Sunday, December 07, 2008

What's Not To Like?

The window was long and looked out over Washington Square Park. The window was in the section of the living room that held what could have been the dining room table. It was a rectangular alcove opening out from the living room, large enough to fit the table which looked like it came from a farmhouse in Tuscany. A good-looking table that only ever held our clutter. Kitty had chosen the table, like all the other furnishings in the apartment except for the scraps of furniture in Jeffrey’s bedroom that were left over from his childhood apartment on East 65th Street, the apartment he was still living in during our first year of togtherness when we were mostly separated by schools, but when it seemed, looking back, that our togetherness was still new and unpredictable.

The move that he made to the fancier Fifth Avenue apartment was one of those bends in the river that redefined our time together. The 65th St. apartment was the beginning – tempting to call it the happy innocent time but it was not. The Fifth Avenue apartment was the horrendous middle. The L.A. place was the lingering death.

The first apartment was already pretty much abandoned when I came along. But it was available when needed. The kitchen functioned. Jeffrey cooked there. Mostly on baking sheets, chicken breasts coated in rice krispies, butter and peppery spices.

The living room full of sad old furniture, cramped, somber red cartons of Parliaments left behind by his mother who had returned to her home state of Mississippi.

We stood waiting for the elevator to take us down to street level. Jeffrey looked at our reflection in the mirrored wall. “We look good together,” he said, surprising me. Looking good together was not something I had thought about.

He wanted to take photographs of me. Had his clunky black and white 35mm camera and took me the first day we were at his father’s big Southampton house to a graveyard where had me pose. I wore the beige short cotton halter dress that I felt good in. We both waited for the contact sheets and were both disappointed when I didn’t look particularly good in any of the shots. I hadn’t expected to look good, but had been hopeful. Jeffrey had been so sure. Maybe he’d see now that I wasn’t as beautiful as he said I was.

The Southampton house was a white mansion with a circular drive where you were informed upon arrival which bedroom would be yours for the weekend. Jeffrey delighted in the place, delighted in the company of his siblings – one full sister, one half sister, one step-brother. Jeffrey had started to teach me backgammon. It felt like a foreign language in which he and his sister were fluent. Their conversation was aimed at getting laughs. Wit or nothing. I pretended this was easy for me too, that I like it here – the plush drawing room with drapes, carpets, leather couch, room after room, especially the large kitchen where the Guatemalan maid presided, the over-filled double refrigerator, where Kitty and her friends would spend Saturday morning grocery shopping and return with brown paper bags to cover the counters. I hoped to be included in this circle of Kitty and her friends, all of them older but like buzzing queen bees, confident glamorous women, Jeffrey I could tell awed by Kelly who was deep-voiced, dark, beautiful and so about-town with her tales of Afghanistan and hookah pipes.

Jeffrey talked to all of them as if he’d known them all his life and I feeling like the new girl in class but there are no handicaps here. If you don’t talk you’re boring.

Jeffrey’s father spends most of his day in the bedroom he shares with Kitty, his second wife. He sits on his bed, fully dressed in clothes Kitty has bought – pressed pants, starched shirt – leaning against the headboard, his legs stretched out on the flowered quilt, watching golf on television and smoking. When he appears downstairs, quietly, unimpressed by the stretch of lawn and patio, the croquet, the ocean on the other side of the hedge, Kitty’s friends defer to him despite his low-key demeanor. He’s the only one who doesn’t have to vie for attention.

When I see him sitting alone I sit next to him. I say hello. “How ya doin’, sweetheart,” he’ll say, and it sounds so friendly and warm, but then he doesn’t have much more to say.

One day there in Southampton, one of the first weekends with this new boyfriend who also keeps urging me to talk more, to tell him more, me who am not used to that at all, who finds it so hard to say anything as if my vocal chords have been paralyzed – I say that I want to go back to New York with him. Now. Not wait til Sunday. I want to go back to the 65th Street apartment where it is just me and him and the hamburgers we eat in coffeeshops and the hot fudge sundaes in the afternoons, just him and me. Because the new boyfriend has also been telling me that’s it’s all right to have what you want – to have ice cream in the afternoon. To go to two movies in one day.

We are in our pretty assigned bedroom when I reveal this truth and Jeffrey asks why. Why do I want to leave when it’s so nice here? I can only say I don’t know. I don’t know. “Well, you should go tell my father then that we’re leaving,” says Jeffrey, as if this is protocol, etiquette, and I don’t question this though it is scary to knock on Alvin’s bedroom door, to gain entrance, to say to him as he sits on his bed, tight against his nighttable that holds the ashtray, that I’d like to leave – not for any reason, but I’d just like to go. He isn’t perturbed. “Whatever you like, sweetheart,” he says.

We leave the house and its people. I feel the relief, the great relief. I have failed. I have given in to my weakness. But I am relieved for the moment, leaving the crowds behind, headed back to New York City.


Anonymous said...

A story small in its parts, maybe, maybe not,but clearly gigantic when those parts come together as they do in this perfectly written piece. I was there in those lifeless family places as I read and I came away with those years inside me. Which is a strong reaction to this incredibly strong writing.

Anonymous said...

I am blown away by your writing.