection. She believed she and Luke understood each other. As time went on, Catt looked forward to these Friday nights in the pub as her chance to see Luke. The colour drained out of the vomit-beige room on nights when he wasn’t there. Catt found that she could summon Luke up simply by closing her eyes. She heard his voice in her brain, saw his face etched onto her eyelids.

It was well known that Luke did not live alone. He shared his farmhouse and kiln with a woman named Jill, also a potter, who favoured long calico skirts and never came to the city. It was also well known that Luke’s arrangement with Jill was most likely temporary. Amanda was his true love. Not much was known about Amanda, except she was living in London, holding some kind of embassy job (clearly, although not at the time, Amanda, like Luke, but unlike Jill, was the child of an upper-middle class family). Amanda wrote regularly to Luke about her plans to return to New Zealand in a near but indefinite future.

Nevertheless, when Luke mumbled a vague invitation for Catt to visit the farm, she jumped at it. During the week, phone calls were exchanged. On Saturday morning, Catt would hitchhike from Wellington out to Luke’s farm, two and a half hours away, and spend the night with him. The next day she’d catch the bus back to the city.

All week she thought about how it would be, what she would wear, what they would do and what they would say to each other. It would be perfect, a meeting of temperaments, ideals and minds. It would be some kind of payback, although Catt at the time saw it more as redemption. That morning she put on a pair of heeled boots, a sweater and jeans and an expensive suede jacket, the kind of outfit she’d wear to a press conference. Luck carried her from the Railway Station on Waterloo Quay to the Hutt Valley Motorway, over the Rimatuka Mountains all the way to Luke’s farm, each of these rides synchronous and perfectly timed for an appropriate mid-afternoon arrival.

But as soon as she got there, things felt wrong. The farmhouse that lay at the end of an unpaved muddy road was unfinished and rustic. Luke opened the door and embraced her, but when Catt stepped into the room Jill was still there, resentfully tossing some things into a Maori flax kit-bag. The two women nodded and smiled. Then Jill opened the sliding glass door to the yard and departed meekly. Clearly, Jill and Luke had made some prior arrangement; one maybe not much to Jill’s liking. This threw Catt off-balance, but once she and Luke were alone, things settled down. She was nervous, for sure, but the atmosphere stabilised. Luke offered to show her the farm and their pottery workshop. He gave Catt an old pair of gumboots, probably Jill’s, so her feet wouldn’t get muddy.

It was a bright, late fall day, thunderclouds racing across the sun, and thankfully night came on quickly. Luke heated up a big pot of gruel on the antique wood stove, the kind of gruel everyone ate, made of butcher-bones, bay leaves and lentils. They sat on big cushions eating their gruel out of pottery bowls beside the fire. When Luke put on a record they stood up and kissed very slowly. Catt remembers the song, the Rolling Stones’ Angie, and she remembers the kiss: elegant, minimal, musky and sweet like her favourite dessert, pears and black coffee. And then they must have made love, but Catt can’t remember.

Any future between them beyond that one night was unlikely, as Catt must have known from the start. But still, she was devastated. Each night that week, she sat at the desk in her room at the Aro Street flat, writing a letter she hoped would convey her rage, hope and disappointment. Why did she feel so betrayed? She typed it on dozens of sheets of the thin 5 × 7 copy-paper she used at the newspaper, read it out loud to her flatmates and then rewrote it. Catt was seventeen, maybe eighteen years old. She wanted nothing and everything. She can’t recall if she sent it.

Eventually, Catt left for New York. Amanda returned from London and within months, she and Luke married. Handsomely, guiltily, Luke gave Jill the farm although she had no legal rights to it. He and Amanda purchased another derelict farm in Henderson just a few miles away and built a new house on it.

In New York Catt stayed for two weeks with Luke and Mark’s big brother John in his upper west side apartment. She’d never met John before, which, among that group of friends at that time, was no reason not to become a long-staying house guest. John had a glass eye, and attended both group and individual therapy with a messianic figure named Barry. A sociologist at the UN, John had become, his brothers said, ‘completely American’, which of course was pejorative. Most likely Catt slept with him. Meanwhile back in New Zealand, Carla, Catt’s younger sister, went out briefly with Matt, who was Luke, Mark and John’s youngest brother. Between them, they joked, before Carla’s abrupt mental break that turned out to be permanent, they’d slept with the entire family!

During one of her many trips back to New Zealand, Catt learned from Mark’s new wife Olivia that Luke and Amanda had a hemophiliac baby. Can you imagine? Olivia whispered loudly to her over the music. (The Wellington people Catt knew had begun getting married, but hadn’t stopped gathering at aimless after-pub parties that routinely wound down around 2 when the same diehards passed out from drinking.) She knew all along she was carrying hemophiliac genes, but she didn’t see fit to tell Luke until late in the pregnancy. Olivia worked at the Department of Child and Social Services. Dismissed from his university job for having sex with an undergraduate student, Mark had taken up furniture making. Perhaps mores have changed? Catt wondered briefly. Her feminist studies professor had slept with half the girls in the class and no one thought twice about it. Mark and Olivia commuted between her Wellington flat and his furniture workshop close to Luke and Amanda’s farm. It’s a roll of the dice, Olivia continued. For people who carry this gene, there’s a 1 in 3 chance that the child will be born hemophiliac. On her next trip back to New Zealand, Catt learned from Olivia that Luke and Amanda’s second child was also born hemophiliac. Rilly bad luck, inn’t it?

Catt hadn’t thought about any of these people for almost two decades. Her new friends, or rather art colleagues, in New Zealand were younger, not older than she. They were part of the international circuit. So it wasn’t as if the years melted away when she broke off signing books and embraced Luke in the auditorium foyer. But, looking into his face as he stood closer-than-normal beside her, just as he had in the pub all those years ago, she felt the same current passing between them, however diluted … a possibility of understanding that could lead to, but wouldn’t finish with sex, which she’d taken for absolute love thirty years ago.

Luke’s two sons were grown. One had moved up north, the other lived in Australia. Treatment’s improved, they survived, still they were struggling. Amanda had gone back to school and become a psychologist, but they still lived on the same Henderson farm in the Wairarapa. A few years ago, Luke had begun painting. Considered one of the foremost New Zealand potters, he’d gotten bored with ceramics. He still fired some work to help cover the bills, but his heart wasn’t in it. Instead, he’d been commuting to Wellington for the last couple of years, doing a Fine Art Ph.D. at the new art school. Catt’s friends were his teachers.

Leaning still closer, they exchanged views of the conference, which were, of course, similar. Catt wished she could see some of Luke’s paintings. Listen, Luke said, before they had to go back in the room for the Institutional Critique Roundtable, why don’t you come out and visit on your way back to Auckland? You could stay overnight and meet Amanda. Mark and Olivia are still there. Mark’s followed your work. I know he’d love to see you.

Catt agreed right away. Skipping cocktails and dinners to take long walks in the city for the next several days, whenever she passed an old coot in an oilskin parka, she asked herself, Did I fuck him? She’d just finished Proust, the last book, Time Regained, and it was exactly like that … the heroes and villains of her early youth now impossibly aged.

At the end of the week, she drove her rental car out to the Wairarapa … the treacherous road over the mountains now replaced by a highway. This time, she didn’t think much about what lay ahead, but Luke and Amanda’s home was exactly as she might have imagined it: the planked floors and rugs, Mark’s handcrafted furniture, tasteful but not overdone, open and comfortable. Amanda worked three days a week with troubled youth, mostly Maori, in a large town nearby, their families newly arrived after being priced out of the city. She was warm and professional, cordial. Outside, about a hundred sheep grazed: a flock Luke was raising for slaughter and wool, both for income and principle. He was no hippie herder or gentleman farmer.

Mark and Olivia came for dinner: lamb chops, roast kumara, salad. They’d had two children, too, both of them now living in Europe. Ah, ya see? Mark said. We stayed here, and what happens? You spend eighteen years raising your kids and they fuck off as soon as possible. Olivia had retired. He was still reading and writing philosophy.

Thirty-five of Luke’s paintings hung in the woolshed he’d reclaimed as a studio: half-figurative Richter-ish representations of riots and refugee camps rendered from newspaper photos. Catt loved the paintings, but as she was praising them, she knew they didn’t stand much of a chance in the art world. If Luke made the same work but was thirty years younger, had different friends and used different words to describe them, they would be viable. There was a half-finished canvas that featured a lean, intense woman with one arm raised in the foreground. She looked a lot like Catt at eighteen, and she blushed when she saw it. Had he started the painting after their meeting? Catt thought long and hard about how to help Luke exhibit his paintings, and after leaving New Zealand she’d try, but her currency didn’t extend to such favours.

Tomorrow morning, do you want to drive out to Palliser Bay? Luke asked her that night in the studio. Now that the mystery cards had all been revealed, whatever energy field was bouncing between them that day at the conference had settled into something calm and familiar. She’d never been to Palliser Bay, a remote stretch of coast reachable only by miles of dirt road, home of the North Island’s largest seal colony.

They took two cars to Masterton, parked Catt’s outside a pharmacy and bought a disposable camera. From there, they drove about 20 miles in Luke’s car, passing few houses or vehicles. It was a bleak winter morning. At the end of the road they got out of the car. Walking a few hundred yards to the rocky coastline, they saw hundreds of grey furry seals and their seal pups, on rocks and in caves. They scrambled over the rocks, just as they both used to do when they were teenagers. Once, Luke extended his hand to help her onto a ledge, but Luke had a wife and Catt had already told them about her husband Paul and their lives in LA. Clearly nothing further than this would happen between them. Catt was too old to squeal.

*

Instead, as Luke watched her, she tiptoed as close as she dared to the seals and took photos. The outing, while pleasant, was already redundant. She took no pictures of Luke, he took no pictures of her.

She left the camera with Luke, who had the old-fashioned analog film developed and printed and then he mailed her the photos. Emails and gifts were exchanged, but Catt can’t recall what became of the photos.

Chris Kraus is the author, most recently, of After Kathy Acker: A Literary Biography (2017) and Social Practices (2018), a story and an essay collection. Her long essay on the work of photographer Reynaldo Rivera is forthcoming in a book on the artist’s work from Semiotext(e) in Spring 2020. She lives in LA and teaches writing at ArtCenter.

Real Girls

October, 2019

On projection in three stories, four poems and a sequence of poems. Featuring illustrations by Birdie Hall.

II.

Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

III.
Get Mal's newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please visit our website.

We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By clicking below to subscribe, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing. Learn more about Mailchimp's privacy practices here.

Subscribe to our newsletter

V.

Mal is supported by Feeld