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Authors: Benjamin Markovits

Either Side of Winter

BOOK: Either Side of Winter
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E
ITHER
S
IDE OF
W
INTER

Benjamin Markovits

FALL

A Thanksgiving Visit

 

She cried in bed every night after turning the light off, unless Charles Conway was staying over, in which case she didn’t feel any happier but didn’t cry. With the light on – a desk lamp she’d taken from the school balanced on her night stand, a restaurant-sized tin of tomato sauce – she read magazines until her eyes got tired and stung. This didn’t take long and usually happened shortly after nine o’clock each night. Unless Charles was staying over. But if not, she turned over in bed and turned off the lamp and turned back. When it was overcast, she could see the light of Manhattan caught in the cloud outside her window. By the time the first blackness of the change in light had softened to the coloured dusk of a city evening, she had bent her chin against her chest and begun to blub. In the dark, as if no one could see her then; as if she couldn’t see herself. And might not notice how unhappy she was, because if she did, she’d have to give herself a talking to, since nothing much was wrong and she couldn’t go on like this anyway.

They first got to the apartment at the end of August, after collecting the keys at the school reception. A hot day, somewhere in the nineties and wet as a dishrag. The air-conditioning was down in Bertelmeyer Hall, and because the teachers were still on break, out at Fire Island or walking the dogs or whatever it was they did, and more importantly the department heads and the vice principal still sitting on their porches in Westchester County, nobody had raised a stink about the temperature. All there was was a table fan blowing this way and then that in reception; you waited for it to come your way, you felt it, not so much a relief as something to feel other than the heat, and you heard it turn away again. Her dad, cooped up in the car all day, had a loose tongue getting out,
and said to the birdlike Irish woman at the black phones, how good it felt to be back in the city after thirty years and God did he wish it was him. Amy noticed him saying it then and remembered it later. At the time she felt that slight overflow of emotions of various kinds, which she thought of as excitement then but had since realized was much too mixed up with other things for it to be anything that simple. She got it or something like it every morning the first two months standing in front of a classroom, and then again after lunch when she had to go back and do it again. The best you could do was ignore it since it didn’t mean much.

She put her head against his armpit when he said it and her arms around him. He smelt slightly of ill-health or middle age, she couldn’t tell which, a sour smell like the rind of old fruit. He’d put on weight since she went to college; and whenever she came back home on the holidays he ate a bowl of chocolate ice-cream before going to bed, sometimes two while watching television. And now a lump of flesh – though she thought of it always as what it stood for or what she thought it stood for, dissatisfaction with himself – hung over his belt. The line hung in her memory over the next few months and sounded more and more like a reproach, as if the words, like food left in a cupboard, could change smell over time. ‘I guess I hoped to get her at home a year or two after graduation. We’ve got a boy as well, sophomore this fall, though he went out of state too, out west. Kids these days got to live their own lives I figure; I know I did.’ And then, ‘It sure feels good to be back in the city after thirty years and God do I wish it was me.’ Later she decided that he didn’t really mean it, or if he meant it it was only something he’d planned to say when they got there – planned it over the thirty hours in the car from Indianapolis – and maybe by the time he actually got a chance to say it (and he took the first chance he got) it may have lost some of the feeling, or may not have been true any more. It couldn’t be true: nobody could want to live like she was living a second time.

The first thing she did when she got to the apartment was push open the windows. There were three of them in the sitting room and one in the bedroom, all looking downhill towards Manhattan, each containing it seemed to her a different piece of the view. From the bedroom window, if she stuck her head out, she could just about see the modern extension to the school gymnasium, a glassy structure built against the angle of the hill on which the campus sat. The kitchen window – or what she thought of as the kitchen window, since it opened out over the sink at the end of the row of cabinets and countertops that included a small fridge and the oven – looked out on the tattoo parlour and the pizza parlour across from the entrance to her apartment block. Shops stood on the low side of the street and the hill sloped away behind them. Beyond those, and above them, she could make out the trees of Van Cortlandt Park and a strip of flat green just above the rooftops. There was a futon backed up against the rest of the wall, with the other two windows behind it. If you kneeled on it, you could see the park of course and the raised subway station at 242nd Street and beyond that the first warehouses of Inwood across the river, and beyond them the occasional spires of downtown New York. She spent hours in the next few months kneeling and looking, leaning her elbows against one of the sills.

Her sweating palms were caked in dust when she pushed open the windows; she dried them on her denim skirt and saw the marks they made. She couldn’t decide whether to shower and change first – she stank from eight hours in the car in any case – or do something about the dirty screens blurring the view behind the windows. Her dad had got himself a glass of milky water from the sink and sat down. She said, ‘I can’t get these out can you give me a hand.’

‘Why don’t you turn on the air condition?’ he said.

‘There isn’t any.’

‘There’s a unit in the bedroom that might get through to us.’

‘I’d rather have the windows open. We always have the windows open back home. I just want to get rid of these screens.’

‘Let me just drink a glass of water sitting down and I’ll help you bring your stuff up. Trust me, they’re there for a reason.’

‘They’re ugly and dirty.’

‘They’re dirty for a reason.’

She began to wrench one up and down, squeaking, but couldn’t get it out of the slots. So she began to open all the cupboard doors to see if there was anything she could use and eventually decided to take off one of her shoes, black and hard-heeled Doc Martens, and bang the heel against the frame of the screen. Her dad at first didn’t say anything to the noise. And as it grew louder Amy felt more and more trapped inside her movements, which grew more and more violent and (it seemed) ineffectual. She felt trapped both by the fact that nothing seemed to budge and by the fact that whether she wanted to or not she had to keep hitting the edge of the screen harder and harder with her shoe until one of the facts gave way to the other. When the frame cracked and wrenched out of the slots she began to cry, and was still crying as she pulled the rest of it out and through the window again. By that time her dad had come round and caught her in his arms and they stood there for perhaps a minute while she held the dirty screen in one hand sobbing and he had his hands clasped at her stomach and kissed the top of her head.

‘Don’t leave me here,’ she said. ‘Don’t leave me here.’

‘It’s gonna be fine. It’s gonna be wonderful.’ Then he added a little later, letting go of her, ‘I don’t want to leave you here. I don’t want to leave you anywhere. But I have to.’

*

She met Charles shortly after that, even before the school year started. There was a function to celebrate the fundraisers and patrons who had recently mustered, each in their separate ways, millions of dollars for the school renovations scheduled for the following summer. The glass extension to the gymnasium was only a prelude to greater things; and the
party was held on its brightly varnished wooden floors both to ‘open its doors’ and usher in the improvements to come. All of the teachers had been invited, but only the new teachers showed up. Amy looked frail in a cotton dress – she never wore dresses – and sandals, her only alternatives to the black Doc Martens. She had always been thin, with thin shoulders and hips, but when she lost weight, as she had after graduation, her breasts diminished and whatever she wore hung loosely over her frame. Short sandy hair cut just past her ears and black-rimmed glasses framed a face that was pretty in youth and might look ordinary afterwards: her cheeks, which had been plump in childhood, retained something of their shape, and gave her an air of good health in spite of her grown-up weightlessness. She had a straight plain nose and narrow chin; and a fund of sexual restlessness that expressed itself in many other kinds of restlessness and distinguished her from other girls caught between pretty and plain with narrow hips and a small chest. Though it didn’t look as if it would last her long unless circumstances changed; it might easily have spent itself by her thirties. She looked like a girl who would grow more conventional rather than less.

Charles introduced himself to her when he saw her holding a glass of white wine and not drinking it, but holding it close to her chin as if she’d just had a sip and might soon want another. She thought he looked very much at his ease as she watched him come across the shiny floor towards her in his black shoes, which gave off the same crackling shine as the wooden boards. ‘Hi,’ he said, rolling up a programme and slotting it under his armpit, taking her glass of wine in his left hand and shaking her now empty hand, still slightly damp from the condensation on the cold drink, in his right. ‘I’m Charles Conway.’

‘Who’s Charles Conway?’ she said. She had a way of talking that made her look as if she wasn’t listening even to herself: her eyes darted here and there to either side of him, and her lips only wriggled as she spoke.

‘I’m one of the famous sons,’ he said. It turned out he’d graduated from the school seven or eight years before. As the evening wore on it became clear to her just what kind of character she had taken by the arm: he was greeted everywhere by sudden, and not entirely forced, good humour, and often by the epithet Charles had attributed to himself: ‘the famous Conway’, people said, and took him by the hand or patted his back or the side of his solid arm beneath his snug black dinner jacket. The head teacher herself called him that, along with the worst-dressed man at the party: a grey-haired stocky gentleman wearing dirty sneakers, a short-sleeved collared shirt, and a whistle on a string around his neck, which he blew at occasionally from time to time and to no discernible effect. Charles was, as he explained to her through the course of the evening, not only one of the star pupils – and a standout on the tennis team, the eight-man crew, and the oratorical society – but also the son of one of the school’s more significant benefactors, for which reason he had attended that night. His father, a lawyer, hated such dos and wasn’t very good at them, so he usually sent Charles. ‘Besides,’ Charles said, ‘I didn’t have anything else to do tonight.’ Amy couldn’t be sure if he said ‘don’t’ or ‘didn’t’ but the ‘tonight’ sounded like a late addition in any case.

He had the kind of sandy hair and complexion that blend into each other and suggest an aristocratic air; grainy green eyes which he often blinked; a blond stubble with mineral residues of black and grey in it. He was tall – a good head taller than Amy, who herself was closer to five ten than five nine, even in sandals – and never seemed ill at ease, not even around Amy, who clearly was; partly because he didn’t mind if she didn’t talk much, which she didn’t. When he asked her what she taught, she said, ‘Biology’ but his only response was, ‘I wanted to be a surgeon once, but went off it.’ Not that he spent the whole night talking about himself: he had the subtly feminine and quite irresistible charm of a handsome, well-built man who seems to like nothing better than softly
spoken gossip. His voice was both languorous and rather abrupt; there were corners slowly taken and sudden halts. Amy found herself standing on tiptoe to put her ear by his lips; sometimes he leaned too far and tickled her slightly: she felt the light waving hairs on her lobe standing on end. He had stories about most of the teachers and told them with the obvious relish of a young man who has not yet outlived his schooldays.

Amy could drink with a will when the occasion demanded, and she rose to it that night. She tended to drink the same way people get in cold water: tentatively then suddenly; and it didn’t take much to get her blood going – for that inarticulate though not unpleasant suspicion to overwhelm her that a great deal was happening or about to happen, more than she could possibly take in at once, though she wanted to try. White wine came and went in her glass, which always seemed half empty, regardless of how much she drank. When Charles began to kiss her on the brand-new concrete balcony by the door opening on to the hillside falling away at their feet, she said to him, in a voice louder and thicker than her own, ‘I don’t know anybody in New York so why don’t you come back to mine.’

He said, ‘Can we walk there?’

‘Sure we can walk there.’

‘I don’t like the subway round here and I’m too drunk to drive.’

‘Sure we can walk there,’ she said again. ‘Five minutes.’

He stood for a moment in reflection, with his face bent towards her cheek and his mouth open. ‘Did you notice how the concrete under these lights looks like it’s got moonlight on it?’

‘Isn’t there a moon?’ she said, looking up.

‘No, no moon.’

*

She called him ‘Charles Conway’ all night, and thought of him that way even after they’d been seeing each other for several
months. She called him Charles Conway in the staff room, too – an L-shaped room curled around one of the bathrooms, some said carved out of the stalls. It stank like it too in hot weather, because the windows wouldn’t stay open any further than you propped them, and all anybody did was stick a textbook in to wedge them up. One of the older teachers, Mr Peasbody, had taken her under his wing. He was a slenderish, elegantly dressed man from Connecticut, with an incongruously heavy and pock-marked face and large sad eyes. ‘What’s the young lady doing tonight?’ he’d ask, crossing his legs and swivelling his desk chair round at the same time. ‘I’m bored with myself these days. Cheer me up.’

BOOK: Either Side of Winter
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