Copyright 1999, held by author
My brother’s mini-van turned off the Forest Avenue Exit. The overpass curved over the highway, lined with stores, strip malls and gas stations. Then we headed down the two lane suburban street of our home town. I can’t remember when I had been here last. He had some classic rock station on and this Hendrix song was playing and the cigar, these small stubby things he had taken up went out and as I watched the last wisp of smoke curl and disappear, I had this image, this memory, of him driving me around in this hippie VW micro bus he had when I was a kid.
We were my parents only offspring. He was ten years older. He was a hippie, of that generation, and I was not. Back then, the cigar was a joint and he just blithely drove and smoked, eyes going blood shot, and an eight track of Hendrix playing. The sound system now was much better of course.
I travel for my job, usually to another city like Chicago or Los Angeles. Suburbia, despite my memory of it or maybe because of it, was just so alien now. The endless two story houses, ensconced by short trees and bright green lawns, which were so familiar by association in my memories yet so distant from my day to day experience, made me feel very weird. I was a tourist in my own memories.
I hadn’t seen my brother for more than six months. It was the fifth anniversary of our mother’s death. The plan was to place flowers on her grave and then we would drive back to his Connecticut house and have dinner with his wife and seven year old son. Then I would go back via train to New York city.
This was shortly before I met Mary. I was making good money at the job, but my personal life tended towards vacuous. I had moved into a new apartment, and like my old apartment, it had been burglarized. I was single. Stephanie had moved to San Francisco. I dated this other woman for a short bit, a very short bit. She’s an account executive who works in another company in the same office building as my job. We slept together, she left in the morning and I called her that afternoon. Her cracking voice said she just didn’t feel right. Feel right?
So, now, we pass each other once in a while to and from the elevator and no sign of recognition is made. We don’t work on the same floor. I guess there is a God.
We passed a garden and landscaping store, with bird feeders, lawn statues and bushes on display outside adjacent to its gravel parking lot. Our family had shopped there. Like all suburban dads, mine took the responsibility of lawncare as seriously as his generation’s unified sense of duty that defeated the axis forces. I remember lugging these bags of fertilizer and limestone to our station wagon. I was not a big kid. I dropped one of them and it burst open . Dad hit me, fast, open-fisted then screamed. His temper was immediate with violence-prone results—I cried in the parking lot. I had been forced into being a spectacle, crying and being loudly reprimanded for everybody to see.
Out of the mini van’s window, I watched houses, all two stories, lawns pedicured and verdant, then a bank, a gas station, a delicatessen then more houses. At one light was this red brick office building. Bergen County Medical Arts read the large metal sign by the entrance. I used to ride my bicycle, this gold sting-ray thing with a banana seat to the patch of woods that used to be here. I caught salamanders. The dank crimson creatures squirmed from the light after I picked up a log, then I grabbed them. I kept them in this large jar whose bottom I carpeted with dirt and pebbles. I dropped in saw-dust sized fragments of raw meat. They never ate. In a few days, they were all shriveled up, arid and lifeless and black. My parents never let me keep real pets, dogs or cats. The salamanders were it. I didn’t feel grief, I just felt like a failure. I couldn’t even keep freaking salamanders alive.
I pointed at the brick structure, which was only a five or so stories high but still towered over the split-level aluminum sided homes surrounding it. “The town has changed,” I said.
“Oh, that’s been here a while. I think Mom got her eyes checked there.” David took out his cigar and held it between his fore and index finger, his hand keeping the steering wheel steady. “The place has always been building up. You see a lot more of these office buildings. Guess they’ve built enough malls and stores.”
“It may not be as countrified as where you live, but it is still pretty countrified.”
“Guess you’d consider this wide open spaces now that you’re a city boy. Welcome to America, Tom.”
I rolled my eyes. My brother doesn’t approve of me. I mean, sibling resentment certainly is part of it. But mostly, he just hates the city, New York city in particular, resenting me for not only living there, but actually preferring it. Maybe, also, it’s because I’m not married and don’t seem to be on the way to being married any time soon. I think being from that baby boomer generation, all that sixties long hair stuff, he’s just more inclined to conformity. He rebelled back then with everybody else and when society calmed down and everyone married and had kids, he did likewise. Since I never had to personally rebel against a war or oppressive government or engage in a social revolution I guess he thinks I just should have conformed the other way from the get go.
“Well, I’m glad I don’t live here. Everybody’s the same. All these white faces. When I was on the bus here, all the men had the same kind of blue suit on, white shirt and red tie.”
“You got a suit on. Everybody wears a suit these days.”
“It’s a lot more stylish. Look, the shirt is dark blue, the suit is olive green. It’s a good suit, you know. You need a sense of style in my business.”
“My brother, the sophisticate. Don’t worry, you look like a city-ite to me. You could pass for gay, if you were only a little better looking.”
“Driving this van, you could pass for a soccer mom.”
“Hey, I am a soccer dad. I help coach Joey’s team.”
“What do you know about sports training? You spent your high school years smoking pot and going to Allman Brother’s concerts.”
He hates it when I remind him he was not always a republican. “Welcome to the 90s, Tom. It’s all about the kids.”
We both became silent as we approached the Cemetery and passed through the immense iron gates. Grief burns things into the library of recollection. I felt an acrid and familiar loneliness, momentarily as searing as it was that day we buried my mother. I focused on a tree, parchment colored bark and branches empty of leaves, then on this rich family’s plot that had a huge Christ-on-a-cross crucifix and a woman kneeling at the foot of the cross.
David parked the van. We both remembered the location of mom’s spot. Our shoes crunched the brittle leaves on the slate path. It was late fall. The sky glowed yellowish red, the breeze made hush sounds. Across the vast lawn and head stones, interspersed with pine trees so ever green and other trees, just stark, leafless branches. On the perimeter, columns of weeping willows swayed like decrepit medusas. We came to the grave stone. Beloved brother, husband and father and beloved sister, wife and mother chiseled beneath a nimbus and cross. I brushed off dirt from the letters. David dropped the small bouquet on the grass. It was just some carnations and daises. Then he crossed himself, which surprised me. He bowed his head and murmured some stuff. By now, I was sniffling tears. He crossed himself again, then took out a lighter from his pocket and lit the stub of the cigar.
I felt his hand on my shoulder. “We better hit the road.”
“I just wish she was still around. Things would have been worse with Dad without her. I wonder if she ever knew.”
“She knew, Tom. She changed her tune with you, became more protective. Dad was a son of a bitch, you know what I mean. I had it a lot worse. The Depression, World War II made him that way. But you should be happy you had it easier.”
“You were gone by then, how do you know how I had it?”
My brother always had the last word. Not because of his insistence, it was me. I always backed away from either cursing him or shouting contrary evidence. I could never be sure if he thought that I didn’t suffer as much, or that I was so weak and sensitive that the little suffering I did endure was nothing compared to his experience.
I followed him back to the mini van, the smoke of his cigar wafting in the breeze. He opened the back hatch, took out two beers from the plastic cooler and made some joke about being prepared for the road and how the distance from New Jersey to Connecticut is nearly a six pack.
In the center of the cemetery was a tall flag pole with a huge American Flag. It had to be the biggest flag I ever saw. One of the workers began untying the ropes to lower the flag.
The sky was cobalt, getting darker. A fragment of the moon hung in the sky like chipped pottery. The can made an angry kissing sound when I opened it. The push top didn’t seem to press in right, the hole’s edge sliced the side of my thumb. A small line of blood oozed out. I sipped the beer. It was so cold it hurt my teeth. I scraped the beer residue off my mouth with the back of my hand. There was blood on the back of my hand. My mouth still felt wet. David was laughing at me. I tasted blood and with my tongue detected I had cut my lip as well. David said there was Kleenex in the car and opened the door.
“I don’t feel like driving by the house this time, do you?”
I shook my head no.
The wind had increased. I watched old glory ripple during its descent.
* * *
I didn’t fight with my brother. We never do. We seem to always fall short of verbalizing our mutual resentment. Once it surfaces, we wait in silence until it begins to fade, then dissolve it by talking about politics or the stock market or what his son is doing. Stuff like that. We don’t even talk that much about our parents or our upbringing.
His wife always treated me sweetly, made me feel more like family than he did, and the nephew liked the Sega games I brought him. But when I got back to Manhattan, back to my own life, I couldn’t shake this feeling. I guess it was inadequacy. I wasn’t living up to something. But I never wanted to be some min-van driving sort with kids and the lawn, the only issues besides the job to take up my thoughts. Yet, sometimes it seems that I should want to want that and the guilt that comes with not wanting to want makes me feel useless.
I don’t talk to my brother or his wife about my personal life. Hell, he never asks and I don’t mention. Like most women, his wife says you have a girlfriend and I make some kind of joke or something—“Not this week”—was the one I came up with I think, and she doesn’t press.
My buddy, Peter seemed to be my main confidant. He’s always easy with the opinion and advice. I was in a slump. Happens to everyone, even to me.
That’s what he said. Of course, Peter doesn’t have the same worries as I do, has a three room apartment with a great rent control lease and makes a solid six figure salary as a lawyer. He’s adapted the expert on everything attitude of most New Yorkers. He has had a lot of girlfriends too, always getting action. So, we’re not the same, but I suppose he’s smart about some things.
In terms of my love life, the slump seemed to be akin to a musket company’s sales after the introduction of the repeating rifle.
* * *
I met Peter at Victor’s art opening. Peter was with a date, Cheryl, a twenty something who I had not yet met. Blonde, thin,she worked as a paralegal in his firm. She wore a belly shirt and leather mini dress and large hoop earrings. There was a yin yang symbol tattooed on her upper arm and a rose tattoo around her pierced navel. “She’s wild,” Peter told me, whispering it out of her hearing, and I just smiled and pictured her in a conservative blue suit, playing the career oriented underling during the day and exploding in Basic Instinct in the New York night.
Victor is a drinking buddy. I go to museums and I like art and all, but the only gallery openings and art events I go to are in support of him, or one of his friends that seem to come in and out of the vague circle of people I know as regulars in the East village dives where I spent most of what passed for my night life.
He kept his hair long, fancied silver earrings, had a half dozen in each ear lobe and three in one eye brow. I never saw him dressed in anything but jeans, but there was no attitude about him. I mean, he’s just a nice guy. He didn’t have the snob thing going, and didn’t look down on me for coming from New Jersey.
I was glad he was getting some recognition for his “found art.” That was the latest trend. Most of its practitioners lived in the Lower East and the galleries were located in the East Village, or on the outskirts of Soho or Tribeca.
Found art meant mixed materials and taking ordinary items and transforming them into art. It reminded me of primitive tribes who worship a discarded Coca-Cola bottle, or picture of Howard Stern. Funny, how simple juxtaposition or removal of context makes something art where before it was just some thing without meaning.
The gallery was located on some shadowy street where the buildings were old and short. The neighborhood seemed lifetimes away from the Wall Street or Midtown and even the West Village where bohemia and integrity are long deceased. I liked it though, but I just like the neighborhood or maybe I just like any neighborhood that’s relatively safe as long as it is a city neighborhood, where I don’t have to drive everywhere and there’s concrete and people of different races and cultures who leave me alone. In short, it’s different from where I grew up.
Some New York state vineyard sponsored the award. There were some runner ups, who each got a wall to display some pieces and only a thousand bucks, while Victor got five grand and an entire room, adorned with his found art. There was a naked store mannequin impaled on this large cross made with two automobile fenders, this lawn statute of the virgin Mary covered in sponges and in a bucket, this Jesus and twelve apostles sculpted, and I use the term loosely, out of what seemed to be cans and wood and wire. There were some non-religious themed pieces, but those didn’t seem so striking. They did remind me of my catholic school upbringing, although Jesus and all that stuff was rarely mentioned at home. I guess it’s good for the imagery.
Young men carrying trays were offering everybody plastic goblets of white wine. Larry, the new girlfriend, Victor and I were drinking the wine as the room got more and more crowded, real diverse too, downtown, uptown, art crowd. You had the tattered jeans types in purple crew cuts next to the Armani suit types in two hundred dollar hair cuts, gallery owners, art world types and then there were different suits, pinstripes and banker blue indicating investment bankers, although junkyard apostles and weird catholic mythology formed out of consumer culture flotsam may not be the best art investment bet. Maybe they were part of the wine marketing program that included art patronship, or maybe they were just making a scene. But it seemed to me, that despite the cross section mix of cosmopolitan types, they didn’t seemed to be fraternizing. They all came together to appreciate new art movements, but did not stray from their predetermined circles. Some lines just are not crossed.
I noticed Mary before she walked over with her then room mate. I noticed her because of her clothes. She had on black tights and a tweed jacket. She was standing next to this woman with pink streaks in her jet black hair, who wore a black mini dress and was chatting wildly—lots of gesticulation—and Mary sort of nodded. It was apparent she was not adding anything to the conversation and did not know the grungy downtown pair listening to the pink streaks.
Mary’s hair was chestnut, thick and flowing far below her shoulders, out of control enough to hint a nonchalance about her appearance. She seemed to be ignorant of how pretty she really was, like it didn’t matter to her and was indifferent to choosing whether to play it down or play it up. I was uncertain if it meant insecurity or confidence. I liked being uncertain. That attracted me.
It seemed in the span of fifteen minutes, three dozen more people had moved into the back room and the waiters were having a tough time keeping the wine glasses filled. My elbow tapped the Cheryl’s glass and as it fell to her feet it stained her blouse from cleavage to navel. She accepted my apologies, but I could tell she was pissed. Peter shook his head at me. She said let’s go.
Peter leaned over to say something only to me, and I half expected some kind of comment about my typical clumsiness. “I’m doing her butt tonight, I know it.” he whispered.
The next thing I knew, I saw the pink streaks and behind her, the long red hair and tweed jacket. Pink streaks was saying something to Victor. They knew each other. One of the waiters offered to refill my glass and I said no. Didn’t want to take any chances.
I moved closer to Victor, waited for the introduction.
I said this thing to Peter a month or so before. “I’m not good on the make. It happens when you’re not looking for it. Sure, you have to be open, aware of the signs and all that.”
“Patience is either a virtue or a an excuse for inaction,” he opined.
But now, in a brief flicker of clarity, I realized, the virtue was paying off. Pink Streaks was her room mate. Pink Streaks name was Jane.
Jane said, “And this is Mary.”
* * *
Jane was interested in chatting up Victor. I don’t think Victor’s that interested in women, but I don’t really know. For some reason, I talk to Peter about women, and with Victor, the friendship is not like that. Just bar room buddies.
Mary and I, well, we wound up talking and it was apparent that she and Jane, weren’t really friends, just room mates. I asked her the right questions, I had her talk about herself. I can do this deliberately without being deliberate about it. She was from Teaneck, which is in Bergen county and one town over from Paramus. There was instant ‘you from Jersey, I’m from Jersey,” affinity.
She had moved to Hoboken, and was a grammar school teacher, special Ed students. My fascination grew. I never met a teacher, outside of school of course. Seems most, no make that all, of the women I had been meeting since Sheila where either career track women who complained of a glass ceiling or a the graphic artist types who really want to be film directors. Mary, she just had a job, a useful job.
I was nervous and excited thinking about calling her, and even refrained from phoning Peter. I didn’t need his advice. I felt a tenderness towards her, there just seemed to be chemistry. What the hell. I had to be careful to distinguish that chemistry –the kind between two people—separate from my internal hormonal chemistry. I was in a season of need. I had a deep longing, a need for a warm body, any warm body with two breasts and three holes Not that I’m that bad, of course, but Jesus Christ, loneliness is loneliness and a man needs to put it inside a woman and that’s just the way it is a, a fact of life, the fact of life!
It’s compounded by thinking of women I’ve had relationships with, passionate intimacy, knowing that while I was alone trying to dredge up some memory that I could turn into a fantasy free of associations of despair and being let down by somebody I thought cared for me as much as I cared for her and simply masturbate, I thought of them with their new men, wondering if they were acting more uninhibited, pleasing them more than they did with me. Getting laid meant getting back at them.
Regarding Mary, I had to keep a lot of emotions in check, suppress the explosive commingling of anxieties and motivations. So, after a breeze through the Village Voice to find out what was around to do, I decided on some sort of music, instead of a movie, and dinner. See, a movie is a very adequate date, just not a good first date. Why? You don’t talk to the person for two hours plus and then you just talk about the movie. Too much a teen scene. And just dinner, there’s no distractions at all.
So, there was an interesting saxophone player who played bluesy jazz at a village club—also very important, since it was close to the PATH train, the subway that ferried folks from New Jersey beneath the river to New York City. See, jazz was a good choice, because the sets last about an hour, so it doesn’t eat up the whole night. You can talk before and after and it would also show that I knew things, jazz had a kind of intellectual clout. Art scenes, music scenes, I was a happening guy, not just some white collar slob with a roach infested over priced shoe box in the shadows of the capital of the western world.
One last issue the jazz club solved was the timing. I wanted to see her as soon as possible after we met, but I had to make sure all the planets in my often pathetic universe were in line. Now, this also meant I had to not come off as a looser and if I asked her out for the coming weekend, and she couldn’t make it, the implication would be I had nothing to do. Which was the truth, of course. Then we would make plans for the next weekend or something and maybe the excitement would have worn off, or I would be thinking that no matter what sort of reason she gave for not being able to go on a date with me, the fact was she was on a date with somebody else. This musician, who plays in the village like every other week— naturally, she didn’t have to know this—was only playing at this particular club this particular weekend. I was sort of asking her to join me—an added benefit of making me appear cool and collected while also reducing the date pressure of this has to be a an occasion—and best of all, I didn’t come off as having nothing to do, an unfilled appointment calendar. The perfect crime, or date, whatever.
So, I deliberated through most of Monday, moving between nervous glee and subdued panic, planning the evening, and expounding on the contingencies in my mind. I decided to call her about six. I picked up the receiver, put it down again, picked it up, dialed the number, put the receiver down again. No, it had to be now because if I left the office without making the call I would think about nothing else, and it seemed to me, I had solved everything already. My shaking hands knocked into my paper clip container and the metal oblongs swarmed into my computer keyboard, which slipped from my hands when I picked it up to shake the clips from the keys. The keyboard bounced on the floor, but luckily I grabbed the monitor and stopped it from plummeting. Some keys had popped off the keyboard, the spacebar, a few letters. I sighed, dialed her number.
From the tone of her voice, she was glad to hear from me. We chatted a bit, I asked her what she thought of the opening.
“I guess it was Jane’s scene, a lot of interesting people. Victor’s a nice guy.”
“He really is, compared to most artists I know especially. I was there mostly to support him, as a friend.”
“A lot of the art was funny. Some of it was stupid.”
I chuckled an agreement. My nervousness ebbed in increments. I cleared my throat. “So, Mary, I was wondering…”
* * *
The only awkward moment of the date was when I asked why she lived in Hoboken and she talked about her divorce. “We had a house and I lived there until it was sold, so I lived with my mom for a while, and then, I hooked up with Jane.”
“You didn’t know her before you moved in?”
“It was through an ad, we’re not friends. She’s okay though.” She seemed nervous. I sensed a hint of shame, discomfort, embarrassment. She no longer owned a house, she was in some Single White Female living situation and she didn’t like admitting to a failed marriage.
It was an awkward moment, but it was only one, and it passed soon enough and for a date, a first date especially, that’s not bad, you know. It’s a good sign, basically. She asked, “have you ever been married?”
“Not yet,” I smirked. “I lived with a woman for a while, but we broke up a couple of years ago.”
“To not get married. Getting out of a marriage, it’s an ordeal. I thought it was wrong to live together. I wasn’t smart.”
“She had some substance abuse problems, we just got on different tracks.”
“I can understand different tracks. I felt I was too young to get married, but my parents got divorced and I think I formed a very naive philosophy about it, like I wanted to show them or something. I was being rebellious by being straight laced.”
“I was in love, whatever that means, but I was also pretty uncertain about my career. I wasn’t making much money and so I was, uncertain and desperate, you know. She didn’t give me any support. It’s easy to be confident when you’re in a relationship. You always have some sort of reinforcement.”
“But it’s not that real.”
“That’s what I mean, you’re like living only for another person, or through another person. Isolation is not an aspiration, that’s not what I’m saying. But confidence should be a result from what you do with your own life, how the world or society or rather, your littler piece of that world or your little piece of society receives you, seems like a more tangible confidence than the one you get from relationships. I think having that confidence, the tangible stuff… makes relationships, better.”
She smiled at me, and she had a nice one, smile that is. She didn’t show much teeth, and her face didn’t ripple with dimples. The smile was simple, a very pale lipstick, not shiny at all. Bright red would not go with her hair, or fair skin which was alabaster and lightly freckled, the kind of freckles you notice only on second glance and certainly would get darker in the sun before her skin did. Her smile was similar in its subtlety. But it was there and I had caused it and that felt good. We were eating in this tiny west village place, pan-Asian food which meant a lot of rice and steamed shrimp and as her fork poked a prawn, she said without looking up, “you know, I’m having a good time.”
I said softly, “so am I.”
“I haven’t really dated much, recently.”
I touched her hand. We were soon talking about food and restaurants and stuff like that, then we switched to our families and she told me how she worried about her mother and how her alcoholic brother lived at home. I talked about my brother a little bit. Then I explained how my father died suddenly, had a heart attack in his office while talking on the phone and how my mother died a few years later from leukemia, a long extended illness.
“That’s terrible,” she said, consoling me by grasping my hand. I pretended I still required consolation after all these years. She looked at me and I noticed the light in her eyes made them golden. The eyes, the hair, the subtle smile, she just seemed so pretty, and had an honesty, or at least, an integrity that I hadn’t sensed in a woman for a long time. Maybe never. I restrained from kissing her. It was our first date after all.
But I did hold her hand from the restaurant to the jazz club. The village buzzed, locals walking their dogs and young adults talking about where they were going or where they had been or what they should do. The bohemian promise of the village had long been prefabricated, but however momentary or dim, dreams could still glimmer here and holding the hand of a new girl in a new night seemed to freeze time and expand hope.
We waited on line at the club and I explained how this guy was an extraordinary player, sat in on famous sessions.
“I like jazz,” she said. “I like music.”
“I don’t listen to a lot of jazz at home, but I like to see it live. It’s only blues but more cerebral It’s part of America, you know. You can see the sheer talent.”
They seated us at a small table alongside a Japanese couple. In fact, except for most of the staff and the musicians, we were the only Americans there. Japanese and Europeans filled the place. Foreign accents and languages inflated the din that preceded the show. We shared a piece of pecan pie and had coffee and cognac to make the ten dollar minimum and our knees and feet kept touching. Then the group, a quartet came on, two young white guys and two old black guys and they played for about fifty minutes. She squeezed my knee. And the last song, a standard, I leaned over and kissed her. She wasn’t startled. She kissed me back. We retreated. The sax player took his solo and the riffs tickled our spines and she leaned over and her lips were soft and her tongue was in my mouth and we were still kissing while the foreigners were standing and applauding the bowing musicians.
I felt my face go flush, and hers seemed just as red. My hand knocked over a glass. Waitress were hurrying over with the checks. I settled up and we wandered out with the crowd and that’s when I began an internal debate.
One side said: Don’t go for it, it’s just the first date.
The other side countered: I cleaned my apartment earlier in the week, the bed is made with fresh sheets.
I tried to remember if the condoms in my night table drawer were still within their expiration date.
Her kiss seemed too revealing, too inviting. I was aroused. Not a difficult accomplishment, for sure. But I tried to be collected. Dating happens in stages. From my point of view. From my male perspective, I suppose. It goes like this. First date—you get to know somebody—you talk and see what is in common, register an attraction, contrive an ease with the person. Second date, there’s kissing, maybe even some petting. You sort of judge certain willingness. And, if the willingness is high, for a guy at least, you can’t think anymore, or can’t think that clearly. So, somewhere between the third and fifth dates, those are the sex dates. One of them, at least. It has to happen. Cause a guy can’t think otherwise about the other issues. Part of it is cause you’re loaded, ready for action and an erection tends to erase the ability to analyze and reflect. Part of it also is, you both seem to be getting along so well, that in order to proceed, the sexual compatibility issue must be addressed, as well as the mutual attraction question, just how attracted? That answer must be measured then verified.
Outside, we walked with our arms around each other and I turned down one of those narrow, deserted slants of village sidewalk and in the first empty doorway I stopped and pulled her closer and we made out. I had to and apparently so did she. Soon, we were indulging in second date kissing. Her thigh rubbed against my erection and I touched her breasts—preliminary petting and dry humping—we now entered the domain of third date.
So, I forgot the internal debate. The traditional timeline no longer applied. She squeezed her hand between her thigh and my groin. We heard footsteps and murmurs. Her hand went away and we just hugged real close and listened to the sounds fade into the shadows. A car went by, its headlights brushed slowly against us.
“I really feel comfortable with you Tom, I wish tonight wouldn’t end.”
I cleared my throat. In the back of my mind, I knew I should have said let’s go to a bar for a nightcap. Instead, I whispered something like we could go to my place.
Mary said okay, without a microbe of hesitation.
Her mouth was against my cheek. My face could feel her smile.
We trotted to the corner, one hand holding hers, the other furiously waving in the air hoping to be spotted by the nearest cab.
* * *
I didn’t sleep very well. I guess I wasn’t use to sharing my bed. I grinned—a warm body next to me thinking about the sounds she made, the sounds I made her make—Damn, I had missed sex and it’s true, it is like riding a bicycle. You never forget how, and it always feels good.
I liked her very much, and I knew this was a special coupling. Even with Sheila, our first time wasn’t this pleasurable. In retrospect, I don’t know how or why it happened between Mary and I that night. I could blame destiny, but destiny is always prone to practical jokes and humiliation. I try not to give it so much credence.
She later told me, she never had a one night stand and this was after we were going out for a while and I said, “well, we didn’t have a one night stand, did we.”
She was not really happy when I saw her open her eyes and I said, “I could make some coffee.”
She coughed a little and asked what time it is. I said, “early.”
“I should get going, I usually don’t do this.”
“It’s not the norm for me, believe me.” I snuggled close to her, caressed her nipple and whispered, “I enjoyed… being with you… I mean, I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable.”
“I don’t feel uncomfortable.”
I began touching her other nipple. “How do you feel?’
“I feel okay,” she half coughed, half giggled, sighed. “I just haven’t been with a man, you know, since my divorce. I guess I’m not sure how to act.”
“I think you’ve done extraordinarily well.” She laughed at this, let my hand travel down her stomach. We heard traffic sounds, a bird whistle. She was wet. I softly rubbed her clitoris between my thumb and index finger.
“Tom,” she said, squirming. “I do feel comfortable with you, I just don’t want you to think.”
“I don’t think anything,” I said, pulling the sheet away and lowering my mouth to her breasts.
I called her that night. I called her the next day. She called me the day after that. I called her the morning after that day. She came into town during the week, she couldn’t stay over and instead of going to a restaurant we made love. She came in again on Friday and stayed until Sunday.
Our relationship continued to evolve. I showed her New York. We poked around book stores and shops, kissed in parks, went to museums. I remember how for several days, I wanted to tell her, I love you. I was deliberating over how, when and where without reaching any conclusion.
Then as we strolled through the Museum of Modern Art—it was after we saw the Van Gogh paintings I believe—I just whispered in her ear, “I love you.”
She didn’t comment, until maybe an hour later, when we were outside heading towards the subway.
“Tom, I love you.”
We kissed right there, in midtown, a Saturday, the city swirling around us, sidewalks jammed with tourists and shoppers, streets packed with automobiles, buses and trucks. When we continued walking, I guess I was in such a daze, that I bumped into a hot dog vendor cart. Cans and stuff fell on the sidewalk, and the guy screamed at me in Arabic and we laughed about it that night, eating Chinese food in the nude, a Troufaut film in the VCR.
Most of the time, when a relationship starts, at least one of the lovers has to break it off with somebody they are seeing. Sure, the dissolve might be evident before the new person came along. But more often than not, when love blooms, that’s the scenario. Somebody’s heart gets broken. Not with Mary and I. We were both completely single, thirsty for a relationship, new romantic experiences. I don’t know if this made it better or worse, or gave us a false kind of encouragement. I just don’t know. I do know, things just went very far, very fast.
In a booth at Ryan’s Irish pub on second avenue and tenth street, Peter traced a highlighter marker across the lines of type in today’s Wall Street Journal. His sleek black, laptop computer was on the table, alongside a pint-glass, nearly empty of lager and a thick white plate on which lay a half eaten hamburger and a pile of ketchup covered French fries. A lit cigarette was lodged between his teeth.
He looked up as I slid on the bench across the table from him. “Am I late or something?”
“No, I got here early, couldn’t stand the office anymore.” He was stressed, puffy creases giving his face that bulldog look, his tie was off, his white shirt wrinkled, his pinstripe suit disheveled. “I’m doing all this work on mutual funds. You got to follow the fund, and follow the companies the fund invests in, and then all this new litigation that has come out about them. It’s a lot of pressure.”
“I can’t even stand to read my IRA mail.”
Lisa, the waitress came over. She was from Ireland and I listened to her brogue and I ordered a turkey sandwich and a pint and thought about smoking one of Peter’s Marlboros. Peter ordered a new pint and a shot of Bushmill as he folded the newspaper up and put it into his leather briefcase.
He said, “hey, I can get tickets to the Knicks this Friday, want to go?”
“I think I have plans with Mary.”
“Think? You have to check with her? Have a boy’s night out, be a man.”
I did the scales thing with my open palms. “Let’s see, wild sex with a woman I’m into versus watching a bunch of millionaires in their underwear chase a rubber ball around Madison Square Garden.” I moved my hands up and down. “Let me get back to you.”
“I guess it’s a no.”
“Why don’t you take that paralegal, you two seemed to be getting along pretty well.”
He grunted, “we were.”
“You going to be spilling tonight, Tommy,” said Lisa as she took the amber filled glasses from her tray and set them on the wooden table. “I want to know now if I need a fresh rags.”
I shook my head and said, “Celtic sarcasm?”
“Call me McSeinfeld,”
“You’ve been living in New York too long,’ I said.
“Haven’t we all,” said Peter, sipping his whiskey, and I noticed him watch Lisa walk away.
I drank my beer. Peter’s forehead wrinkled. I said, “How’s work.”
“Shit. I just want to stop thinking about it. All these dry details, financial crap. What a rotten deal life is, because you go to college and like, you’re away from your parents and everyone wants to get laid and there’s less head games and you’re studying all this really interesting stuff. Sociology and philosophy and shit. God, I remember just thinking about Othello.”
“Iago, the devil or your conscience.”
“Or the moor himself, how his virtues are his vices, I mean, that concept, it just blew me away when I was nineteen.” Peter stuck a fresh cigarette in his mouth, lighting it pensively, a slight tremor in his hand. He checked his watch, exhaled a stream of smoke from the side of his mouth. “I never think about big thoughts like that, important ideas to civilization, anymore. It’s just work and money.”
“You’re involved with the law. You must think about justice and rights on some level, even it’s all corporate shit. It’s got to represent something deeper.”
“I don’t think about justice so much with these contracts, just regulations and laws and when I’m not thinking about that stuff, seems I am just thinking about how to keep my mind off shit, buying new clothes, getting laid, new places to go in New York, getting drunk. I think it’s the system. You work and to forget about the work you consume”
“Like you have to learn all theses skills that make you useful to the system. The more money you make, the more money you spend. No matter what we learned in college, we use those skills not to question but to perpetuate the system.”
“We still question the system, we are just too busy surviving for the answers.”
Lisa waltzed back with the turkey sandwich and asked if I needed anything else. Peter ordered another Bushmill. He continued, “we’ve always been in a precarious place, our generation.”
“Caught in between.”
“We feel resentment about having a social conscience, because it’s the older generation’s anti-Vietnam shtick, and we saw what bullshit happened with the sixties and all that, the hypocrisy and social fall out but because this social conscience thing was so big when we were growing up, such an aspiration for the civil rights people and save the whale folks. We inherited it too late, because it failed. The world war II generation failed with the older baby boomers and the older baby boomers ruined the country. We can’t think about big ideas, we can only think about ourselves. The whiz kids and gen-xers that followed us, social conscience just ain’t a real issue, it’s not a matter of questioning society for them. They have different concerns is all. For us though, no matter if we were for or against Ronald Reagan, we have guilt about the lack of social conscience.”
I chewed my sandwich slowly, prolonging the eating of it because this was my dinner, and it had to fill me up and if it did fill me up, and I didn’t require any more food, that would be good. Low fat meal, no excess calories. I was showing off my body on a weekly basis. I had the whole narcissism going.
I said, “Things just have become more prefabricated. Jerry Springer instead of introspection, a GAP and a Starbucks on every corner. And people just like it that way.”
“The world’s upside down, Tom. Gasoline’s less per gallon than bottled water.”
“What do I care, right. I’m getting laid. I’m living my life.”
“I’m living my life too.” He knocked back his second whiskey. That one went quick. “Day by fucking grueling fucking grueling day.”
Victor arrived with Stan, who was more in touch with whatever was left of the grunge thing. Stan had ring earrings in ears and eyebrow and lip, this large pewter circle hooked into his septum. I have nothing against piercing, or jewelry on men, but the fact is you look at his face, and you can’t stop looking at the metal attached to it. He also has these stars and crescent tattoos on the side of his neck. It’s hard to take him seriously. We’re not really friends. Every time I talk to him, it seems it takes a few minutes to be able to listen to what he says because I’m either trying to figure out what the pictures on his neck are supposed to signify or I’m looking at that thick nose earring and thinking, that has got to hurt.
He muttered something to Peter, and they both stood up together and headed towards the men’s room. Peter said, “If Lisa comes back, order me another Bushmill, and a beer.”
I took a few more bites of my sandwich and asked Victor, “are they getting high?”
“Stan sells coke on the side sometime. It’s no big deal.”
“I thought Peter was through with that.”
“At least he’s not doing smack,” he said.
“Like smack’s any worse for you.”
“It’s not, it’s so trendy like big soled sneakers or models smoking cigars. I’m not against drugs, I’m just against trendy.”
I finished my pint, washing down the rest of the sandwich, just in time for Lisa to come back and take my plate and accept an order for another round.
Peter and Stan returned, glazed and sort of grinning, Peter grinning more than Stan. I wanted to say something, give him a disapproving look at least. But there’s codes to follow. We never make disparaging comments, issue judgments or give advice on our personal lives. Peter and I though, we’ve done our drugs together. It was fun too. When I was with Shiela, it was coke almost once a week, lots of pot too, which I first smoked as a freshman in high school and was a long part of my life, acid, ecstasy, mushrooms.
I didn’t think of myself as a druggie. I never had weird hair. I never hit rock bottom. It was just the culture. Drugs make America a lot more fun, believe me. Especially when your America is New Jersey.
I can’t remember a day when I said, no more drugs. I never had to go cold turkey. I hardly ever took drugs alone. As holding down a job took more and more responsibility, and I started not hanging around so much with people still getting high, my interest just waned. Opportunities just dissipated.
Peter, well he’s always gone in and out, dabbled and not, and I thought like me, it was mostly out, mostly not. We had many a fun night with a gram of coke we would hang out in bars and clubs, snorting in the bathroom. The smell of urine, the dim light, snorting up a few lines then wandering out into the loud music and crowd, body and brain electrified.
Now, staying in shape and working seem to take too much of my time, depleting drugs of their attraction.
Peter knew I knew what was up. He kind of shrugged and smiled. “I’m no longer stressed or bored. Drinks, we need drinks!”
Lisa exchanged the empty glasses for filled ones and removed my empty plate. Peter had a cigarette going already, held his nostrils and sniffled. Lisa whispered something in his ear, Peter dropped the cigarette into the ashtray, then they both went downstairs to the bathroom.
Stan was pulling at the tip of his nose, metal hoop jangling with each tug. I drank the beer and for a moment, all I could smell was smoke and booze and both were quick becoming stale stenches and I was bored, very bored.
Peter came back. “She wants me.”
Lisa appeared, with a pitcher of beer and shots of Bushmill and said it was on her, and even had an extra shot glass for her. We clinked glasses in an unnamed toast and we all downed our dose. So much for my health kick. Maybe I could jog off these excess calories tomorrow before work. Not likely.
Peter filled our glasses with beer and we drank, more like guzzled. Lisa came back with another round of shots.
Victor was telling some story about guys in the village and Stan found it incredibly funny. Peter wiped the sweat from his face with a napkin. I took a cigarette from his pack. I had quit smoking, but it wasn’t so unusual to bum one while boozing with my buddies. Pete smiled as I lit the Marlboro. He knew my willpower had eroded. He finished off another pint in two, three gulps.
Another pitcher and more whiskey arrived. When Stan and Victor returned from the bathroom, Peter muttered a come on let’s go.
The bathroom was basement level, at the bottom of a flight of stairs. Lisa followed us down. Luckily there was no line for the men’s room and we just waited for the toilet to flush and the man inside to zip and leave.
‘This is so eighties,” I said, closing the door with a final glance around the landing to make sure no one else was around to see three people gathering in the single toilet facility. The restroom was surprisingly clean. Peter pushed up the sleeves of his suit jacket, squatted by the toilet seat.
“Just a little diversion Tommy boy, if it was the 80s we’d be calling this nose candy or sinus cognac or some other cockamamie name they used on Miami Vice and Lisa here would be flashing her tits.”
“It’s the 90s, so you can touch but can’t look,” said Lisa, giving her chest a sexy shake. She was a piece of ass, for sure.
“Well, that’s why the 90s are the same as the 80s for me,” I said. “Everyone else is having more fun.”
Peter dumped some coke on the black toilet seat cover and chopped it into a fine powder with the edge of his credit card, then divided it into lines. His voice got serious. “let’s do this.”
He had four lines, thick lines, rows of white powder Sometimes, like now, when I’ve had enough alcohol and felt drunk my brain cascaded with conflicting thoughts. Usually I wound up feeling guilty about something. By doing this line of coke would I be contributing to the despair and oppression and ruined lives resulting from the drug trade and addiction? Or, if I died of a heart attack right after snorting the drug, some semi-cleaned bathroom below 14th street—nice show of respect for my dead parents.
I imagined my brother would include all the details in his eulogy.
After Peter hovered up two rows, he gave the rolled up twenty to Lisa who squatted like a pro and leaned over the toilet. The way she moved down and balanced herself just made me think, she must be a great lay.
Pete expressed disappointment, “you did both lines.”
“Oh sorry,” she grinned, bending her back and pinching her nose.
“I’m not really in the mood, it’s okay.” I was lying.
Peter had the credit card out again, he wanted me to do the coke. Part nostalgia, part association to ease any guilt or whatever. Whatever! Hey, it’s been a while so I was due. Peter cut off a little extra for him, a little added desert and he sniffed it up, then it was my turn.
As I assumed the position, Mary went through my mind. She would not want to see me doing cocaine. She drank, but didn’t like to drink to get drunk and of course, if I am not going to get drunk, I tend not to drink alcohol. She didn’t go through the drug culture scene like I did. Not sure why since she grew up in New Jersey around the same time as I did. Guess we just hung out with different types. She did mention something about not wanting to loose control one night when we were talking about our pasts. It’s sort of all in the friends you choose.
I could smell faint urine traces as I placed the rolled up bill between the edge of my nostril and the illegal substance, then inhaled it into the sinus membranes. Was this a way of asserting my self, my individuality against some subtle intimacy fear I had about my growing relationship? Did I have to prove to myself there remained a part of me that belonged to me alone, that she didn’t share, that she didn’t taint? Maybe that was more to the point. The fear of the relationship was manifesting itself by me reverting to pre-Mary behavior, trying to keep alive stuff she didn’t have anything do with, since now my life was revolving almost entirely around her schedule.
I stood up slowly, feeling the numbness spread outward from behind my nose to my forehead and chin. I was about to hand the bill back to Peter but when I turned towards him, Lisa was grinding against him and his hands were outside her T-shirt, squeezing her breasts.
I coughed, swallowing a gob of cocaine and said, “I’ll go out first.”
I heard their giggling as I walked up the stairs, warm euphoria mounting in my skull like a familiar friend who had been away for a long time.
Stan flinched when I returned, quickly moving his hand from under the table to the table top. Immediately, I took another cigarette out of Peter’s pack, lit it then drank the rest of my beer and poured another glass. The pitcher quivered in my hand, but nothing was spilt.
I gave Peter back the bill when he sat down. He look around, checking to see if Lisa was watching and when he was positive she was not, held up his palm and he and I high fived. I took another cigarette, lit it off the one I just finished, told Peter I was going to have to buy him a pack.
Lisa came back with another tray of drinks, but instead of four shot glasses there were four whiskey or rock glasses, which basically held two or more shots of Ireland’s distilled best. She suddenly seemed all business, her composure mirthless in order to conceal the more chemically induced joy. She placed the pitcher and the glasses on the table and said, very quietly, “this has to go to the be the last freebie, the manager’s acting up okay.”
“Not a problem, we can even pay for this one,” said Peter, his hand touching the side of her thigh.
She winked at him. “No, no, that’s not necessary. Cheers.”
Peter leaned closer to me, “I’m taking her to the game, she’s never been to one.”
“She’s nice,” said Victor.
Stan displayed no interest.
Peter looked at his watch, cursed the fact it was after nine o’clock, reached into his attaché for the cellphone and was fingering the numbers as he stood up and walked towards the door to get a better reception.
Victor got up and followed Stan down the stairs.
I smoked and drank. The whiskey went down, then an entire pint almost as fast. The booze complemented the coke. My skin tingled and my eyes felt like pinballs connected by wires to dry sockets. I thought about something and a second later could not remember what I was thinking about.
“Where’s Stan,” said Peter as he sat down.
“With Victor, they went to the uhh, bathroom.”
“Looks like I’m going over to see Cheryl, I’m going to have to get a little more I think.”
“Peter, you’re not getting into it again.”
“With Cheryl, it’s just casual and mutual pleasure.”
“No, with the blow.”
“Just some diversion, is all. I got a lot on my mind, what am I going to do, worry about injustice?”
“It could hinder your lawyering I guess.”
He laughed much harder than necessary, swigged his whiskey. “You got that right,” then stood up. “Excuse me, I’m going to head them off at the pass. Ask Lisa for the check when you see her.”
* * *
I felt pretty inebriated walking back to my apartment, my mouth was parched and I kept licking my gums and smacking my lips and grinding my teeth. At my corner bodega I bought three liter bottles of Evian, thinking the purity of the French water would cleanse me, along with some Advil, and reluctantly a pack of Marlboros. The cigarettes I had smoked seemed to taste so good, but I justified the purchase by the fact, that if I couldn’t sleep, smoking would at least giving me something to do to wait out the chemically induced insomnia.
I opened one of the waters and by the time I reached my apartment door, I had finished the entire liter. I found an ashtray and lit a cigarette and opened another bottle of water. The message light blinked. Mary’s voice, endearingly soft, “Nothing important. Just wanted to say hi and talk, but I know you were going out. If you come home early enough, give me a call. I was… I was just th-thinking about you.” Her voice became a gradual whisper, and the last comment seemed more exhaled than actually spoken.
No wonder I was in love. No wonder, we had become so intertwined.
I pissed for a long time. I took off my clothes, swallowed some Advil, played the message a few more times. It was midnight. It was too late to call her. I tried to think of other things, but when I wasn’t thinking of Mary, and our sex, I mean, love-making, last weekend, I remembered Peter and Lisa. If he hadn’t already done her, he would soon, and tonight, that twenty something paralegal was on all fours snorting cocaine as Peter sodomized her.
Why couldn’t I be thinking about the new marketing campaign, peace in the mideast? Something, anything else? I lit another cigarette, drank more water, fondled my erection. I wouldn’t be falling asleep for a while.
I picked up the receiver and dialed her number. I tried to believe I just wanted to leave a message. I woke her up, I could tell by her hushed voice, groggy and congested, probably worried that it would be one of those emergency calls, some kind of bad news in the middle of the night.
“Sorry, it’s just me.”
“Hi,” her yawn groaned. “Are you okay.”
“I got your message.”
“It wasn’t important.”
“I just wanted to hear your voice. I’m a little drunk. I’m sorry. I was just thinking about you. I guess I woke you. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. You had a good time?”
“Usual stuff. I wish I was with you. I like being with you. I like your body being next to mine.”
“I’m pretty tired, honey.”
My hand moved faster. My arm pits stank. Streams of sweat dribbled over my eyebrows and stung my eyes.
“Are you there.” she said.
“Yes, yes. I miss you. I just wanted to hear your voice.” Actually I wanted to hear her moan, say something dirty. My shortness of breath I hoped was coming across to her as emotion.
I couldn’t tell her I called so I wouldn’t feel so lonely jerking off. In my stoned, drunk state of mind it turned me on for her to listen to me come, maybe even encouraged it.
She said it was nice that I called, but she was really tired and she said I love you and hung up before I could beg her to stay just a few seconds longer. I dropped the phone down. I kept my hand moving. I forced my self to fantasize and when that proved ineffective, I dredged up as many sexual memories as necessary. As I got closer and closer, none were recent, none included Mary.
* * *
I wasn’t just getting laid, I had a girlfriend. I didn’t mind it either, I didn’t feel threatened or anything like that. I didn’t seem to have to do anything I didn’t want to and being considerate of her needs and feelings seem to make me what I thought was a better person.
I became worried about being so happy. I called up my therapist and made my first appointment in over a year. I didn’t want to reinstate therapy, but on some level I did miss it, the routine of it and even after it was completed, I returned for a “tune up” every once in a while.
Breaking up with Sheila happened soon after my mother’s death. I was a wreck. Willard Feinstein, clinical psychologist, listened to my whining for three years or so. He was shaped like a bean bag chair, favored denim shirts with paisley ties, corduroy pants and sneakers and his voice was nasal, like Woody Allen, complete with the hard T’s and A for R’s indicative of die-hard Manhattanites, especially if they originally hail from Brooklyn or Queens.
There was nothing medical about his office, it wasn’t a part of a medical suite. There was no receptionist. It was just a very nice apartment, either cost a fortune or Willard had a rent control deal dating back to Mayor Lindsay.
The waiting room was a comfortable living room, just a coffee table with magazines and chairs. Willard’s office was down a hall, and he would walk the finishing patient to the apartment door before coming back to the living room for the next appointment. I never saw the faces of my fellow patients.
The other room, the psychology office, contained a desk with a chair, bookshelves, a thick leather chair with ottoman next to a couch, which wasn’t that classic Freud thing but just a regular coach. There were end tables alongside the couch, a coffee table between the couch and the leather chair, and a box of Kleenex on each table. I shook Willard’s hand, and before we sat down he removed this small vase with a single rose from the coffee table and put it on a book shelf. I sat on the couch and he sat in the chair and we looked at each other in a our usual pre-session pause. That’s how they always started. Him waiting for me to say something. I thought about having a staring contest sometimes. Gaze him into submission, into saying something before I did. Never did, it was my dime I guess.
I smiled. “how you been.”
“Good,” his pumpkin head bobbed. “It’s good to see you, Tom.”
“Well, look, doc (for some reason, I liked to call him doc.) I’ve been good, I have. I don’t need to go back to the weekly sessions, you know, it was real helpful and I’m grateful for that. I haven’t felt the need for it, like we achieved what we wanted to and I’ve gone on with my life.”
“No reason why you shouldn’t have, Tom. You dealt with your problems, you are not stuck anymore.”
“I’m not. I am better at my job. I just got a promotion.”
“Thanks. And you know, I went for it. I didn’t just sit back, doc. I pushed. The marketing manger left, made a lateral move and I fought the pigeonholing. I was good. I knew they were interviewing candidates from the outside. I went in to old man Thompson’s office and said I wanted this promotion and that I deserved this promotion and when he said he would consider me in his lame way, and asked me to write up some proposals and an evaluation of the marketing department, and where it could go, I handed him a complete report. I anticipated it. I razzled him then I dazzled him. He gave it to me a week later, big memo was released, he took us out to dinner and even sprang for some champagne.”
“That’s great, Tom.”
“I had a better celebration with Mary, we did a bread and breakfast thing in upstate new york, drove around to antique stores and stuff, she liked it.”
“That’s great, Tom.” I tried to read his expression, and as usual I could only see his concentration on what was saying, but no clue to his judgment. “Tell me about Mary.”
“I’m happy, things are great between us. That’s what makes me worried.”
Then a squint. “Why does being happy cause you worry?”
“That’s what you’re supposed to tell me, right doc.”
He chuckled, shifted his pudgy frame, pivoting back and forth in the leather swivel throne, waited for me to speak.
“I was happy with Sheila, for a while.”
“Do you really think this is the same kind of happiness?”
“Well, the sex is pretty good. We’re pretty intimate. I mean, okay, Sheila was a little more intense, but we were younger and she was on drugs a lot of the time. I mean, okay, one thing bothers me about Mary. Here it is. Sheila was needy.”
“She had a lot of problems, Tom. What she did wasn’t healthy. She harmed you.”
“I understand but she needed sex. She was always willing to try new things, hell half the new things we did were her idea. But you know, she would wake me up, right, this kind of embarrassing, it’s like an example, okay. With her mouth, she would wake me up. Right, she wanted to make love to me. She needed it. Mary, she is loving, but she doesn’t seem to initiate. It’s a little thing I guess. I don’t know why it bothers me, or even if it is real or just my perception.”
“Have you tried talking to her about it. Bring it up sometime… wouldn’t it be fun…”
“Well, we do seem to talk a lot, but we don’t talk about sex that much. It’s just accepted that we are going to do it when we’re together. But I am happy with her, I mean, like I like pleasing her, and I’m not talking about orgasms or that kind of stuff. Like, it was my idea to do the bed and breakfast thing. I think of things she likes to do, and we do them. Last week, we went to the Frick, it was great. She’s never been, and God, I haven’t been for years. Sheila never had the patience to look at paintings. She was more into that theater crap. We’ve even met each other’s family. I went over to her moms, in Teaneck. I impressed her mom. But I liked being there. I liked impressing her mother. She seem to remind me of my mother, cause she seemed very gentle, you know, she seemed kind of old, and old people, like when they’re in a good mood, just seem sort of sweet and well, admirable and I guess I miss my mother. I wish she could have lived longer. I wish I could have brought somebody like Mary home.”
I was out of breath. I felt the hint of tears, but they were from some distant habit. I did a lot of crying in the early sessions. The urge to now came from thinking about my mother, as well as being back here, in this place, alive in the past again. Talking to Willard. I reverted to previous behavior.
I suddenly felt it was a mistake to call, responding to anxiety by retreating to the plastic positive reinforcement of analysis. It was only useful in a certain time and place in my life. That usefulness no longer applied. With Sheila, I needed professional help to recover. Hell, I’d talk to anybody about her. Talking about Mary to a professional seemed wrong, like a jinx.
I felt like somebody who hires a maid, then cleans up before the maid arrives out of embarrassment the maid will see the actual dirt and clutter she was hired to remove. I stared at Willard’s pudgy face, but avoided eye contact. I inspected his countenance and expression, but he gave me no clue, he had no tell.
“It’s all right to be happy, Tom,” said Willard, without a trace of sarcasm, or irony.
“It’s just that sometimes doc, it’s like all new and exciting and other times, I just don’t know about it.”
“I give you permission, Tom. You should enjoy it, enjoy her, enjoy your time together. You’re allowed to. Now, it’s up to you to give yourself permission.”
I looked at the wall, the familiar degrees in the familiar frames, the hard covered books on the shelves, the picture of some famous building somewhere in Europe. The curtains were closed. It was getting dark outside. Traffic hummed. Maybe I had come to this well once too often, for it was now dry. Willard combed his mustache with his thumb.
I put my hands over my face and my elbows on my knees. “I’m less on edge, but I can’t figure it out sometimes. I mean, the sex is great, things are great, I trust her but I don’t know what she expects. I’m not interested in the white picket fence thing, being like my parents, moving to the suburbs. All of that.”
“Does she want that?”
“I’m not sure. I think she wants to move but she doesn’t talk about marriage. I think because she felt so burned by her first marriage that it’s not an issue.”
“Do you feel that being in this relationship makes you less of your self?”
I thought about that one for a moment. I didn’t know. “What I’ve been thinking about doesn’t make sense. It has to do with being a man and with sex. With Mary, okay, there seems to be a lot of emotional stuff in there, a lot of cuddling and holding and it’s not like I don’t appreciate affection. I mean, holding each other naked and talking, it’s nice and all that. But I want to be a stud too. I want to be a machine. I want some kind of freedom, shit, I can’t explain it. I don’t think I’m interested in anybody else, I’m not saying that. But I need to know I’m a great fuck, you know, a man, in general. Sometimes I want to just be a male escort, competent and experienced, no kissing please and be trusted to please a woman, body to body. Not just a fulfillment of her personalized agenda.”
Sudden exhaustion over took me. I wanted to get out of here. I wanted to stop this reverting. I was using Yalta diplomacy for the Paris Peace Talks. It just wasn’t effective.
I leaned back into the couch, stretched out my legs and accidentally toppled the coffee table over. Willard let go of his mustach
* * *
After a typical, nondescript day at the office, I came home, unlocked my apartment door. A draft, cold and surprising, pushed against my face. I glanced at the open window and for a moment tried to remember if I left it that way. I noticed the window gate swaying in the night. I looked at the empty television stand. I hollered loud enough for neighbors to hear. I walked around the apartment checking all the newly empty places. Stereo, computer, my cookie jars of change, Walkman, clock radio. Gone. Stolen.
I had a studio apartment, barely 400 square feet of space, the kitchen and bathroom at one end, my bed at the other. There were two windows, both with gates. The landlord installed the second gate after last year’s burglary. Seems they were able to penetrate the second gate too.
I had apartment insurance but I just couldn’t take these violations. Even without the crime, New York life is hard enough. You got to work like a dog, pay nearly half your pay check for rent, eight cents on the dollar for every thing you buy and everyone you meet is prejudiced against you for being from New Jersey or for not being rich. And, you can’t even keep a few possessions safe in your overpriced hamster cage. I visualized junky hands going through my drawers, dog feces covered soles of shoes stepping from the window ledge to my bed.
Did I really want so much? Where the fun bars and the fact that it was world famous capital of earth worth it?
That same week, Mary was in tears over her room mate. They hated each other, bickered over bills and stuff. It was real freshman year type arguments. Jane didn’t really want a room mate, but couldn’t afford the place on her salary alone, and she transferred that resentment. They were two different types. Mary, she had her life planned out, guaranteed job, responsible, set in school system career. Jane wanted to be in the arts, although had no talent as far as I could tell. I mean, she never seemed to create anything. She just hung out. She had opinions and knew people, but she didn’t write or draw or paint or take photographs or play a musical instrument. I didn’t like her because Mary didn’t like her, but still, I always feel there should be a shit or get off the pot attitude. If you are involved in the arts, you should have a craft to practice. Why just go to the party?
Their situation had devolved into post-it note communication. Mary had her own private phone installed in her bed room. When Jane was in the apartment, Mary rarely left her bedroom. She would call me just to have something to do. She was even waiting until it was absolutely unavoidable to use the bathroom.
Mary wanted to come over as much as possible, but after the burglary, I hated being home. Seeing the places where my possessions used to be just reminded me of being violated. My apartment insurance would kick in a couple of months, but I didn’t want to replace anything. I just didn’t feel safe. Mary mentioned a good thing I wasn’t home, because who knows what those maniacs would have done if I was. Maybe I would prefer to fight, to have a chance, be killed struggling rather than live with the constant feeling of violation.
So, we both were talking about moving and I can’t remember who suggested it first — why not move in together — but it seemed a logical thing to do that instead of moving to different places and extend our dating,
If I was pre-disposed towards social righteousness, and she had not been through the mill with her marriage, we would have just gotten a ring and sworn oaths in front of God and our community and that would be it. Whether or not that would have been better is anybody’s guess. Instead, it was like that old Joni Mitchell song from Blue: We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall, keeping us tried and true, no.
“I don’t think we could afford an apartment in new york where I could keep my car. I’m only licensed to teach in New Jersey.”
“I don’t care about leaving the city anymore, I just don’t want to spend half my life commuting on some train or bus, and I still want to hang out in the city. I’ll go crazy in the suburbs. I just want don’t want to be more than an hour away. Less, is better.”
So, we both were ready and willing to compromise.
We looked at places in Hoboken. They weren’t cheap. Sinatra’s birthplace had gone from blue collar to near slum to a one mile square of gentrification. Factories had closed down. People lived there because they worked in the city, so they could afford the same rents as Manhattan. All the places were walk ups too.
She had heard about Jersey City from a friend. It was going through the same stages as its neighboring city of Hoboken—and like that town it’s a ten minute PATH subway ride to and for lower Manhattan—but the upswing hadn’t been achieved, so rents had yet to escalate like Hoboken.
It’s not that we looked at hundreds of apartments, but I was pretty exhausted by the process. In New York, you have to go through that many at least, often being placed on a list so even if you decide on a place, by the time you place the phone call you’re out of luck. I just hated it, combine that with my disgust at being robbed which had expanded into a complete disgust at Manhattan—I think I blamed the entire five boroughs, hell maybe the whole empire state—and work had gotten busy. It was just a busy time, new programs being launched. I had to take several trips, and I didn’t want to spend every weekend traipsing around inspecting empty apartments for rent. I was predisposed towards almost anything. I just wanted my life to change. I wanted the next step.
I envisioned sex and companionship and sex and being a two-income household and sex.
It was a Saturday. Mary set up a few appointments in this neighborhood called Downtown Jersey City. I was to meet her at the cannery apartment complex, a few blocks from the path subway, a renovated factory into bargained priced, luxury apartments. We had made the date while I was still in Cleveland. I missed her, was working on a few hours sleep and jet lagged when I made my way to the subway station. My mood could have gone two ways I suppose, total disgust, dismissive of everything or the complete opposite — enthusiastic and positive because it’s the only way to take away my gloom and tension, and further my need to change.
What am I doing? went through my mind as I rode on the PATH, which had orange ceilings and was graffiti free, and considerably less crowded and grimy than new york’s subterranean railroad cars. How could I leave New York? How could I settle down, or take a step towards settling down whatever the hell that means besides conformity and complete, inescapable boredom… I was ready to hate it and re-up my lease and invest in a German shepherd.
But first, I had given myself an hour to cross the river, and I was there in less than fifteen minutes. So, I walked around a little. Towards the river there were tall, newly built office towers yet above this skyline was the World Trade Center, reminding new jersey and perhaps all of America of the power of money, the price of freedom. I walked up Newark Avenue, which features grubby bodegas and off-price stores with peeling, faded signs and reminded me of 14th or Delancy street, then I walked a few other blocks, and there were some with burnt out buildings, some suspicious teenagers wearing fancy nylon gym suits, but there was also this park with a gazebo in the center, a small but stately library, and rows of brownstones similar to Brooklyn’s landmark neighborhoods. It seemed mostly safe, relatively clean. I felt a good vibe.
The apartment building was a renovated factory. Jersey was a factory town. Immigrants right off the boat from Ellis Island found jobs, raised families, moved to the suburbs. Reagan pretty much put an end to smokestack America. Factories closed and Jersey City like Newark or Camden decayed, white flight, rising crime… now the gentrification wave had begun. Makes me feel old, living through all these changes. But like most Americans, I’m only aware of them after the fact.
Mary waited by her Toyota corolla, dressed in blue jeans and blue flannel shirt, sipping some large sized Styrofoam coffee drink and looking sexier and sexier as I approached, her hair blowing in the breeze We held hands as we went to the management office for our appointment. The guy showing us the apartments was short and slight, neatly dressed, diamond earring and red ribbon lapel pin on his crisp white T-shirt. The apartments were large, white walls and high ceilings and splitting the rent I would be paying nearly half of what I was in Manhattan. We didn’t let on our enthusiasms, but we took notes and asked questions and afterwards, I said, “I liked it.”
“So did I.”
“I like the factory it’s in, the cobblestone streets. It echoes history.”
“They were cute.”
I kissed her and said, “do you want to look at any others.”
“Not really.” We made out in the parking lot. I missed her. She said that Jane was out and we went back to her place and maybe as some sign of trust, or perhaps just at admittance that we had to alleviate anxiety generated by moving in and advancing relationship anxiety, we did it immediately, on the couch. Pleasure a secondary issue. Afterwards, she said. “It’s a big step.”
“I’m ready. I love you Mary. I know I have my problems and stuff, and I know I don’t make the most money in the world, but no matter what happens, you just have to look at your side and I will be there. Full, unquestioning support.”
Her eyes went slack, glad weepy. I said what she wanted to hear. I didn’t mention I saw it on Major Dad a few years ago, a sit-com about this Marine Corps veteran who marries this widow with two children. Instant family fantasy of honorable men and women.
Mary discussed furniture, what I had, what she had, what else we needed, discussed moving plans and filled out the forms and she called Sal on Monday. We ate some take out and watched television, she took a bath and I washed her back and we drank beer and talked, lit candles and made love again, then as she slept in my arms, my free hand aiming the remote switching from some black and white Humphrey Bogart movie to Bosnia war coverage on CNN, I just had this feeling that finally, my actual life would resemble my expectations.
“Move out of Manhattan?” Peter smirked, gestured towards the east village dive reeking of smoke and stale beer. “Leave all this?”
“Like it’s that much different,” I said. “I’m ten minutes away. It’s just a psychological thing, and you know, that’s not so bad. People who move to Brooklyn, hell, to the upper east side too, they’re further away from the village.”
“I’m not saying that Brooklyn’s better. Aren’t you worried about being part of different social circles.”
“What social circles? Look, you come from anywhere in the world, anywhere in the country besides new jersey and Manhattan’s social circles open up. I never felt that. You make a lot of money Peter, a lot more money than I do. You got the whole thing happening for you, legal circles to surround you, a nice apartment and a low, rent controlled rent. I don’t have that. You even have family in town, that cousin of yours you never see. And, you date well. I mean, you always have some snatch or two somewhere. I don’t got the rap that you do.”
“You mean all my tutelage has been wasted?” He grinned.
“It’s just like living in new york. I can hang out whenever I want. That Path runs twenty four seven. I think I have a good thing with Mary.”
“You thought you had a good thing with Sheila.”
“So, my life’s a mess and I’m stupid, that’s what you’re saying.”
“Not at all. Sheila’s a psychotic bitch. You know that, I know that, the American people know that. I’m just here to remind you that it’s not just leaving the Manhattan lifestyle, no matter how close your future lifestyle may resemble it, you are making a commitment, moving in with a woman, it’s a big step.”
“Gee, thanks, Pete. That hasn’t crossed my mind at all. I’m making a big step. Next you’re going to tell me the sky is blue.”
“Yes, the sky is blue. The sidewalk is hard and the buildings are tall. Those are things we can be certain of, you know where you stand in that universe. But the real universe is the earth and the earth is vagina and you can never be sure where you stand in a universe that bleeds from the moon and not by a wound.”
“Are you on drugs again?”
“Dude, you know I’m behind you. Maybe there’s some new bars there we can find. When’s the moving day?”
A woman came over, half her hair dyed pink the other sky blue, earrings hooked in her eyebrows, lips and nostrils. She ignored me and asked Peter if he had seen Victor or Stan.
It was almost like I wasn’t there. It was almost like I had already left.
It’s not just rebellion that makes me uneasy about suburbia. When I was in sales, and had to travel a lot more than I do now, I saw the America through the windows of rented cars. Two lane highways, fast food, gas stations, stores, mall, from sea to shining sea, the land formerly of the Indians was just a garish shopping center and I guess maybe, the founding fathers thought this would be the case, but the pilgrims would be aghast. I couldn’t wait to get back to the city as I mentally prepared myself for the clients, going over pitches, listening to sales motivational tapes in the deck.
About a year after my mother died, the house sold and wills all settled, I had arranged an extra day for this Texas trip. I had only met my Uncle Donald once, well twice, counting the old man’s funeral. The first time, he came to visit. I was young. The memory was hazy. I remember everyone seemed mad at David’s long hair. I don’t remember him too well from my father’s funeral, except that he wore a military uniform and seemed very, very old.
Uncle Donald didn’t go to my mother’s funeral. He had sent a mass card, with a return address for a V.A. hospital in Mill Creek Texas, about fifty miles outside of Houston. He was my father’s older brother, some career Army officer or something. My father talked about him, but not often and I can’t remember when he did mention him, if it was out of love or just another example of a male adult who fought in world war II, like Nixon or somebody we had to respect. He was big on respect of elders. A teacher yelled at me, I got in trouble at school, I was unquestionably at fault. The authorities, they were always in the right and the kids were always in the wrong. Just being young was wrong, of course.
I didn’t tell my brother, or Sheila, that I was going. It was like a private vision quest, a confrontation with my demons or past. Something for myself, and to talk about with Willard.
For some reason, the typical flatlands, Mcdonalds and gas stations and crap seemed even more oppressive under the dust filled heat of South Texas in July. The Lone Star, which seceded from Mexico and joined the U.S. so it could legally have slavery, was the wasteland capital, like post nuclear suburbia. The Hospital was this green, depression era steel cube. I brought a cactus plant. I didn’t know what to bring, and I had to bring something and it seemed that a bouquet of flowers for an old soldier was inappropriate. The nurse behind the desk seemed nearly shocked, the man had never had a visitor. She told me he had prostrate cancer, Alzheimer, other ailments. “I’ve seen healthier 80 year olds,” she gravely told me.
Even though it was after July 4th, Independence Day decorations were still up—withered and faded red, white and blue crepe paper bunting draped along the wall.
“New York City?” exclaimed the nurse as she walked me with me. “I ain’t never been. Seems like there’s a lot of crime there.”
‘It’s safer than you would think,” I said.
We came to the recreation room. There was a huge TV screen. Fifty four inches at least You only see screens this size in Sports bars. A painting of the bronze Iwa Jima statute took up the entire wall. The room was enclosed in glass, well, actually the front wall was entirely glass so you could see in and what you saw were these old men, wearing hospital gowns and sitting in wheel chairs. It was like the dying senior citizen exhibit at the human zoo. There was a table of four who were playing a card game at a table, but most were just sitting in, spaced out, ailing, lost in medication and memory. They didn’t seem to care about comprehending the broadcasts.
I didn’t recognize Uncle Donald. The nurse walked me into the room. His wheel chair was positioned so he faced the big screen. She turned him around and wheeled him towards the periphery of the room. “Colonel, you have a visitor, he says he’s your nephew,” she shouted behind him.
I stumbled as I followed. I felt shocked. Completely bald, eyes dark and yellowish, and these brownish liver spots, splotches really, over his face and hair less arms, a tube running from his loins to the colostomy bag beneath his chair. I hadn’t thought of him as this old. He was one of the oldest people I’ve ever seen. A thick odor surrounded him. It was probably just human waste products, but to me it could only be death.
“Uncle Donald,” I said, trying to ease my stammer. He seemed confused, upset almost but not by my presence but by no longer seeing the Television. His unlit eyes focused. I repeated myself and his shaky hand lifted and pointed a skeletal finger and wheezed out, “Charley.”
“Yes, yes. Charley’s son.”
“He was a son of a bitch, how is he?”
“He died. Remember, you were at the funeral.” I felt frustrated. “I’m his son. His son, Tom.”
“Good thing you cut your hair.”
“I wasn’t the hippie, I was the younger son. Tom! Tom. How are you?”
He settled down. “How am I? Don’t get old, I’ll tell ya that. I once killed a German soldier with my bare hands. He had a knife and I didn’t. How do you think I feel that I can’t do that again?”
I was crouched down in front of him. His bone structure seemed as breakable as balsa wood and his skin was a translucent ivory-yellow. “I just wanted to see you again.” He didn’t hear me and I repeated it louder. It was like that Garret Morris bit on the old Saturday Night Live, the news for the hearing impaired when he’d shout, our top story tonight. “I just wanted to thank you for sending that card when my mother died.”
“It was a bad marriage from the beginning.”
“My father and mother? Is that why there was so much tension, and ten years between the sons.”
“When I saw that long hair I knew you were no good.”
“I didn’t have the long hair. I was the baby.”
“Wouldn’t let her touch him.”
“My mother? Sex you mean?”
He seemed exhausted. He wheezed. “Tommy.”
“Yes, I’m Tommy!” I shouted, my voice louder than the television noise. The card players looked over at us. “I’m Tommy, the baby. Uncle Donald.”
He smiled. He had no teeth. But the smile didn’t last. His cheek bones went slack, but they still seemed sharp enough to rip through the dingy veneer of flesh. “I killed a soldier with my bare hands and now the protesters are driving Volkswagens! I got their women though.”
I stood up, backed away knocking into another old veteran who cursed at me. I walked over to the nurse and handed her the cactus.
“I’ll put this in his room,” she assured me. “I’m sure he’s glad you came. Not a lot of people do. It’s tough to get old, especially when you spend your life as a soldier.”
“We were never close.”
“God understands,” she said.
And I laughed, suddenly, loudly. I didn’t know what I would find but I didn’t find what I wanted. As usual I didn’t know what I wanted to begin with. I drove back to the airport, spent the hours waiting for my flight in the bar, sullen, silent, smoking cigarettes and drinking scotch.
I guess I slept on the flight. I don’t know. I wasn’t upset or anything. I just needed to brood and I was just as silent when I got back to the apartment. Sheila was high on coke. She’d picked up an eight ball. I didn’t want to tell her about seeing Uncle Donald. I didn’t have much to say.
“I’m tired I guess,” when she asked me why I was so quiet.
We were sitting at the table, mirror, powder, razor blade, rolled up bill, Vodka, two glasses, bowl of ice. Cigarette butts piled in the ash tray.
“You can be so quiet some times, you really want to bring me down don’t you? I don’t want to be depressed okay, I’m here with you now, don’t you care?”
I rolled my eyes at her. I snorted a line. She took off her shirt and pushed her breasts together. “I want to inspire you to be happy, for me, Tom. Be happy for me because I’m here.”
We were going to get all high and hyped on coke and fuck. I needed it too, I needed to go at it, forget all about everything, job, life, past. She laughed at me. Her laughter always had a mean edge to it, a sarcasm no matter what the context. It was the laughter of lying, of knowing something I didn’t. “But you can’t touch me until you take a shower because I can smell you from here.”
* * *
The economy was good, sales soaring and the marketing department was given credit. My work. Gary, a vice president, about ten years older and as close to a mentor to me as I’ve ever known, took me to lunch. I needed a couple of days off, to move.
“No problem, “ he said.
“I’ll be checking my messages. I won’t leave things unattended.”
“I said No problem, Tom. It’s a big step.”
“Everybody says it’s a big step. I know it’s a big step. I am kind of wishing it was over with already.”
“It’s one of the three stresses,” Gary told me. “Moving. It’s right up there with changing jobs, and marriage. I guess the marriage will come.”
“It’s not a priority for either of us. She’s divorced.”
“Well, seems marriage is back in style again. Looks good too. May want to think about it at some point. Around here it’s pretty liberal, but the rest of the country isn’t. I don’t care. I just care about performance. But, as you ascend in the rat race the bigger rats will look at everything that’s not on a resume.” He shifted in his chair, twisted pasta around his fork. Gary had an obie wan quality about him, or maybe a yoda, dispensing wisdom in a non-sequitor fashion that was not for comment or further explanation. It was sort of up to you to extrapolate significance.
Peter helped me packed, actually he just hung out in my apartment drinking beer as I put my meager possessions into boxes. I had hired movers and Mary and I coordinated. Her sister Janet and her brother Harry were helping her. Sarah was single and in law school and Harry, well he was something else, the family’s only son, a failure, the last damaged vestige of the parent’s divorce. Grossly overweight, high school drop out, could never hold a job and at age forty, had never moved out of the house.
I used this Brooklyn moving company, Moishe’s and the two men that moved me were Israeli. Big muscular guys who wore yarmulkes. They put on wide weight lifting belts to unloaded my apartment of boxes and furniture and put them in the back of my truck. Peter took the day off, although there was not much for us to do except watch. We rode in the cab of the truck down Houston Street to the Holland tunnel, crossing the invisible state line somewhere mid river.
The movers spoke Hebrew to each other, but at one point one of them said to me, “Most people we move to New Jersey go to the suburbs.”
“I like concrete,” I replied.
“People come from all over the world to live in New York City. It’s strange to leave it.”
“I’m not leaving it, I’m just crossing the river.”
The other one laughed, “You cross the river in my country, you go to another country that’s stuck in the 14th century.”
“Jersey may be stuck a little further back,” said Peter.
“I can still get cable, don’t worry,” I replied.
Just as the Israeli guys finished with the loads—due to insurance considerations, Peter and I could not help—Mary and her crew pulled up. I paid off the guys and thanked them, then the five us went to work unloading her rented truck. As we struggled with the hand truck, Janet made some lawyer talk with Peter but at his mention of securities law, she stated her intention to work in a district attorney’s office and any sort of friendship between them instantly evaporated.
Harry, he wasn’t much help. Too out of shape and fat to do any of the hauling or lifting, so he mostly watched the truck while the rest of us did the work. Still, I liked this guy. To be so dysfunctional takes a special kind of determination. I didn’t know whether I liked him because pity for someone can build confidence for your self, or maybe it was empathy. I could identify with him. If things had been different for me in Bergen County, I could have become an overweight alcoholic living in my parent’s basement into middle age. Which I would be assuming would be worse than a neurotic workaholic who thinks misery can only be alleviated by fornication.
Mary considered him an alcoholic. I didn’t see any tangible evidence of alcoholism, except that he didn’t wait until Mary’s possessions were carried off the rental truck into the apartment building to start drinking beer. Peter and I had bought a case at the corner liquor store. I wasn’t counting how many cans Harry imbibed, but he always seemed to have one going nearby him. When he didn’t, he was in the kitchen getting a new one.
Most of the furniture, the bigger boxes, Peter and I hauled in. A hand truck made the boxes easier. It took only a couple of hours. Then we sat around, having a few beers. Since I had gotten there first, my stuff was mostly in the back room, the bed room, and her stuff was in the main room, the large living room. Soon, everything would be emptied out and commingled and for that moment, it was truly a place of present because the past had ended and the future had not arrived.
I thought Peter would be his obnoxious self. He’s that way with city folk, and it was apparent that Janet and Harry were not even suburban refugees. They seemed unquestioning progeny. I anticipated his supercilious sarcasm. But I was wrong. While keeping cordial with Janet, he seemed to downright bond with Harry, talking about the Yankees, slurping on their beers. Harry, tiring easily and perspiring so much I half expected a puddle to form at his feet, seemed so unhealthily fat, even commenting on it would seem cruel. Instead, Peter, a much bigger baseball fan than I was, listened to Harry recitation of records. He knew every statistic. They discussed players, American hero multimillionaires of the present, and Harry would quip, he’s batting only 350. He has a good RBI, as well as several categories I wasn’t familiar with. Both Peter and I were amazed. . Harry may be a loser, but Harold Bloom doesn’t read Shakespeare with the devotion this guy must spend on the sports page.
Both Mary and I had the next day off to do the hard part, which was move in, decide where things go, graft a system to integrate love and lifestyle into the chaos of possessions and aspirations. Janet and Peter seemed intent on reassuring us how nice the apartment was, how safe the neighborhood seemed. Harry, when not talking baseball, sat, beer in hand, breathing as audible as activated landing gear. Gradually, after wishing us well, Peter walked to the Path, and Mary had to drive Harry and Janet back, drop off the truck. So, I was left alone to get busy. I unpacked the stereo so I would have some music and set up the bed. We decide to use my bed, it was bigger, newer—I had replaced after Sheila and I guess burglars couldn’t exchange it for crack—then I moved things into what seemed like obvious spots.
I lay down for a few seconds on the mattress and wound up falling asleep.
“Honey, I’m home,” said Mary in her best fake sit-com voice. When she saw me, her voice changed. “You’re sleeping on the bed in your dirty clothes and shoes?”
I cleared my throat. “Sorry. I just got tired.”
She sat on the edge of the bed. “I’m tired too. We have a lot to do here.”
I sat next to her, put my arm around her shoulders and kissed her. “We have time. I no longer have to walk you to the subway. We don’t have to unpack everything tonight.”
”I know, I just can’t relax with everything like this. It is a nice place though. It has potential.”
“So do we,” I said, slipping my hand under her sweatshirt.
She stood up. “I said I can’t relax in this mess.”
So, we spent a couple of hours with a lot of the basic stuff, kitchen utensils in cabinets, books in shelves, clothes in closets. We made a pretty good dent. Then I went around the corner and picked up a pizza and a bottle of wine. She made a list of things to get at the supermarket. I figured we would make love that night. It seemed like a romantic, barefoot in the park thing to do. I was feeling in love, secure, victorious. We had the television plugged in, two wine glasses, paper towels. We both had taken showers. Sex would be an affirmation of our commitment and of our love.
She fell asleep. I watched Letterman, finished off the wine. I was nagged by the feeling that our togetherness or something equally intangible should have been consummated. The first day of the rest of our lives and we should make note of it physically—isn’t that what life’s all about—Sex. What’s the alternative? Loneliness? Celibacy? Boredom? Watching pornos alone with a bottle of mineral oil and a box of tissues?
Alas, passion wasn’t the reality. This was. Making perfunctory plans for rudimentary responsibilities and comfort. Eating, television, sleeping.
I listened to the new apartment sounds. A distant creak, the faint hum of automobiles on the turnpike. Somebody shouting in the streets several blocks away. They weren’t that much different, or less noisy, than the night audible to me in the Manhattan building. Still, they were not ones with which I was familiar