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Abramovic – plus hunky sculptor boyfriend – lived in a huge, virtually empty loft, the sole furnishings being a dining table and chairs in the very centre of the room and a spindly old stereo from the 1960s. The space was probably a hundred feet on either side – ‘major real estate, of course’, as Sontag proudly explained to me. (She loved using Vanity Fair-ish clichés.) She and Abramovic smothered one another in hugs and kisses. I meanwhile blanched in fright: I’d just caught sight of two of the other guests, who, alarmingly enough, turned out to be Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. Reed (O great rock god of my twenties) stood morosely by himself, humming, doing little dance steps and playing air guitar. Periodically he glared at everyone – including me – with apparent hatred. Anderson – elfin spikes of hair perfectly gelled – was chatting up an Italian man from the Guggenheim, the man’s trophy wife and the freakish-looking lead singer from the cult art-pop duo Fischerspooner. The last-mentioned had just come back from performing at the Pompidou Centre and wore booties and tights, a psychedelic shawl and a thing like a codpiece. He could have played Osric in a postmodern Hamlet. He was accompanied by a bruiser with a goatee – roadie or boyfriend, it wasn’t clear – and emitted girlish little squeals when our first course, a foul-smelling durian fruit just shipped in from Malaysia, made its way to the table.
Everyone crowded into their seats: despite the vast size of the room, we were an intime gathering. Yet it wouldn’t be quite right merely to say that everyone ignored me. As a non-artist and non-celebrity, I was so ‘not there’, it seemed – so cognitively unassimilable – I wasn’t even registered enough to be ignored. I sat at one end of the table like a piece of anti-matter. I didn’t exchange a word the whole night with Lou Reed, who sat kitty-corner across from me. He remained silent and surly. Everyone else gabbled happily on, however, about how they loved to trash hotels when they were younger and how incompetent everybody was at the Pompidou. ‘At my show I had to explain things to them a thousand times. They just don’t know how to do a major retrospective.’
True, Sontag tried briefly to call the group’s attention to me (with the soul-destroying words, ‘Terry is an English professor’); and Abramovic kindly gave me a little place card to write my name on. But otherwise I might as well not have been born. My one conversational gambit failed dismally: when I asked the man from the Guggenheim, to my right, what his books were about, he regarded me disdainfully and began, ‘I am famous for – ,’ then caught himself. He decided to be more circumspect – he was the ‘world’s leading expert on Arte Povera’ – but then turned his back on me for the next two hours. At one point I thought I saw Laurie Anderson, at the other end of the table, trying to get my attention: she was smiling sweetly in my direction, as if to undo my pathetic isolation. I smiled in gratitude in return and held up my little place card so she would at least know my name. Annoyed, she gestured back impatiently, with a sharp downward flick of her index finger: she wanted me to pass the wine bottle. I was reduced to a pair of disembodied hands – like the ones that come out of the walls and give people drinks in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast.
Sontag gave up trying to include me and after a while seemed herself to recede curiously into the background. Maybe she was already starting to get sick again; she seemed oddly undone. Through much of the conversation (dominated by glammy Osric) she looked tired and bored, almost sleepy. She did not react when I finally decided to leave – on my own – just after coffee had been served. I thanked Marina Abramovic, who led me to the grungy metal staircase that went down to the street and back to the world of the Little People. Turning round one last time, I saw Sontag still slumped in her seat, as if she’d fallen into a trance, or somehow just caved in. She’d clearly forgotten all about me.