The Affairs of Others: A Novel

BOOK: The Affairs of Others: A Novel
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To Jerry and Suzanne, my first great loves



Title Page

Copyright Notice




Ferry Captain

Party Greetings

The Pleasures of Falling

One World Separating Itself from Another

From Atlantic to Pacific

Tea and What Was Expected

A Man Vanishes

Lady into Fox

No Loitering

Consenting Adults

Helping Hands

Away into Another Woman, Another Man

I Could Kill You

The Script


Youth Is Willingness

The High Wire

A City Arrangement

I’ll Wait for You

Goodbye for Now


About the Author



I’ve known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.

—Marguerite Duras,
The Lover

Some people set themselves tasks

other people say   do anything   only live

still others say

oh oh   I will never forget you   event of my first life

—Grace Paley, “Life”



aging. It’s a landscape that, even as it vanishes, asks a lot of the eyes. Or it should. No two landscapes the same. They never were the same, no matter their age, but then how time brings details to the body.

Of course every woman’s body ages. What’s disorienting is how friendly it all starts out, with words like smooth and tight and firm, high and pink and wet—words that are given to women’s bodies and that they wear around, as comfortably as cotton. And why not? These are gifts they did little to earn. Life does this so rarely—offer unearned or unasked-for rewards. But inevitably the words fall away, one by one: There goes tight, there goes smooth, god, even wet. And the words that replace them, that are provisioned, are not nearly so welcome or easy to carry. Some women carry these new ways of addressing their bodies with pride. They’ll explain that the knots in their flesh tell a good story. Others celebrate the change of vernacular, the end of a certain kind of surveillance. Or they continue to pursue the first set of words—high, tight, smooth. It’s not wrong or it’s not for me to say. Who am I to say? I am a young or youngish woman. I am in my late middle thirties, though I could be twenty-five or fifty. I believe I have no age anymore. I am not unattractive but neither am I beautiful. I married a man I first met in college and then again later, a few years after graduation. My husband died a difficult death. I went with him, or a lot of me did. I cannot apologize for this nor do I wish to challenge that I am changed.

Being a widow was a respected thing once. Understood as a destination. Now, we are asked to let go, move on, become someone or something else, marry, divorce, marry again. American life asks us to engage in an act of triumphant recovery at all times or get out of the way. I have been happy to get out of the way.

My husband left me comfortably provided. With the money given me, I bought a small apartment building in which I live and rent three one-bedroom apartments. Behind my building in downtown Brooklyn there is a garden of three hundred square feet with an old lilac bush that blooms a deep ancient-looking purple, a tall female ginkgo, a scrawny sycamore, and then a strange assortment of plantings to which the previous owners and I have made a halfhearted commitment. In my case I queried will this herb or flower grow, and if the answer was yes, I let it make its bid for survival and maybe even return on its own the following year. I am often surprised by what greets me in the spring. Weeds of course but also a determined patchwork of grass that reminds me of the head of a disheveled balding man. My tenants have asked to contribute to the garden, but as I am not here to make a family of them, to know them too well, I’ve not encouraged this and so their relationship to the garden is as tentative as it is to me. I have only been a landlord for four years.

I didn’t normally allow subletters, but George brought her, a candidate, to meet me on a day where, though it was only the beginning of March, I could smell the soil in the damp air and had noticed the daylight was lengthening. George had always been a good tenant. He lived above me on the second floor and was careful of the noise his feet made over my head, and once when I was ill with a bacterial bronchitis, he had gone to pick up my antibiotics at the drugstore for me. He taught English at St. Ann’s, a private school on Pierrepont Street that turns its students into sophisticates long before they can vote, and he had published poems in journals meant to impress the literate. He was gay and had had a roommate initially, a lover of many years who left him after only a few months of living in my building. At night, during that time, when I couldn’t sleep, I heard George walking the floorboards, the same length, back and forth and back and forth, as if he were schooling himself in precision. If I focused on his regular steps, the predictable shifts his weight made, I would fall back to sleep, his vigil excusing me from my own. Once I heard him cry out—it sounded like someone had startled him. I immediately thought of a ghost, perhaps of himself, when he loved and was loved.

I had seen the woman to whom George wanted to let his place on the streets of Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill alone or sometimes in the company of people I took to be her family. She had broad shoulders for a woman and long legs, though she was not overly tall, only a little above average in height. I could have mistaken her for French—her clothing, her unapologetic femininity, the dark lipstick and the way she swept her hair up on her head and into a twist—but the accent, the volume and pace of her voice, and the openness of her face didn’t fit. It would be fair to say she was beautiful. Last fall, I was sure I had seen her with a young man on Hicks Street, on a deserted residential block. I had felt I was intruding and crossed to the other side of the street. I took him to be her son because he resembled her—same color hair, same body type. She grabbed him abruptly and hugged him with all of her, as if she were trying to steady him against a mean wind or force something out of him. That day, I remember I thought
she’s trying to hug his sorrow away and there was no time to lose apparently. When she let him go, she looped her arm in his, and they walked away vividly in step, in league, heads high, not embarrassed or worried about who might have seen them, but full of vitality and purpose. I believe I am remembering that right or that is how I want to remember it.

She had left an impression or several, and it was a pleasant enough association.

George wanted to go to France for a time to see an ailing friend. He wanted to get away, to write. He talked very briefly about the sensuality of time and of landscape, the sort that can’t be had in America, in New York City, and then he talked about Marseille, the city, and Rimbaud—did I know Rimbaud? He talked more quickly than he might usually, which was all to say he wanted out, urgently, but eventually he wanted to come home to Brooklyn, to his apartment. He’d arranged a leave for the rest of the school year and then he had the summer off anyway—the great boon of teaching, he said, summers. There was simply the matter of the apartment, of rent, of me. He could not afford to go if I did not let his dear friend Hope stay for a while. He didn’t slow down or acknowledge how a body might respond to the words “let Hope stay.” He kept talking, launching his hope at me with her there beside him nodding brightly at intervals, and it was my duty to demonstrate some resistance. I had some but not much. My tenants think me cold. They know that I am young or youngish, but some part of them does not believe it.

I began by explaining how small the building is, how careful I am in selecting my tenants, that there is a certain consonance of character I look for and mean to maintain.

George offered, “Of course, I would not suggest anyone who I didn’t think suitable.”

Then I brought up precedent, my desire for consistency; at this Hope craned toward me and spoke to me as if English were my second language.

“But I am a friend of George’s and the neighborhood’s, was it Ms. Cassill?”

Her lipstick looked expensive and her brows were dark and high in their natural arch. She knew the impact her face could have, even now in her mid- to late forties. She’d known it for years.

“It’s Mrs., and I don’t doubt that you are—”

“I’m sure the other tenants could be made to see—”

“With that, it’s tricky—”

“Is it really? Huh.” She changed course, biting down on her lip to contain her enthusiasm. “Did George ever tell you that I’m a great cook?”

“Are you?”

“George would probably eat better in his own kitchen with me running it than in France.”

“Well, that’s something—”

“Why don’t you let me cook for you?” She was trying to flirt with me.

“Very kind but not at all necessary.”

She was the sort who created intimacies where there were none.

“I could cook a meal for the whole building if you’d like and serve it out there in that lovely garden. Pâté and bouillabaisse and good bread and wine, a great mess of a meal—”

“We don’t really have…” I threw a look at George. Flattened my tone. “No, that’s not at all—
. I wouldn’t dream of asking that of you or my tenants. We are very respectful of each other’s—what?

Her face, which had been full of expectancy, fell slightly, and I saw her age there, a feathering over the upper lip; two sharp lines that had dug in and stayed between her brows, but on a face with good bones and wide planes and eyes so light, an almost yellow blue, these lines gave her a helpful gravity, an authority. She’d run out of the energy it takes to be playful quickly, more quickly than I’d have guessed. She shook her head at George and then opened her arms and shrugged. “Not a good year so far, darling.”

He placed an arm on her shoulder. Placed it because he was gentle with her, wanted to show her gentleness. “It’s been a hard go,” he said.

Looking at me with some impatience now, and taking in a big breath, he was about to launch another appeal when Hope, straightening her neck and leveling her shoulders, making the best of her height, preempted him: “I’ll pay for the whole thing up front, security included. Cash. Does
interest you?”

“Money’s not really the issue here. Is it Miss or Mrs.?”

She smoothed her light brown hair on one side above her ear and looked down to inspect her sweater. It was sage-colored and looked handmade, with a silk-cotton thread. It flattered her. “I left my husband, you see. I need a safe place. A quiet place. I thought this was it. George and I thought … well”—she put her hand on George’s forearm—“we’re like children, I suppose. We thought it would all fall together. That something could.” Tears bloomed through those strange eyes, and she laughed a little. “George and I both need new scenery, but there are other options, aren’t there, George? We needn’t trouble you anymore.” With a stiff hand, she patted at my upper arm, letting go of me and the conversation utterly. I was no one to her. I had been an obstacle to overcome and that’s all. “C’mon, George. Let’s go find a drink.”

“Celie, really,” he said to me. He had never called me “Celie,” only “Celia,” my name in fact and what I prefer to be called. “I can’t afford to cover the rent while I’m gone. And I have to go away. I really
to. Do you really want to go to the trouble of getting a new tenant, of evicting me?”

BOOK: The Affairs of Others: A Novel
6.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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