Authors: Maria Espinosa
“With my mother in the Bronx.” She felt a surge of pleasure at her inventiveness.
“You don't sound like you're from around here.”
“I grew up in New Orleans,” she said, elaborating on her story. “When my father died, we moved up North.”
She thought of her mother Elena, brushing her hair with a silver brush. Elena was gazing off into the distance as she sat on the edge of the bed. “
,” Adrianne cried. Her mother didn't seem to hear. “
” The child's tiny hands parted her mother's fine, blonde hair. Elena gazed past the child, not seeing her, not hearing her, until finally she pushed her away with annoyance, murmuring, “
She thought of how her mother's cheek, dry and soft, had pressed against hers that last afternoon at Houston Intercontinental Airport. “I love you, Mama,” she had murmured. It seemed years, rather than just a few weeks ago. Standing next to her frail-boned mother, Adrianne had felt huge and awkward. That day her mother had worn pearls, a navy linen dress, stockings, and gloves, even though it was sweltering. “
. Let me know your address, when you have one,” her mother had said coldly with her slight accent. Adrianne had felt indescribably hurt, but didn't know how to bridge the gulf between them.
The stranger continued with his questions. As Adrianne created the covering of a false identity around herself, she was lulled for a short time into feeling safe. Then she noticed a button over the bed to ring for the hotel clerk downstairs. Suppose this man freaked out? Suppose he wouldn't let her leave? What would happen if she pushed the button? She remembered that he had greeted the clerk as if they were old friends. No, Adrianne decided, it wouldn't help to ring.
“What's your name?” she asked.
“Are you really a cop?”
Instead of answering, he took her finger into his mouth and sucked it.
“My wife's been in an institution for three years,” he said. “I need a woman. I need someone like you, sweetheart. I love blondes with large tits.”
She wondered what he could have done to drive his wife into a mental institution.
He began massaging one of her breasts. Pausing, he nuzzled her cheek and asked, “When can I see you again, Stephanie?”
“Soon,” she said as she pondered how to make her escape. “I need to go to the bathroom,” she told him. “Is it down the hall?”
“Yes. Get me a cigar and some matches from my shirt before you go.”
She did so, and he lit his cigar and blew smoke rings up towards the ceiling. If she got fully dressed, she thought he might make trouble. So she just put on her dress and shoes, leaving her underwear on the floor. Then she picked up her purse.
He gazed up at the ceiling. The smoke wafted through the air.
“You don't have to put your shoes on.”
“Yes, I do.”
It was good that she'd decided to leave her underwear.
“Why are you taking your purse?” he asked suspiciously.
“I need to freshen my face.”
Trembling, she shut the door behind her.
First she went to the bathroom and wiped off his fluid, which had already stained the back of her dress. Then she ran a comb through her hair and splashed her burning face with cold water.
Swiftly, she ran down the stairs and through the lobby. The clerk barely gave her a glance. As she ran out into the street, her breasts hurt and she began to feel a pain at her side. There was a bus at the corner. Just as its doors were closing, she boarded and collapsed on a seat.
Dazed after her escape, she made it home to her room on West 97th Street. The room was littered with kleenex, costume jewelry, and clothes. On the nightstand was a half-melted chocolate bar and two over-ripe peaches. Tiny fruit flies hovered above the fruit.
She would go into the bathroom, bathe, and wash off the stranger as she always did after these encounters. These had occurred
more often than she cared to remember since her arrival in Manhattan only a month earlier. It frightened her to feel that she was losing control. On the wall above the bureau was a gilt-edged mirror. When she looked into it, her blue eyes gazed back at her with startling innocence, as though this afternoon had never happened.
In the tub, she splashed hot water over her entire body. She soaped herself, lathering inside and outside, as if she could soap out the contamination. The air had grown steamy when she heard a knock in the door. “Are you going to be long?” Max, who rented the room next to hers, asked in his guttural German voice.
“Yes. So leave me alone!” she shouted out angrily. Her former boundaries were restored. She didn't want to speak to Max or to anyone else.
Max Gottlieb, a paunchy man with thick whiskers and white hair, sat on the edge of his bed trying to quiet the pounding of his heart by taking slow deep breaths. Through the thin walls he could hear water splashing and faint sounds as Adrianne bathed. The image of her naked in the bath disturbed him. Since she had rented the room a few weeks ago, her presence had increasingly grown on him.
Photographs of his wife and their two children stared reproachfully from the bureau. “Don't think about her, don't don't! After what you did to me!” his wife with her pale pointed face and large eyes said, even though all three of them had been dead for so many years. Their deaths had been caused indirectly by his involvement with another woman. By now consciousness of his guilt had dulled, but it still governed his entire life.
Although he could afford far better, he had lived in a series of cramped furnished rooms. His clothing was worn and shiny with age. He ate without tasting, looked without seeing. What right had he to physical enjoyment? As a young man he had been meticulous and sensitive to his surroundings. Now, the objects in his room were coated with grime, and it was heaped with half-rotted newspapers in Yiddish, Hebrew, and English.
More and more he neglected himself so that his greasy, stained appearance became an embarrassment at the shop where he had worked since 1944 as a watch repairman. They moved him away from the public into a back room where he worked alone under the glare of a high-intensity lamp.
The anguish of ill-fated timing. If he had known what his future was going to be, he would have chosen to be gassed in Dachau along with his wife and children. He repaired watches for a living, but he could never repair that gaping wound in his life.
If only he had gotten them out of Germany sooner. If only he had never met Monique. He was guilty not only of his ill-timed adultery, but guilty, too, because in the deepest recesses of his mind, he must have foreseen the future.
As he chewed on his upper lip, he realized with a slight shock that his mouth was empty. He must have forgotten to put in his dentures this morning. However, he'd skipped lunch at work today, and so he hadn't realized this until just now.
Breathing heavily, he raised himself from the bed and went over to the bureau. They were soaking in a glass of grey solution right next to the photographs. What a fool he was! What a sight he must have looked! He picked the dentures out of the liquid one at a time and adjusted them inside his mouth. The faces of Mathilde and the
gazed at him like the faces of saints in paintings by GrÃ¼newald: Jewish mother and holy children. Because he moved his fingers clumsily while he contemplated the photographs, he stuck the upper plate against a tender spot in his mouth and winced.
Through the walls he heard the bath water run out, and then he heard what sounded like sobs. Poor girl! Often he thought he heard the sounds of her muffled sobbing and moaning. She needed so badly a little tenderness. There was something about her like a bird with a broken wing, something damaged that looked out at him from her soft blue eyes. He imagined her half undressed, in a slip. She was ripe like a plum, although scarcely more than a child. Maybe she could be his. But how could she possibly be attracted, old and ugly as he was? He crunched the upper plate against the lower, and his jaw ached from the pressure. Only if she were deeply wounded would she find him attractive. Perhaps she had already suffered enough, young as she was, to understand the powers of guilt and pain and loneliness upon the human psyche.
Ordinarily, he would not have let himself dwell on Adrianne. But he was still weak from pneumonia, and he had in fact only returned from the hospital a few weeks ago. He had palpitations of the heart. The doctor told him to relax more and to start thinking about what he would do when he retired. “Find yourself a wife,” Dr. Goldfarb said with a sly, conspiratorial touch on the arm. “Someone young and pretty and
to take care of you.”
The idea of dying alone frightened him, and an instinct for life reared up stronger after his nearly fatal illness. “Forgive me, Mathilde,” he murmured. Her hands, composed of ash-fine powder, rose up to touch his heart. Her long, accusing fingers caused
palpitations, and he felt all a-jumble inside his chest.
In 1946, just after the War, to his shame he had married a flaming beauty from Asbury Park, New Jersey. But the union only lasted a few weeks. How could any marriage have worked when he was doomed because he was a murderer?
He heard Adrianne walk down the hall to her bedroom, which was on the other side of his, and a little later he heard the clink of beads against her wooden dresser. He imagined her all fresh from her bath, ineffectually draped with a towel, while he knelt to caress her plump thighs. She would stand there, impassive, smiling slightly, while he caressed and kissed her all over. Her large soft breasts with tiny rose nipples would brush against his cheek â¦ Faugh! He was an old man. To think such dirty thoughts. Mathilde, forgive me. I need someone after all these years alone with never a woman to care for me.
Adrianne's high heels clicked against the wooden floor, and he gasped for breath. Before she went out he had to catch her, because she often didn't return until two or three in the morning. Sometimes in the middle of the night he awakened to the sound of her footsteps. He wondered who she went with. She seemed so lost and innocent, and she was hardly more than a child.
Again he sat down on his bed, waiting to hear the sound of her door open, to accost her before she could leave. He felt like a spider as he listened. He would capture her in his web, hold her there as she struggled in vain. And then at his leisure he would feed on her flesh, her affection, and on the gentleness he sensed within her.
When at last Max heard her door open, he jumped up, ran heavily out to the hallway, and planted himself in front of her. “Stop! I must speak with you!” he cried, heaving for breath.
She wore a low cut dress of green satin. Thick eye shadow, kohl rimmed around the lids, shimmering red lipstick, and strong perfume imprinted themselves upon him, even in the dim light, as did the glitter of her golden necklace and her heavy oblong earrings. Poor child, he thought. She decks herself up like a harlequin, and I am sure men take advantage of her, but all this cannot hide her innocence.
Standing so close, breathing in her sweetness, he grew dizzy. Again his heart beat hard and fast.
“I've got to go,” she said. “Leave me alone.”
“Please, Adrianne, just talk to me a few minutes.” He was trembling.
“What do you want?”
“I want to be your friend.”
“I've got to go.”
“None of your business.” She bit down on her lower lip and flushed as if she regretted her harshness. He thought that he had frightened her, because to speak in this way was not natural to someone of her gentle nature. How pitiful she was just beneath her painted, crackling surface.
She seemed to waver, and so he pleaded. “Let me take you out to dinner and a show â¦ I always eat at the cafeteria on the corner of 91st Street. Afterwards we can go to a Broadway show or anywhere you want.”
She considered his offer as if she were trying to remember something. His voice was insistent. Just a few coins remained in her purse, and there was only wilted lettuce and milk in the kitchen refrigerator. Hunger gnawed at her.
Also, she had no definite place to go. While the walls of her room oppressed her, the streets frightened her. She did not want to repeat the afternoon's encounter with another stranger. However, at any time her own mysterious needs could erupt and overpower her. She was not in control. She feared herself, her room, the streets. She feared everything.
In a vague way she had planned simply to wander the streets as she did each night, talking to strangers, absorbing something of them to nourish herself.
He stared at her now like an imploring dog. Although he did not appeal to her with his old man's musty odor, his ill-fitting clothes, and his protruding veins, he would not attack her. She knew him only slightly, but when she was with him she felt a sense of rootedness.
“Well, all right,” she said hesitantly in her soft voice. “But I have to get something in my room first. I guess I can put off what I was going to do until later.”
Almost as if by accident his hands stroked her buttocks when she turned to go back to her room, and she realized with a jolt that his
hands on her felt good, just as the stranger's had.
Inside her room, a wave of loathing for herself and the world swept through her. His hands may feel good, but he is repulsive to me, she thought. Yet who am Iâworthless, a slutâto resist Max's small demands? She stood a few minutes at the window looking down the narrow air shaft. She could open the window, jump out, and shatter her bones far below.
She could go now to Max who was waiting for her, or she could curl up on the unmade bed and never leave the room. She could say she felt too sick.
Fear oozed through her the way it always did. Beads of perspiration had broken out on her skin. She wanted to run away from everything, but to be alone at this moment was worse. The trash heap below, full of discarded things, beckoned her: sharp-edged rusty objects, a baby's overturned carriage with one wheel still attached, garbage crawling with rats. She was afraid to open the window, although the air inside her room was oppressively hot. A fly buzzing around the room grazed her forehead.