The Right Thing to Do
Someone was playing the piano in the far room. High laughter and shouts and shrieks sounded from the corridor. Near him there was a generalized swishing of expensive silks to the sound of cocktail chatter. Over the hum he heard her voice, "Ricardo, they need drinks over there…. And, Ricardo, would you bring more of that delicious lasagna." It could go on until late.
Her annual summer party was the usual torture. How he detested those parties. He hadn’t stooped to lift a helping hand and in fact he’d spent much of her party on their grand terraces looking down at the traffic on the avenue and the flickering lights in the garden of the art museum down the side street - and from time to time thinking about jumping. He never felt his solitude more than at parties – especially hers.
He had come in only to replenish his drink. He was standing in the French doors dividing the first salon from the wide corridor and was watching the dancers when a radiant Isabel came over to him as he knew she would. He was embarrassed when she took his hand and with her head turned obliquely and her other hand on her hip she surveyed her summer creation. She smiled contentedly. Everything was in perfect order. Not only was her party a success, she seemed to broadcast, but also they were the perfect couple.
In Isabel’s circuit Jeffery Connors was considered a desirable man. At 52 he was tall and rangy with the lean rugged face and hard body of a long distance runner. His veined hands were the hands of a pianist, with long slim fingers and white nails. He wore his soft sandy hair long. When he looked directly at someone at close range, his intense brown eyes seemed to leap out of his face. Intelligent and occasionally amusing, he was however usually ironic as a person bitter at his own life.
For Jeff had the means to do anything he pleased. Yet he was idle. Idleness, he complained, was his lot. He knew he was purposely destroying his life. When they were younger he used to drive Isabel crazy when he said that he didn’t intend living past 50.
Kind-hearted and benevolent, certainly tolerant, even naïve, Jeff Connors had never thought of himself as a good man. He knew that because of his good fortune in life some people thought he must be cunning. How he hated that ... but admittedly there was the factor of his apparent good life. The maddening thing for Jeff was that he had met a few people who were, he believed, genuinely good. People filled with love for mankind who would give their lives to increase the good in the world. Yet it was hard to really know. Sometimes he just accepted the signs of goodness that people flashed because he wanted them to be good. But later he saw he’d misread the signs all along. It was more and more unclear what goodness was. So he hesitated, he tottered on the edge: he was afraid because the good people he’d met seemed lonely in life. Could he bear to be more alone than he already was? Besides, he consoled himself, the real threat was self-righteousness - he was so wary of piousness that his wife and daughter considered him a misanthrope. For, during the years of his marriage, Jeff had come to think it better to do nothing rather than the right thing for the wrong reason.
A waiter in a white jacket passed with a tray of drinks. He took one at random. People crowded around serving tables. Smells of hot food wafted down the corridor from the kitchen. In the far room several couples were dancing. Methodically he disengaged his hand from hers and went to the bar, set down the half glass of champagne and poured himself a triple vodka. The smell of her perfume was still in his nostrils.
When from the bar he saw the momentary disappointment cross Isabel’s face, he marveled that she understood so little of life. "She actually believes this party is an achievement," he murmured toward the bartender, who looked at him as if wondering who he was.
How can a party be the highlight of anyone’s summer? he thought. How he detested her social life. He disliked her charities and all her public pity. Hers is the sentiment of rich old ladies for stray cats, he thought. The sad fact is that Isabel is still just as naïve as when we first met in Italy over two decades ago.
With long blond hair, dark green eyes, tall and slender, his wife looked much younger than her 45 years. He noticed the elusive strand of hair that dangled at the nape of her neck; as always it stirred pity in him - he often kissed it with tenderness. Now he smiled fondly when she took the arm of a tottering old man from a lower floor and led him through the big salon toward the dancing room. She was so good.
Her salon! It floated atop a sea of Persian carpets and parquet floors highlighted by yellow lights cast by antique floor lamps here and there, a room of colorful modern paintings, some illuminated by discreet spots from far corners, polished Victorian furniture and a great fireplace, its mantel a museum of small sculptures, ceramics and objets d’art from her world travels.
At the threshold of the second room she stopped to introduce Mr. Allison to her daughter. She was gushing with pride. To the degree that their marital relationship had deteriorated, she had become fanatically attached to Ellen. Ellen was her hold on life. Somehow, in all the chaos of marriage, she had come to believe that their life here in this huge apartment would go on forever.
Yet Isabel’s futile socializing touched him too. With her combination of beauty, class, culture and intelligence, he always thought, she should be unassailable. But, he knew, all of it was her attempt to cover her fears. Still, he only had to look at her to love her. He had always wanted to protect her.
At the age of 21, Isabel Randall became very rich in her own right and left for Europe for her life’s adventure. Later she would return to New York, settle into her own life and eventually marry someone of her own ilk. Instead, on the ferry from Positano to Capri, she met Jeff and eventually brought him back home.
Like a trophy, he sometimes thought, recalling the freedom, the excitement, the exhilaration of life he’d felt during his seven years of total freedom in Italy and France and Germany - different life styles, the diverse cultures and languages. He was proud of his foreign languages. His sadness today, he believed, derived from the disappearance of that man that he was – and from the subsequent tragedy that struck their lives.
Marriage seemed to have taken the romance out of their love. It was their constant togetherness. It was the daily display of all their weaknesses. He remembered the French writer’s advice to married couples to act as if they’d never loved each other, and to be tolerant and interested in the well being of the other. He wondered about the state of their relationship. Was it love? Dependency? Habit?
Jeff believed that he still loved her, almost like at the start, but he disliked her life. He desired her love, he needed her confidence in him, but that seemed too little. In their early years together he’d often tried to imagine the unimaginable for them, something beyond his own past and the reality of their life together. Today he sometimes felt that since he’d sacrificed his own life for her, he had to love her.
Squeezing his eyes shut for a moment, he told himself that he loved her too for what they had suffered together.
His eyes traveled across the salons, over the heads of the dancers, to the front terrace illuminated by Chinese lanterns. There she was, in all her beauty, dancing near the open terrace doors with the tall blond man from the opposite penthouse. She was looking up at him with a look of rapture on her face. Jeff felt a pang of jealousy. He turned his head away.
"Sex is in the air!" he said to James who at that moment sauntered up to him and put his hand on his drinking arm. "All they want is to seduce … or be seduced." In a way he blamed Isabel for the aura of licentiousness he perceived around him.
"Where? Who?" Ellen’s fiancé said facetiously.
"Just because you’re her fidanzato doesn’t exempt you. And you have eyes to see." He frowned when he again saw Isabel still dancing with the same tall blond man, their bodies brushing and touching. He had been coming on to her for months. Jeff had noticed. Did she think he was blind? He was an expert in deception. Maybe they were already in an affair. Are they all whores? he thought.
A waiter rushed by with drinks. He put his empty glass on the tray and haphazardly took a glass of the champagne, which he detested. He raised the glass, tempted to smash it to the floor, and instead drank it off in one furious draught.
"Who are they all?" James asked.
"Who knows where she finds ’em"
"They all look so rich."
"I find ’em weird. I hardly know any of ’em.
"But why don’t you play the good host and get to know them?"
"Are you crazy? I ain’t the host and I don’t wanna know any of ’em. But it is rather interesting standing here and guessing at their banal secrets."
"What a critical role you play," James said.
"The eternal observer, that’s me. Did I ever tell you of my sixth sense about people? I can foretell things about their behavior."
"That seems like dangerous territory, Jeff."
"Well, yeah, it is. I admit it, my relationships are usually based on instant like or dislike. But still, experience usually bears out my intuition. I recognize an asshole immediately – like that asshole over there with Isabel. Unfortunately my intuition doesn’t work well with women! But … why aren’t you dancing, fidanzato? You should be at her side."
Jeff beamed at Ellen’s boyish-looking fiancé. James Payton’s pale face framed by longish black hair and big green eyes evoked tenderness in everyone around him. Jeff loved him dearly. He thought he appreciated him more than Ellen did. In a way he thought of him as the son he’d lost. He just couldn’t imagine him married to his daughter.
He however admired James for his refined language and his quiet sense of humor. He grew on people while he seemed to hold in reserve an inner part of himself. Jeff suspected that he disliked their rich world. In fact, his personal life was so different from theirs – he worked downtown in one of the rare independent bookstores and lived in a small apartment in the West Village. Not because James was his future son-in-law but simply because he liked being with him, Jeff had made a habit of inviting him to lunch each week. Occasionally they ate sandwiches and drank beer and played a few games at the bowling alley at Port Authority Bus Station. Once they went to Shea Stadium for a Saturday afternoon of baseball.
"Now Jeff, you know I’m no dancer. I just never learned."
They watched Ellen walk toward the dance floor, holding the hand of a man about her age. His daughter seemed like a stranger. Blond, eternally breathless, and tonight breasty in a low-cut black blouse over tight yellow pants, he had to admit that she was a sexy vision.
"Are you sometimes jealous, Jimmy boy?" He looked at the younger man curiously. In the early years he’d been furiously jealous of Isabel. Gnawed by jealousy. At times exhausted by jealousy. He’d wanted her complete attention for himself. But that rich bitch with the world at her feet was always busy-busy. Even now he felt his old jealousy flare up. His was simply a jealous nature. Insecurity, he knew. The way she was dancing with that rich snob! Isabel - Jezebel! She looked like a model. Too young for her years. When would she begin to show her age?
And to boot, there was Ellen doing the same. Yet neither of them seemed to notice his discomfort. Most women, he concluded, are like that. They just don’t notice. They can fuck left and right and everything rolls off them like water. And they remain intact and innocent as a fresh snowfall.
"No, I don’t think so. I don’t really know. Maybe."
"I would be – at that," Jeff said maliciously, nodding toward Ellen now dirty dancing with that boy, his knee invading her crotch. Jeff acted as if his daughter were just another woman. He couldn’t resist needling James. Unconsciously he was always tearing down Ellen. Maybe, he thought, I want to turn him against her.
"Nah, she’s just having fun. And, that guy’s a cool dancer," James added wryly.
Jeff turned sharply to him. That ‘cool dancer’ did it. James was jealous. One reason he loved James was his dislike of words like ‘cute’ or ‘awesome.’ He detested ‘cool.’ Once they were walking through an exclusive store on Fifth Avenue looking for a present and stopped near one of its fashion boutiques where a breathlessly beautiful woman was trying an elegant evening dress that probably cost $10,000. Her companion looking on said, "cool!" He remembered how James gasped – "Son of a bitch! Cool?"
"Come on Jimmy, let’s get the fuck out of here!" Jeff said now. "I can’t bear it any longer…. What time is it anyway?"
"You go," James said serenely, glancing at his watch. "You know I can’t abandon her. Uh … it’s 11:45"
"No, Jimmy boy, the exact time!"
"I meant to say, it’s precisely 11:47." James grinned. He knew his friend’s mania.
"Missed it by three minutes. Fuck! I would’ve said it was 11:44. Of course a minute has now gone by. But my time is always behind."
"With or without you, I’m out of here," he said. He drank off the vodka, put the glass on the floor, squeezed James’s arm - for a moment registering the certain familiar smell of his hair - and casually walked to the elevator.
The next morning he had to listen to the usual recriminations from Isabel. "You just couldn’t resist for a few hours … for me. Where did you go anyway? To Williamsburg or someplace like that? I know you now. You ride on the subway with the sweating Blacks and Mexicans and Koreans and think you’re one of the people. You and your phony proletarian fantasies! You descend from your penthouse to the subway and think that’s redemption. Ha!"
"That’s the best I can do."
"You know what the truth is? You can’t live with the proletarians or the patricians. My poor poor Jeffrey. When will you learn who you are? What do you want anyway?"
"I wish I knew," he mumbled, wondering if she would ever stop. She always had to say every possible thing about every possible subject. "But at least I try to understand what’s around us. Do you really know where you are, Isabel?"
"New York City, the center of the world, that’s where!"
"Wrong! Upper East Side. It’s not the same thing."
"That’s not New York City?"
"Isabel, you don’t know what the city is. Have you, by choice, ever ventured into the Bronx? Or to Brooklyn … except on your way to the airport? Have you ever even taken the subway?"
"Of course. When I was a student I took the subway everyday."
"Until they started sending the car for you! Poor thing, you don’t know what life is. You know, Isabel, you just don’t understand the world beyond Manhattan – and a very little of that."
Haughtily Isabel lifted her head to the left, her eyes turned to the right, and examined him. "How can you live like you do, Jeffrey?" she said softly.
"Living, Isabel? This isn’t real life, Isabel," he said now coldly. "I haven’t lived for a long time. Not since last year." He always brought that up when he could. In a flash he had relived the days of the visit of his very best friend of his entire life.
Last year in late spring, Martin Bridges, recently divorced then fired from his job, in that order, had arrived unannounced. Ellen was in school, Isabel on a trip to Mexico, so Martin was installed like a Pasha in the guest bedroom – while he looked around in New York for a new life. Martin’s chief quality was his love and his unmerited admiration for Jeff. He was one of those destined to love more. His big belly, his falling hair, his rocking foot and throat clearing only enhanced his charm for Jeff. They had a wonderful few days before the return of Isabel and Ellen. They were furious. This stranger in their house. And they were jealous of the two men, their days on end watching baseball on TV, drinking gallon jugs of wine and mineral water, laughing and talking about old times in the south, in Berkeley, in Germany, all the places Martin had joined his friend Jeff. To the degree the two women were excluded, the more atrocious their dissent. The silence in the penthouse roared and crashed through the salons and the study and across the terraces. The house was divided into two camps. One of the most shameful moments of his life was the day he told Martin he had to leave.
"So what is it, your life?"
"It’s putting in time."
"Until it’s over."
"Oh Jeffrey, what happened to you? What happened to your dreams and fantasies?"
"Ha!" he said. She had hit on the real question. What did happen? Years back he’d come out of his twelve months of therapy with a burning desire to transcend himself. To renounce all pleasure in the name of happiness. Pleasures meant nothing. Somehow he had to endure. That desire had prompted him on his travels, in his linguistic stays abroad. It drove him to discover his spirituality. For a time he believed he had the duty to overcome his weaknesses. To bear his anguish. Yet, from time to time, the words of his father came back - "everything under the sun is vanity."
It was a maddening conversation. A repetition of so many others. Her would-be penetrating analyses of his existential problems. Her solemnity. Her candor about their life. Isabel, in those moments, was so terrifyingly innocent. And so sweetly vicious. Yet, she was right. He’d had no real victories. No real happiness either. Just dissatisfaction and often fury. All he’d really done was wait for something to happen. He stared at her and rubbed his quivering right eye. Nerves. He couldn’t bear for her to articulate his failures. It made everything so hopeless. It reawakened his old fear that if he failed to live a good life, he would be punished by his father’s God – a god less good than was his father. Or at least he would be again punished by fate. Yet, always, what he wanted to be had eluded him. Or he it.
"Who is what he wants to be?" he said.
Soon after the party their lives returned to the usual humdrum track of boredom. Ellen returned to Princeton for her senior year but would spend weekends at home. Isabel was off to Russia for a cruise on the Volga. He returned to his solitude; he didn’t even consider going with her.
If for a few days he felt liberated, those were the brutal moments when he met himself. As always, he thought, I’m isolated and alone. It was in such moments that the illusion overcame him that his loneliness was his salvation and that his melancholy harbored his frustrated creative spirit.
"In wisdom is grief!" he reassured himself with the words of his father’s Preacher. Isabel believed his melancholy was the result of his idleness. But he knew better. It was his nature. Always had been. Once he'd wanted to change - but no longer.
A week had gone by since Isabel left and he’d done nothing but sit around and drink too much. He didn’t see Michela much when Isabel was away. It didn’t seem fair to his wife. For, he thought proudly, he was a loyal man.
It was afternoon. "It must be 3:30," he said to himself. He checked the clock, "3:28! Fuck, I missed it again."
He zigzagged across the salons with a glass of vodka and juice in one hand, a CD in the other. He examined her abstract paintings, undecided about which he disliked most. He walked around the terrace, and back to the study, and slipped Tristan und Isolde into the stereo. He set his glass on the desk and pressed hard under his rib cage with four fingers as Dr. Rogers did. Was his liver enlarged? Probably. Thinking vaguely that he should take another liver function test, he picked up his glass and emptied it into the sink behind the bar.
While waiting for his favorite arias, he again tried to pinpoint the reasons for the decline of their relationship. She said it was drink. But there was also the factor of her silly social life. And her pompous self-righteousness - "Oh, be not righteous overmuch," the Preacher warned. Or was it Solomon? And of course there was also her menopause, poor thing.
And even though Isabel was unaware, there was also the factor of Michela. That didn’t seem fair either. For when did Isabel and I last make love? he suddenly wondered, and poured himself another vodka. He couldn’t remember. They never did anything together anymore. Their dinners were perfunctory, their conversation strained. Certainly the booze had its way. "Old devil alcohol can play dirty tricks. Sometimes he makes you think you’re a drinker when you are really not. But conversely he makes you confident that you’re not a drinker when you are."
For a few months after he met Michela he practically stopped drinking. He felt he’d entered a new dimension. Free of the lethargy of the daily battle. It was as if she had liberated him. "I was close to alcoholism but I won the battle," he said. "I knew I could control it. The thing is drink is such a good companion. It’s … it’s just magic."
But it was his hell too. He wanted to confess his hell. But to whom? Michela didn’t begin to understand the problem. And Isabel rejected the details. He put a tape on his portable recorder, propped it in front of him on the desk, leaned forward with his face in his hands and began - as he had other times.
"I wake up for the hundredth time. It’s only 4:45. So I lie quietly in the dark. My mind is racing. Problems, solitude, despair. I won’t drink today! Maybe I’ll stop for a week. Maybe for a month. Later I prepare her breakfast, looking alert, active and fresh. Then - let’s say I’m in a creative period - I write a bit. Since I’ve decided not to drink anything strong, at eleven sharp I decide on an aperitif. One vermouth never hurt anyone. There! I say, as it hits my stomach. Nothing else until lunch. I read a few lines, correct a word here and there, and return to the bar and drink a full glass of the warm vermouth. When they call me to lunch, I turn off the lamp, return to the bar, and since I’m going to eat anyway I drink a good slug of scotch straight from the bottle. My morning alcohol level is good, the drink situation under control. Isabel doesn’t seem to notice anything and I eat ravenously the steak and a big salad and several slices of dark bread – it absorbs alcohol so well. I drink two glasses of Evian water to chase the vermouth and that taste of scotch and it’s so good for the liver as millions of Frenchmen know. ‘Now for a glass of wine,’ I propose and gallantly offer Isabel a glass. She declines but I seem to have the go-ahead and as the meal declines I have three full goblets of red wine so good for circulation and the platelet function. She hardly seems to notice. Then while I make the coffee, I drink off another wine. The coffee however opens the door to something stronger so when she goes to the bathroom I rush to the pantry and drink two slugs of kitchen brandy, noting alertly that the bottle level is not dangerously low. Then back at the desk, trying to look energetic in case she passes by, I glance at the text carelessly. I’ve done enough today. When Isabel goes out, I turn up the music. I go back and forth to the bar, alternating between scotch and cognac, perhaps dancing a bit or directing the orchestra as the case may be. Later I put on a romantic violin concerto, maybe Bruch, or Rubenstein playing Chopin or Schumann. I stand on the terrace and look down at the museum, then over toward the park, searching the skies for a hawk and wallowing in my melancholy. And suddenly it’s dinnertime. Time has flown by. Ellen is there too. I don’t seem drunk at all. And I’m not. But I’m tired, and groggy. I’ve put in a long day at the desk, I explain. I sip a glass of white wine. I make small talk, wondering if I’m slurring. Sounds like ‘st’ and ‘th’ and especially ‘thr’ are so deceptive. I turn in early. The minute I hit the pillow I’m asleep. And tomorrow she’ll again say that I was drunk and snored all night…."
Wait! He’d forgotten Tristan. It was his Swan Song.
For a moment he hummed along and inserted here and there the random words he still remembered, – "Ewig einig ohne End, ohn Erwachen … la la la …der Liebe nur zu leben. Eternally united without awakening, life for love, la la la."
He sighed and picked up the tape recorder.
"The funny thing is, whoever you are listening to this – maybe you James, for some reason I often want to confess to you – the eternal lurking danger is exceeding my level. Of timelessness. Now that’s scary. I need my time. Things come back as from an elusive dream. You’re there and you’re not. Like the day this hard-drinking Dutch guy comes by with a bottle of chilled Genever. Since morning I’ve been drinking normally. My day is planned down to the last glass of wine reserved for dinner. Suddenly we’re wrestling in the main salon on her Persian carpets – he’s a judo specialist or something. Then with no transition we’re in a bar in the Village. Jazz playing. People crowded around a long bar. Like a marionette I float through the night’s crowded rooms and streets, everything cloudy, misty, unreal. I’m hanging in space. I could be in Detroit. Or Oaxaca. And then, suddenly - it must have been morning - Isabel is standing over me, and says, "you fucking stink."
He started when the desk telephone rang. Michela.
Yes, he would visit her. Tonight? No, right now! he said. That was the right thing to do. The good thing. After the confession a great calm had invaded him. Poor thing, she was waiting like always. He put down the glass and walked directly to the elevator, noting on the little foyer clock that it was already 5:48.
Michela always had the stimulating aroma of coffee about her. Sometimes she had beer on her breath. Now nearly a year ago they’d met in a Chelsea art gallery one rainy mid-week afternoon. No one else was there. Still giddy from all the double martinis at lunch and brazen from the uncounted glasses of brandy, he’d followed her through the several rooms. She had smiled secretly and let him come on. Finally, it seemed as if in a dream today, they had met in the center of a room of unintelligible abstracts. His gaze, he knew, was inquisitive, tactless. He felt an immediate twinge in his lower stomach. It was pure desire. Lust. A craving he was certain he’d never felt before. A craving for that woman. A craving for pure pleasure. Her eyes reflected his visible desire. He put his arms on her shoulders and kissed her passionately. He must have been nuts. But she kissed him back. And that was that.
It was dark when they got to her apartment on Gramercy Park that day. He still saw her as she filled the espresso machine. He’d reached out and touched her hips as she passed languidly near him. She laughed and looked at him. He never forgot that look – a look of wonderment, amusement, tenderness, solitude and desire - devoid of all guile. Nor had he forgotten the taste of her mouth and the smell of coffee in the apartment when she leaned toward him.
"Amore mio!" he’d said and she looked at him surprised.
Michela Montale was from Verona. Eight years earlier she’d come to the United States to study and had stayed on to work with RAI television. She was 30. She had been married once. A disaster, she said. A drug addict and extremely dependent on her, he was insanely jealous and made their life an inferno. They divorced but remained good friends.
Six weeks later Jeff and Michela were skiing in Val Gardena. They went to Verona and toured Lake Garda. It was the Europe he’d loved. He felt alive again. And Isabel had looked at him with a strange gleam in her eyes and often said how he’d changed - for the better.
But that initial excitement had quickly cooled. The day Michela asked if he wanted to move in with her was the day he began moving away. He kept their relationship on hold - on a casual sexual level. Pure pleasure. He told himself that he loved her too. But it was not happiness, he knew. And he was not doing right by her. Because he regretted his guile and his cowardice, he sometimes punished himself and tried not to see her. But not this day. She needed him.
He liked the view from the Boathouse Café. The waiter informed him that it was 11:15. James would meet him here in an hour. They were setting the restaurant tables along the waters edge. The mid-town skyscrapers soared high over the horizon of trees. Birds swarmed into the open air café. He offered a crumb to the chattering sparrow walking fearlessly toward him on the table. Nestled at the end of a finger of the meandering artificial lake, the spot reminded him of his native land in the mountains. It was exciting and mysterious here - the low hills and the rock formations and, next to the bar, the rows of upside down blue-painted boats ready for those little killers of afternoon rowers, the rich youth from the big apartments on the avenue.
He searched the skies for the hawks. Months ago they had again made their strange way back to New York City, across Long Island from the ocean and south from the Berkshires. If you had the patience you could spot them circling up there in the skies. Thousands of hawks – Red-tailed hawks, Broad-wings, Bald Eagles, Turkey Vultures, Ospreys, hawks galore. And falcons too. Crazy, he thought. Hawks love the city. Here they’ve found the ideal habitat to nest and feed and bring up their young. It’s the over-abundance of food – the pigeons and the park’s hundreds of thousands of rats. They love New York. Up there on the winds, he thought, safe and secure, you could feel what happiness can be. Up there in the thinness you’re a mere breath in the universe. Your breath is sibilant. You can float and soar. Linked to the world. You are the world. You’re all the cities, all the rivers, all the places that count. Up there in flight, your vision limited only by the misty horizon, you feel a yearning for the edge of the world. Like in an airplane high over the clouds you feel that you’re on an ocean of eternity. That your earthy life is finished. Yet in the same moment that you perceive that otherworldly sensation you feel also regret. Regret that your earthly life is still incomplete. You hope you will have time. For you feel nostalgia. He understood the city. He knew that it offered little spiritual comfort. He saw the city and longed for the old places. Warm places. Heart places. Return was on his mind. But return to what? To a place? To a time? Or to a person? But it was too late. Too late to return.
Suddenly, his head lifted toward the heavens, last night’s dream came back to him. I’m suspended in the sky, at a great height. I must descend via a very narrow ladder made of stacked books, one atop the other, tottering and wavering. I take the first steps, but a few books down, the book ladder turns inward and I can’t possibly take another step. What to do? But, I tell myself in my dream, this is only a dream. So you can just jump. Nothing will happen to you. I jump … and it goes all right.
Oh, there’s one! Poised in the air ready to rocket toward the meeting with its prey. Pigeons look out! Here comes your nemesis – from Fifth Avenue. Food for the young. The bird watchers are poised on the edges of their seats. The actors are present. The scene is complete. The tragedy can begin – Look! Look!
The lake glistened before him. He squinted, and it easily became Kenilworth Lake. It too was right in town. His father’s favorite fishing lake was wilder. Yet they hardly ever caught any fish. But it didn’t matter. His father didn’t care whether they caught any fish or not. For he was a good man. The kind who if he passed up a hitchhiker on those mountain roads would retrace his steps and crowd the hitchhiker into the already crowded car. He always gave his last dollar to whomever needed it. He was a hard worker, and tithed, ten percent, on every dollar he made. ‘Come on, Dad,’ they said, ‘give us that money! We need it more than the church does.’ But no, he just smiled and tithed and brought home to dinner hungry hitchhikers.
His father was a good man. He wanted others to be comfortable. He would tell James something about him.
He was without one iota of self-righteousness. And humble - like when each evening at supper he would say, ‘let’s ask the blessing,’ then calling on one or other of the boys or even a hitchhiker to say grace, and they were always embarrassed, hoping not to have to do it. He was a man rich in good deeds.
Jeff knew he was different. As an adolescent and teenager, Jeff’s life was sports – how he’d loved baseball. He was a poor student although he’d excelled in history and language. Although timid and reserved he’d always had a lot of women. He couldn’t remember ever being relaxed, at ease in his life. He was tense and out of place. In his mind he was a loner. And when his college was over, his first thought was escape. He went out into the world with the intention of doing something extraordinary and then creating around him a sense of ease and well-being. And although he didn’t plan it that way, he married a very rich woman.
Isabel is over there in her East Side apartment coddling her possessions, he thought maliciously - even if she was redeemed by an unexpected Latin brand of generosity. Their daughter instead never gave anything to anyone - except to her best friends and relatives whom she hoped to impress. But, Jeff thought, she’s much less woman than her mother.
"If your grandfather could only see you," he said to Ellen the day she was packing her things for her return to Princeton. "What do you mean?" she said, looking up from the pile of clothes on the bed. "Why don’t you give some of that new stuff you never wear to Teresa? It would be a nice gesture. She would love them and you would feel good about it." She looked at him as if he were a madman. "Are you crazy? Give my things to the maid’s daughter! What for?" He stared at her. And thought, pity and woe to James.
He looked at the watch of a nearby person. Only 11:30. Hours seemed to have passed, yet he knew the time. He would have guessed 11:35. What an obsession! He knew the time even when waking during the night – give or take five minutes. The passing of his nocturnal time was based on the passage of his dreams. But, for Christ sakes, who gives a fuck what time it is! James wouldn’t be here for another hour. How slowly some days passed.
He ordered an orange juice and a double vodka. Isabel said that drink was their problem. But what did she know? It made time fly. The real problem was her pompous holier-than-thou attitudes. And her fears – her fear of losing him and, he suspected, her fear of one day leaving all her money to him instead of to her distant blood relatives. "What a dilemma!" he said aloud. "I mean it’s not as if we’d just married! We’ve been together a lifetime, yet we’re like strangers." Worse than that, there was the terrible question - Did he stay with her for her money? Oh God, oh God! The question was germane for he liked nothing about her life. And he detested every aspect of his own life – except, he told himself, his loneliness.
Yet, what he had always wanted, what he still wanted, was her love. Her devotion. The kind his mother had for his father. Instead, her attentions went to Ellen and her charities and her public deeds. And she gets crazier by the day. It was maddening.
Then there was James. Bouncing and rolling in his funny gait on the path from the great fountain and the arcades, leaning forward on the balls of his feet, his face was white as a ghost in the heavy late summer air.
A swan couple, brilliantly white – ah loyal, one-partner-for-a-lifetime swans! - joined them near their table at the water’s edge.
James broke a roll and dropped it into the water in front of them.
"How are things in the bookstore?" Jeff asked. He loved bookstores and had long toyed with the idea of opening one himself. Part of it was also his dislike of the big chain stores that were putting the independents out of business. He should be in the cultural arena. Leading a good battle against corporate America!
"Wonderful," James said.
Jeff looked at him fondly. The thought returned to him that this man would never be his son-in-law. He knew that James really loved his work and that he too dreamed of one day having his own store. Maybe they would do it together. Small but independent, personal, warm. Maybe with a big iron coal stove for the winters, tables and chairs and hot coffee for readers and young writers. James didn’t need to make a lot of money.
"You always remind me of my father," he said.
"That’s the greatest compliment I can make. The thing about him was that he loved a lot."
"A wonderful quality."
Their waiter handed them menus and hovered around for their order. Jeff ordered a bottle of white wine and sent him away. "My mother always said that he was a very good man."
"Maybe that’s the greatest compliment. Funny how we admire people who incarnate good in their lives. Yet, really good people make us uneasy. Maybe we feel inferior … or just jealous of them."
"Yeah! Or we burn them." Jeff looked at him quizzically. How could this kid be so perceptive of unspoken things. "You know, I think the best part of me died with him. I was down there while he was dying. In his life he never seemed to hold onto things. He wasn’t curious. He just took things as they came. The change of seasons, Thanksgiving, Christmas, health and sickness and the death of loved ones. And in his dying he became indifferent."
"I guess that’s the time we can really become indifferent."
"I had this dream a few nights ago. We’re driving in a car, I believe my father and I. I dream about him a lot, by the way. Or maybe it was you. We’re on a country road trying to get to the city. It’s urgent. We have little time. The road gets very narrow, full of curves, and our brakes aren’t working. We meet many cars going in the opposite direction. No one in ours. The road widens and we’re the only ones going in that direction. Finally I ask if this road goes to the city. My dad – or you, my son – answers that ‘it doesn’t matter.’"
"Yeah, Jeff, but death is not the same thing as getting lost on a country road."
"No? Dying, you know, he didn’t even look out the windows of his room. No spring or fall existed. His physical decline left him blind to life. It was death long before death. His spirit abandoned him slowly. He stared at me and squeezed my hand as if to say, ‘keep me here with you,’ but he never resisted his destiny – no more than he’d resisted it in life. He accepted it, the good and the bad fate alike. He always said that a man has a choice, he can be good or not. He felt sorry for all those people around him without consciences. He was a virtuous man. He knew they would never understand him but he tried to make them comfortable. He accepted his own fate without reproach. With stoicism … typical, I believe, of the old rural south. Then he just slipped away in the night."
"No one close to me has died," James said. "I don’t really know what it would be like."
"It can change your life, I’ll tell you that. You might know that we lost a son when he was two years old. A sudden sickness and he was gone. I never really got over it. From one moment to the next, everything changed. I don’t think I could take it again."
While he dreamed of far away places, he tried not to notice the continued deterioration of their relationship. He drank and idled while she withered away. Only recently had he begun to understand how much she depended on him. Fuck that! He’d never wanted her in a weak position. She must be strong. She’s indestructible, eternal. She has responsibilities. He ignored her mild complaints of vague pains and her slow studied movements and her refusal to take even two steps in the park. She’s finally showing her age, he thought.
Isabel was not the problem. What he should do was the issue. All his attempts at writing were fruitless - uncounted, unnumbered, unfinished pages of futility. He had nothing to say. Much more rewarding when he’d taught English there in Rome or worked as a guide for the tourism operator. Years back he’d tried journalism, and then dropped out. He daydreamed of the bookstore but, he knew, it would always be her capital. Impossible. In addition to his role as her kept man, he would become also her employee. He used to like to travel and she let him go - on a long leash – also for half-year stays abroad for his language studies – Paris, Milan, Mexico City. Today he hated to travel. He hated all that forced solitude of hotels and restaurants, the sadness of packing his things in a suitcase. He hated making lists of things to take along, of life as a list and packed suitcases. The very image of the solitary traveler was heart-rending. It would’ve been better if he’d simply stayed in Europe – she could’ve chosen between him and New York. His mistake was agreeing to come here. In Europe, if they’d stayed there, maybe also little Mark would be alive. Maybe he would have brothers, all growing up in France or Italy, living happy lives in different cultures. Ellen would marry an Italian, her brothers French women. And Isabel would love only him. If they’d stayed in Europe.
White lights were sparkling on the city’s trees and the first Santa Claus already presided on the sidewalk across from the Plaza Hotel. The days were crisp and dry and to Jeff’s liking. It was 3:15 when he returned in a good mood after lunch with James in a Union Square restaurant. He was surprised to find Ellen home, sitting on a stool facing her mother stretched out on a couch.
"Ellen has dropped out of school," Isabel said in nearly a whisper.
"If that’s what she wants," Jeff said.
"Mother doesn’t feel well," Ellen said. "Dr. Rogers was just here … with the results of the tests."
"What tests?" Jeff said suspiciously.
"You mean you don’t know?" Ellen said.
"Ellen, please," Isabel murmured. Her face was ashen. Her hand was lying immobile near her left breast. "I haven’t felt well for some time. They made lots of tests…."
"For Christ’s sake, Daddy, it’s her heart. They did cardiograms and MRI’s and CAT Scans and I don’t know what. She’s got an aneurysm!"
Jeff leapt to his feet, kissed Isabel on the forehead, touched the nape of her neck, and rushed toward the elevator. "I’m going to that quack Rogers’s office. Stay with her Ellen!"
It couldn’t have been worse. The doctor explained the test results and read him the opinions of the specialists. Isabel had a huge aneurysm in her aorta. While they decided on what was to be done she needed to be in a hospital – which she today had rejected. On the other hand she was strong and young and could well bear an operation. Jeff should convince her and they would hospitalize her in the evening.
As he rushed back up Fifth Avenue, he felt a great vacuum in his guts. It came back, the never forgotten ache he and Isabel had felt together during those nights of hell in the hospital while little Mark was dying. The same ache as he watched his father depart. So the dreaded moment had returned. And he was alone.
It was 8:17 when the ambulance arrived. At 8:45 they were installed in a big room overlooking the East River. Jeff adamantly refused to set foot in the elegant waiting room for relatives – all those rich people, all of a certain age, all with faces of misgivings for their wasted lives. It was like looking in a mirror. Jeff had them bring a bed into Isabel’s room for him.
And he began talking. Frenetically. Feverishly. He talked as he hadn’t in two decades. She needed him. She depended on him. She was not supposed to think. He told her all the stories he could recall about his father. He told her about the real James, how lucky Ellen was, how lucky they were. "James might be her salvation," he began, "I mean, from her worries about you."
Isabel smiled while he talked. Except for her paleness she looked as she did those weeks in Positano. His Isabella! "Ah Isabella!" he said as he did then.
The days turned into weeks. Jeff knew he was stoic. He practically lived in the hospital. He drove the staff crazy. They urged him to go home. This is the best hospital in the world. She has the best care in the western world. You’re harming yourself. Your presence is harmful. But no, he wouldn’t hear of it. His place was at her side. He was loyal! Tenacious.
First things first, he thought, as Isabel had always said. It was the right thing to do. The good thing. He didn’t care what the others thought, he would stay until she told him to leave. And she just smiled.
When they finally decided to operate, he was in turmoil. They escorted him from the room, carried away his bed, packed his things away in small valises – toilet articles, underwear, the polo shirts and sweaters he lived in, the stacks of books he’d read to her from, and the old log he’d kept while they were still in Italy.
While he waited, he phoned Michela and told her as gently as he could that it was over. She understood and said she and her ex-husband were going to make another try. He knew it wasn’t true but was grateful to her for saying it.
Five hours and 37 minutes after they took her away, she returned to her room. She smiled sweetly and took his hand and slept again. After speaking with all the doctors, he went home.
The operation was a success but Isabel was afraid to leave the hospital. She needed care, she said. She was afraid. She refused to come out of it. Dr. Rogers said she was suffering a not uncommon post-heart operation trauma. She would get over it. Jeff would do better to manage the home front. Isabel agreed.
James moved into the penthouse. He was there to help. But he insisted on his own room, which Jeff found ridiculous and also Ellen resented, but that was the way he wanted it. He went to work each day, quietly, without a big to-do. Jeff said that he was the only person who had ever gone to work from this house. In the evening he brought groceries and the cakes that Ellen loved. He took over the paying of bills, answered incoming messages, and took care of the car repairs when Jeff had an accident on Third Avenue. He was quiet, efficient, unassuming.
One night at the dinner table Jeff said, "James," as he addressed him when he was dead serious, "James, you don’t have to do all this. Go on back home. Live your life."
James leaned his chair on two legs against the wall, cocked his head to one side, and looked at him with a strange gleam in his eye. Jeff stared. James’s thin coal black hair had the same sheen as his father’s. He was certain it had that same familiar smell. Was he going to ask him to say grace?
"This is my life, Jeff. The only one I have."
Jeff understood. James would always be his own man.
In that moment Jeff knew he was looking at a good man.
He recalled Jimmy’s words that day in the boathouse that good people make us nervous and jealous. In his heart he wondered if he could bear so much goodness, so close.
The look in James’s eyes reassured him. It said not to fear. It said that in men’s hearts a revolution was going on. Things would now change.
Jeff paced back and forth on the main terrace and looked into the grand salon. Its parquet floors reflected golden in the brilliance of the sun coming through the picture window.
Ellen was sitting on a stool, as if aflame in a wide swath of light.
James walked down the corridor, his face ghostly white in the shadows, a sheaf of papers in his hands. His future son-in-law did what he had to do.
Jeff suddenly felt the exultant sensation of flight and he lifted his eyes to the skies over Central Park in search of a hawk. He was reassured by the sensation of a new peace settling over his home. He believed that was progress.
© 2000 Gaither Stewart
Since leaving journalism some three years ago Gaither Stewart has been writing fiction full time. He is in New York temporarily
but normally lives in Rome. He hails from Asheville, North Carolina, but has lived most of his life in Europe, chiefly in Germany and Italy. For many years he was the Italian correspondent of the Dutch daily Algemeen Dagblad and has written for various newspapers and magazines in Europe. He
recently lived for a year in San Miguel Allende in central Mexico
in order to research and write the second part of a novel
that takes place in Italy and Mexico.