‘I arrived a bit early…’: How Susan made it to Chinatown

On Tuesday night in the hours before the rain came, she’d brought Sigrid Nunez’s Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag over to my place (to read part 1 of the story, go here or simply look one column over to your right) and placed it on the orange chest next to my copies of Seneca’s letters and Craig’s book on God. That night, we’d shared a bottle of wine from Piedmont, on the far wall we’d hung the photos that she’d taken years ago of a brooding spring lake in Switzerland, and we’d spoken enchantingly of I forget.

Of Susan? No.

The receipt said that she’d bought the book on the night of April 19, 2011. What had happened that night, and how had the book fallen into her shoulder bag?

Oh, souvenir involontaire, dear Andrew! The memory of the moment I’d bought the book, the wetness of the streets already getting dark, the lightness of feet on the ground. No need to look at my journal, dear friend. It all came back to me as if I was living it now.

I recall that after work I had some time to kill in Soho, so I meandered about after I got off the F train at Broadway/Lafayette. [And did you walk down Lafayette, which around that time would have been heavily trafficked, or did you head down Crosby, strolling along the cobbled street and past Housing Works? I think the latter.] Yes, Nunez’s book was on the display table and caught my eye immediately, as I had just finished reading Regarding the Pain of Others. Susan’s final book.

Something about Susan, I’ve always been drawn to her. Part of me finds her terrifying (is that the word I’m looking for?). So fiercely bold, so stubbornly opinionated, so boldly intellectual in a way I could never be. I admire her for that. It also scares me. Stating my opinions openly has never come easy.

Yet Susan and Susan’s work seem to linger with me, year after year. There’s the essay she wrote after Sept. 11th. Or how she told Annie Leibovitz that Annie was a good photographer but that she hadn’t really done anything yet–not until Susan took her to Sarajevo. But then the touching photos Annie took of her on her deathbed. My… And her lines about images and war…

Why Susan? Perhaps it was that my father gave me the middle name Susan or that I shared her love of French New Wave cinema. [Or was it that she cared about art, loved art dearly, dwelled within art as much as you live beside it?] Nunez’s book seduced me into wanting to know more about this dark and alluring woman. To know more, as if meanderingly, about myself.

I was wearing my trench coat that evening, that I remember well. Whether I had an umbrella with me or whether I had forgotten it, I’m not sure. I’m inclined to say No, knowing how often I forget to bring one along with me. I remember my hair was frizzy in the dampness. I remember the warmth of the air. With Sempre Susan tucked into my bag, I continued to walk, pausing some long moments to look at gigantic goldfish glowing in tanks at a Chinese fish place. It was on the corner of Broom and Mott, and all of Chinatown was packing up for the night. Inside, there were men cleaning off scales and wiping down stainless steel display cases. Above, the moon hung full and pale. The night was damp, my hair was damp, and the smell of fish hung warmly in the air.

I arrived a bit early and settled in the back of the Vietnamese restaurant, opened the book and waited for you.

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