Authors: Susanna Sonnenberg
Toward the end of the week, our schedules shed of immediate obligation, we developed this habit of sweet collapse. We lounged on the couch, the burgundy comforter pulled from my bed to cover our legs. We watched
Hill Street Blues
on my small color television. Sometimes, teasing when she liked an attractive actor, I could get her giggling, a spring bubbling up in her. She had a rampant, adorable giggle that just kept going, although it seemed she wished it wouldn't.
Esther was a full-time skeptic, to the point of bitterness. Not meâI was bouncy with social life, cheerful with sex, big on happy times and unbothered. This made Esther skeptical of me, which I hated, anxious I would incur her disapproval. She prodded, nagging for changes I didn't care to make. “How can you not
?” she'd ask, disgusted yet affectionate. “Don't you ever read the paper?” One winter break I came home from Barbados, the annual trip to my grandmother's estate. The apartment was cold, unwarmable, and Esther, in a cabled sweater and wool hat, made tea for us and asked me leading questions. How much does each maid earn? Where does the staff live? Are they all black? She shook her head when I said, “But my grandmother's
racist!” She watched me start to realize this wasn't true.
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Esther's emphasis on moral rigor was a downer. The too-small nylon uniform she wore the mornings she went in to Friendly's depressed me, as did her furious fuss when the manager told her she had to wear hose. She never agreed to eat out with me or that we should get pretty curtains for the living room, which seemed to me at the time a willful rejection of fun. I didn't track money; for gas and rent, for clothes, insurance and incidental student fees, for groceries, I received an allowance mailed each month by my father's accountant.
It became harder to watch television with her. “Not everything,” I said, as she reviled beer commercials and women's fashion, emptying our evening of pleasure, “
something is wrong.”
“Christ, Susanna. Look!” She grabbed the nearest record album, my
Like a Virgin
. Madonna in pink and pinker hues reclined on an anonymous floor and begged the camera closer.
“So what?” I said. “It's just a picture, Esther.”
just a picture
if it's the way we're trained to see women. If it's the only way women learn how to be seen.”
We had a version of this fight fairly often, a tiresome reflex. She'd stomp to her room and I'd burst from the apartment to find my boyfriend and joke and fuck, anything I could do without having to inspect it.
I was aware of her body, of course I was, I lived with it. Proximity suggested intimacy in the student apartment, and physical intimacy pointed to sex. I remember seeing Esther at the sink in the kitchen, her back to me as I walked in, and how her thick hair dropped past her shoulders. This gave me pleasure, nice to come home to. I remember the gaze she'd fix on me across the table, and how I matched its intensity, defused her unnamed challenge, until we both cracked up. Her breasts were semivisible, braless under the fabric of her shirt. My mother had taught me that sexâsexual
touch, innuendo, sexual acts, sexual interestâwas the way to know another person truly, connection guaranteed. I didn't think this consciously, but it was in me, seeds scattered liberally under my skin. The narrow space outside the bathroom door, one woman in a towel wrapped under her arms, turning to slide past; the feminist discussions that alerted me to men's oblivion and shortcomingsâall of that suggested that maybe we were supposed to become lovers. Esther barely tolerated my wolfish, sex-happy boyfriend who loped up our stairs. She and I lay on the couch with our feet in each other's laps. One of us dug her toes under the other's thigh to tickle and play. We played at every realm at once: house, family, seduction, education, marriage, united effort.
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When Esther came to visit me in New York, I was living with my next roommates, Leah and Annie, three of us thrown by the vagaries of the
into a one-bedroom near Columbia. We looked like cousins, twenty-two-year-old Jewish girls from peace and privilege with good educations. Our copious dark hair set off the same tinge of yellow in our Ashkenazi skin, yet we were emphatically not a family. More like a campaign office for an absent candidate. Leah had the real bedroom, the prize for finding the apartment. I had the converted dining room behind louvered doors that allowed all sound to pass freely in and out. “Would it be okay if you turned that down a little?” we said at first, and then, later, calling between the rooms, heedless and impatient, “Please turn it
.” Annie, shielded by an inexpensive screen, slept on a twin she kept neat in the living room. She phoned home every other night, the good girl. She and Leah worked at the same company, departed together in the mornings. Leah would leave two thin chicken breasts to marinate all day in the fridge. They
cooked together, one of them peeling broccoli stems as the other tended the meat. I ate ginger beef and cold sesame noodles at my boyfriend's before coming home late, or not coming home at all. I needed these women for rent, as they needed me, and we sought ways to not coincide. The three of us earned the same mean amount of money, worried similarly over subway safety, went to therapy, tolerated the broken elevator, crazy landlord, strife in the office. It was a biding of time, not that we would have called it that. We thought we were striking out with unique resolve.
It had been two years since I'd lived with Esther when she visited, and how epic those many uneven months since we'd dissolved our arrangement. I'd lived in France, moved in with my boyfriend (the one she didn't like), fallen in love with someone else, graduated, returned to New York. Dressed starchily, I'd interviewed for jobs; I'd filled out tax forms. I left the office late with the other interns for cheap Indian meals. I assisted a junior editor at a publishing house, where no one was a “secretary.” My own missions the consuming memory, I can't remember what Esther was doing in that time, how often we talked. She sat with her legs crossed on my bed, inspected my tapes and books (“Don't you read anything beside novels?”), as she told me the details of her life, which I have now forgotten. Her same cynicism and indignation tired me, felt like the worn furniture I'd left behind in our Waltham apartment, for her to donate to a thrift shop or women's shelter when the lease was up.
But we'd fought? And so badly that she'd left recklessly in the middle of the night for Penn Station to wait until dawn and her train? And that was it, we never spoke again, until now, tensions dismantled by twenty years' forgetting? My sons ran past my bedroom door and shouted to each other about what to do nextâCome to my room! No, you come to mine! When I was done with
this unexpected call, I'd remind them about math homework, get Jack to finish his piano practice. I'd start dinner. I'd learned to roast a chicken in the apartment I shared with Esther, to have it turn out well, the crisp, salted skin infused with the flavors of garlic and rosemary. I made this routinely for my family, and I couldn't recall what it was like to be decided by drama and argument, what it was like in our very early twenties when so much was effected by flash impulses, doors slammed. I had become the woman I'd been trying to be in that apartment. No: I'd become someone I had yet even to consider. In photo albums put together after college, pictures of Esther still show her in the sun on our constricted porch, holding up the cat to kiss his whiskers, rare frivolity; Esther in a row of women at her graduation, major passage. She'd invited me to attend, our roommate relationship nine months mature by then, almost a year. We'd been real, we'd been there.
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When I moved in, Esther noticed I had a lot of opera recordings. She didn't know opera, she said, interested. A few months later we spent a Sunday on our stomachs, listening to
the libretto open between us. The rug was scratchy under our elbows as we propped ourselves up. We played the first five sides of eight with meticulous concentration. The hours passed. We understood we were engaged in a sacred act. We rolled over and lay on our backs, not speaking. But some interruption that afternoonâmy boyfriend came over, or I needed to wash my car, or she had to finish a paperâmade us stop, and we left the last three sides for the following weekend. We postponed again, our infinite future of Sundays. We never finished, an essential note unsounded in our friendship, dramatic action suspended. That's where I left us.
verything was awful in France. “Junior year abroad” had arrived, reality instead of proposal and application, but my roommate's voice chained us to the States, her nasal rasp and pancake vowels unable to pull off French. She was nice, which I appreciated, but we had nothing in common, Linda and I. At dinnertime, Madame called us from our roomâthe once grand sitting room with high ceilings, now used for boardersâand we sat down to tough meat and what was left of the breakfast baguette. The crust scraped the roof of my mouth, scars for the next day. Madame's dining room overlooked a tidy park, but it was nearly winter, and she kept the shutters closed and the chandelier on through the day. To sleep, we heaped layers of faded batting over our beds. I turned to the wall, where at the slightest touch the brown paper with the gold fleur-de-lis pattern chipped away. I kept my hand on it as I whispered to it, “I hate you.”
In the mornings Linda and I left the apartment and walked to the college along a generous boulevard. The shops were shut, but the cafÃ©s had cane chairs set out, and birds hopped among the tables. We noticed the impeccable women pulling the hands of their children, a scold and murmur hurrying them forward. The children's voices rose and broke against their mothers' in a French we couldn't hope to have, clipped, modulated. We wanted to tie
our scarves that way, that easy style at the throat. But it wasn't easy. Nothing was easy.
At the school we trotted up the wide stairway to our respective classrooms. Light poured in from the windows that loomed at each landing, Americans on their ways up and down, commandeering the space. Nobody said that things were not as they'd hoped. Linda took French, to improve. I had history of French architecture, and the young teacher wore thin black trousers every day and a navy pullover with cuffs that came down over his wrists. Every detail was worth notice, meant something I did not yet understand. During class, I kept my notebook open and wrote letters to my boyfriend in Boston, explaining that
the notebooks were filled with this sort of graph paper, the French interest in order as evident on the page as in the parks. We couldn't wait for Paris, where, we were sure, we would forget the musty routine of this provincial town and finally feel French. Linda and I were sent to separate arrondissements. I missed the ready companion and guard, the act of loyal care we had completed each night and morning.
I lived in the apartment of Mme and M. de Chambord, their two grown children, Hugues and Marie-Christine, and their dog, Orane. Hugues had the front room, next to the
. Through the dining room, past the bathroom, Marie-Christine's room faced the courtyard, sunlight shafting in. My room, further along the narrow hall and beside the kitchen, was a sliver, as thin as an envelope. A cot sank under cotton duvets, and a desk was shaded by a shelf, where someone had left a dictionary. The tall window had two glass panels joined together by an ancient metal fitting. It looked out on the courtyard, too, but the gray side, with a glimpse of eastern daylight that grew thinner through the winter. There was a basin behind a curtain, where, it was made clear, I was to confine
my toothbrush and soap.
Madame said, as she pushed my suitcase into the room and stepped into the kitchen, busy on thick-heeled shoes. She clattered and slammed her way through her tasks.
With my door closed on the sounds I couldn't decipher, I sat down, an exhaustion of homesickness overtaking me. I cried with more effort than I'd done anything up to that point. I didn't know where I was, didn't know my new metro station, hadn't been able to follow as Madame peppered me with instruction before leaving the roomâsomething about Easter?âdidn't know what we'd have for dinner. Lunch, she had emphasized, one finger pointing at me, was not her responsibility. She'd mentioned their house in the country. Perhaps we'd be going, but I didn't know when. I set up tiny speakers and my tape deck and put in the Jacques Brel cassette I'd listened to back home. But I hated him now. So
Madame rapped on my door the next morning and told me to hurry for breakfast.
“Tout de suite,”
she said, coming down hard at the ends of her words. I dropped jam from a spoon on my toasted baguette and held a bowl of cafÃ© au lait as she cleared things up around me. She showed me how to light the pilot light on the bathroom water heater, hurled the spent match into the toilet, and then she left, the apartment bristling with quiet. I didn't know where Monsieur was. He seemed to talk only to the dog.
After the next strained dinner I fled the apartment and met Linda in Les Halles. Just the sight of her jacket helped, data my brain already stored. She'd phoned some others, people I knew a littleâFrankie showed up, drenched in his new Drakkar Noir, Will from New Orleans, lanky Meg with her pop haircut, and Ben, deadpan sarcastic; and Miriam, whom I didn't know at all. We toppled into one another, shut the world out with our shoulders, scalded our hosts as we ate
and drank Stella
Artois mixed with lemonade, a discovery perplexing weeks before, now so casually desired.
“We'll do this