The Affairs of Others: A Novel (4 page)

BOOK: The Affairs of Others: A Novel
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Darren leaned over to me and raised his too full glass, spilling some, whispering loudly into my ear, “To the lamb who came to dinner.”

I inhaled and held on and did so again and again, through the contours of the room rounding and seeming to breathe with us, through the cushioning of the sound, through Nina Simone’s singing
she can’t stand it, daddy,
over and over, giving us notes sung for minutes that refused to be anything as brief as minutes, through a piece of Schubert’s (a piece from his Impromptus I think I was told twice), that went fast, then slow, loud, then so soft—the piano so restrained, it actually hurt my ribs—and through the smells in the room, of Blake, of Darren’s florid supplies of marijuana, of the cheese back in the oven, and especially of Hope. I don’t know when he arrived; if it was an hour after I became stoned and solidly, inarguably drunk or if it was a quarter of an hour. But there he was. I believe I had heard knocking, but the room had been shuddering with all variety of percussion, with the bass and drums and the piano, with tapping limbs and voices, with so many different tempos beating and competing around us only to dig us in deeper. But I remember another sound that felt quarrelsome, discordant, and insistent. I was irritated by it—it reminded me I’d stayed much too long—but then it passed. I forgot about it, and then, yes, there he was.

A long, liquid man. Broad-shouldered and thin-hipped. He stood and surveyed all of us, made sure, it seemed then, that we could see him seeing us, each of us. To me, he appeared a terrifying and bitterly handsome giant in an expensive suit, with his hands pushed into his pockets, making his change dance as if he were punishing it. How loud it was, this advertisement of his distance from us or his disapproval or both; but then his eyes were shrouded by his brow in the half-light of that room, and his mouth which may have wished to express something gentle couldn’t through a blanketing of hard-looking stubble over a jaw that was long and edged like a spade. When Hope told us, “This is Les. An old friend of mine, a family friend,” we all made an effort to cross through the moat of our farawayness to greet him—certainly George and Josephina did; George got up and extended his hand but was too late. Already this Les, without need of permission, had lifted a chair from the other side of the room and put it next to Hope. As close to her as he could get. His long arm fell over the back of her chair so that it hung near my head, this man’s strong hand pretending to be lazy. He said, “Well, this is cozy. You’re all launched, huh?”

“We’ve been having some fun.” Hope wanted to be bright, but the pot, the hour, prevented that. I went to get up, but my legs would not cooperate.

“I bet. Who has the weed?”

“I do.” Darren’s voice cracked. He was outdone in derision, in natural attributes, in daring.

“May I?”

“There’s just this left.” Darren handed what remained of the joint to Les. Les pulled out his own lighter and set after smoking, his face becoming a frown of distaste, taking it in and in. Getting the job done. Blowing out trees of smoke, making us all his audience. I don’t remember if anyone spoke until Hope offered, “Les lived in the same neighborhood as me a hundred years ago, in North Carolina.”

Les nodded as he contained another breath.

“I was the older woman.”

“Not so much older,” he said to her, exhaling.

“He knows my family,” she told us.

He moved the hand that hung near me to encircle the back of her neck. “Do you have a roach clip?” he put to Darren.

Darren nodded, and I saw Hope close her eyes and, with a slight adjustment that I’m not sure anyone saw but me, move herself back and into his hand.

“Youth is willingness,” he said to her.

“That,” sighed Josephina smiling, “is well said. Do you want some wine?” She was listless, but there was something else in her voice, too, a bluntness to match or impress his.

“Scotch?” he asked her.

“I’ll go,” said George. “Ice?”

“Sure. Thank you.”

“This is the place I’ll be staying from now on. This is George’s place.” Hope went through all our names. When George returned with the scotch, Les said, “Nice place, George.”

“Celia here, beside me, is his landlady.”

He leaned forward to look at me. He did not remove his hand from Hope’s neck. “Nice place, Celia landlady.” His eyes stared; they were deeply set and light-colored, maybe green, blue, and were lively until they became bored. Quickly. Obdurate.

“Help me drink this,” he said to Hope.

“I couldn’t. We’ve had so much wine.”

“Help,” he breathed at her, “huh?” putting the glass to her lips, making the ice dance for her. We all waited to see what she would do. Nothing happened for a beat, and then with one hand she took the drink, pointed her gaze there, stared at it, and then sipped; while she did this she snaked her other hand into mine on the armrest, as if she needed me to steady her.

“Is that Chivas?” Les asked George.

“It is,” George said.

“It’s good.”

“It is.” George’s voice was not warm; it was withholding, careful. Either he did not want to spook this man or he did not want to allow himself to be spooked.

“You off on a trip?”

“With any luck,” said George.

Hope continued to grip my hand as Les watched her sip his drink then return it to him and watched her do the same again, three or four times. He still kept one hand on her neck. She did not struggle against it once.

Darren asked Les what he did for a living.

“Whatever I have to do,” Les laughed, finishing his drink. “Like everyone else.”

“Les is in finance. A hedge fund.”

“That’s high-end gambling. Hardly an everyman’s sport.” Darren had found some courage, a trace of spirit in that half-dark room.

“Close enough these days,” Les said, raising his glass to finish it. “Shall we go, then? Are you ready?” he said to Hope.

“You’re leaving?” said Darren.

I held on to her hand with more pressure. I whispered, “You don’t have to go.”

“It’s okay,” she whispered back. “He’s an old family friend,” she added but without any reassurance or life in her voice. “He knew my mother.”

She slipped from me easily and announced, “We have some catching up to do, Les and I.” She stood, took her coat from the rack. She then went and kissed all of us, even me, on cheeks or foreheads. Solemnly enough, one by one, while Les stood, hands in pockets again, change complaining. “I had such a lovely night,” she said as she moved to the door.

“When will you be home?” George chased after her.

“Not tonight,” she said quietly, leaning into George’s ear. “Don’t worry,” she whispered, but I believe we all heard it. We had crawled inside her somehow, and we didn’t want to go. “I’ll see you in the morning. We’ll go to the airport together in the afternoon.” I do not think she stopped long enough to look him in the eye. She and the tall man had momentum. The door shut behind them. Darren put his face in his hands.

 

THE PLEASURES OF FALLING

I
WOKE TO A CHILL
the next day, in my body, in the building.

Spring was coming, but winter hung on through the night into the morning. I felt the radiator in my bedroom, and when its heat did not feel emphatic enough, I pulled my sweater and jeans on, stuck my feet into slippers, and went to check the boiler. The quiet in the building was total, the stillness as full as it could be with me there as witness, so I stood in it, with it, in the empty hallway, and felt the radiator there. It was warm too, but not what I wanted, not enough. I could smell the party on my sweater—food and smoke and other people—and then my own smell, from last night, in my hair, on my body, me having abandoned caution, in increments. I could not say if I was glad, nor could I explain the goose bumps breaking over me, retreating then returning. Steam heat was expensive, but replacing the system I had with hot water seemed too extravagant when I was renovating. I had regretted the decision here and there since. Steam worked fine, though it had to cycle more to get the job done.

Once down in the basement, I saw that the old boiler, a thrumming centrifuge, was doing what it always did for me, behaving in the expected way.

I did not return to my bed right away. In the hall again, I couldn’t yet face the sheets and covers thrown to one side, open and losing heat. In increments. Last night Hope’s hand had been so hot in mine; it had begun to burn with that man beside us, his enormous hand collaring her neck. At first I had felt the structure of her there, the light length of the bones of her fingers, the width of her palm; but with her temperature changing so, the flesh overwhelmed the rest; it was what communicated to me; even stoned, drunk, I could feel it, but I couldn’t have asked her to stay with us. Who was I? It wasn’t my place. I shouldn’t even have been there, but it was mine to feel the chill left when her hand was gone and my hand was made a vacancy, something that had to cool and keep cooling. And it wasn’t my place to explain to her that when someone is falling, when someone is startled with pain, it is surely better to have someone there who will steady rather than destabilize you or teach you the pleasures of falling.

I knew something about this, sorrow’s peculiar altitude and how disorienting it could be; how the descent into it, through it, can go on and on. You’ll grab for anything. The day my husband died, all I could feel was absence, his and my own. I held on to him until he became something other than he had been, and then I could not sit still, but neither could I clean or make phone calls. So I rode the subway. I waited for his body to be covered and removed, signed the papers given me, splashed water on my face, and then I got on the R train at the Court Street stop on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, where my husband and I lived at the time. I rode it through rush hour to its terminus at one end in Queens and then to the other, back in Bay Ridge. I did this at least twice. The R was a local, in no hurry; that suited me until I got off at Times Square to transfer to the 2 train. I had thought I might take this back home, but home wasn’t home anymore—and I wasn’t who I had been even that morning—so impulse dictated that I take it north, all the way above ground to its terminus in the Bronx, which looked more suburban than urban, with more sky than neon.

I had never been to any of these subway line ends; never seen the train pause and seem to take a breath and sometimes admit a new conductor before it went back the way it came. It was nearly evening when I started riding, but bright—it was July. I wore a tank top bought in Ogunquit, Maine, that advertised “Vacationland” and some drawstring cotton capris. My hair was not brushed, and if you looked carefully at my clothes you might have seen some discoloration from sweat, coffee, blood, and urine from a catheter bag. I could not remember if I had brushed my teeth. I know I had forgotten to put a bra on. But no one really saw me, and if they did, especially during rush hour, it was not for long. But later when I switched to the F, when there were fewer bodies in the cars, when I guessed it was finally night, toward 10 or 11
P.M.
, I got looks, sometimes of concern, sometimes of disapproval. I was unkempt; my shirt was thin. The air must have turned cooler outside because the air conditioner stung more, and people now wore light jackets. I don’t know when the man in the summer suit got on precisely, somewhere in midtown. At Fiftieth Street, I saw he was eyeing me. It was around midnight, I think, and I do not know what he saw; I looked back a couple of times to try to ascertain that until he began his approach to me. He was a pink, fleshy man in a wrinkled khaki suit a size too small for him. He was not yet forty, but then with his wrists and ankles sticking out from his suit, with cheeks that looked freshly slapped, and thin streaky blond hair worn too long and made, with gel, to tuck behind his pink ears, he must have appeared younger than he was. I remember when we got off the train together I was surprised by how tall he was and by how his excitement made him sneer. He had moved his seat four times until he was next to me and breathing in my ear, telling me what to do. Did he take courage from the state of me? Yes, I imagine he did. All it took was the pressure of his hand on my lower back to direct me. I had nowhere else to go.

 

ONE WORLD SEPARATING ITSELF FROM ANOTHER

M
ONDAY MORNINGS:
A
FTER THE FORMLESSNESS
of Sundays, there was purpose in them. Merciful purpose.

Marina was due that day to clean, to vacuum and mop the hall floors, to dust the sconces and the ribs of the radiators. If she wasn’t there by 7:30, she wasn’t coming. I never thought of firing her when she didn’t show. She and her husband and son had helped to renovate my building, taught me how to plaster, drywall. She’d bring me Ukrainian sausage every so often, not to flatter me but because, she said, “It is good.” And I liked how she cleaned when she came, alone or with her son. She talked very little and gave her whole body to the cleaning. She took off her stockings, tied back her hair without need of a mirror, and got down on hands and knees when addressing the floors; she stretched, grunted; her sweat made long oval shapes under her arms and on her chest and stomach. There was no cheer in her movements but such focus and resignation, accompanied by sighs, the voluptuous, well-earned kind.

She did not quarrel with the dirt or the effort it required of her. Her twenty-something son had the same manner, despite his age. He had temperate eyes and a musician’s hands. Marina never apologized for not showing. I respected that as well. Women say sorry too often. We say it when it’s not ours to say.

On the days Marina was absent, I took some solace in playing her part, a woman with so much history, her own, yes, and her country’s, a place that I knew had been prisoner so many times, unlucky in its geography. Once or twice a month I found myself on hands and knees in an old denim skirt. Yesterday in the late morning, George had knocked on my door. He was pressed and nervous and so he whispered with last night’s party and that morning’s coffee on his breath, a slight hiss to his thank you, his
see you soon,
and then: “Watch after her, will you?”

BOOK: The Affairs of Others: A Novel
9.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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