The Affairs of Others: A Novel (5 page)

BOOK: The Affairs of Others: A Novel
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“Hope? She has so many friends, George. She doesn’t need me interfering—”

“She needs everything,” he breathed and caught my hand. His was damp with perspiration. “She’s not— She’s not herself.”

“I’ll do what I can. Of course.”

That seemed to comfort him. Not me, even as he hugged me to the lapel of his jacket, where cologne had newly settled and made the fabric sharp. So I plunged my hands into Monday’s soapy water and moved as deliberately as Marina might, rags under my knees, one wet in my hand, which found her rounded strokes, repeated as much for rhythm as thoroughness. Today maybe Marina could not bear the closeness of the subway. Or maybe she wanted to smoke the day away or sit with her son and play cards until he had to go to class or another job. What freedom there was in defection.

It was still early when I completed the top floor—I heard nothing from behind Mr. Coughlan’s door. Most likely he was up and gone early, stalking the streets.

On the landing of the floor below were the raised voices of the Braunsteins. The conversation was not yet a fight, but even through their closed door, I could hear it was reaching for one. I’d caught bits of this debate between them before. Words were at odds: “Ready” competed with “not ready”; there was the blocking reply, “When, then, when, damn it?” and something about overpopulation and resources that was countered with “But what will change?” Or “What can?”

I was dug in not far from their door, making it too easy to hear: “Why can’t it be about us for a change? Not
Jesus, Angie. Is there no
here? Right here and now? You and me?”

Angie was Mitchell’s wife. She was a crusader and Mitchell tried to keep up with her. They participated in candlelight vigils, opposed the death penalty, animal testing, eating veal. She hated Republicans, SUVs, illiteracy, and bleach products. Mitchell loved her. But that morning loving Angie might just have meant hating her. I wondered when it would be too much for him—the chase.

Mitchell threw open the door, exasperated at it and then at the sight of me. His thinness was what you noticed first. He jogged hard every day no matter the weather. His head with its regular spare features and bright gray eyes looked a WASP’s but was Jewish in part or whole; situated on top of all that exposed sinew and circulation, it appeared too heavy for him. He tried to contain his annoyance, but he had nothing to hide it behind, no cheeks to speak of, no heavy brows, no excess flesh at all. Not even his clothes were of help: He was dressed for a run in a suit of shining, closely fitting black-and-orange synthetics. I could see his ribs expanding and contracting.

“Celia,” he said. A statement.


“Celia? Is she out there?” Angie insinuated herself alongside her husband. The top of her head level with his shoulder, she was a short, big-bosomed creature. She was Mitchell’s fullness. Or his longing for some. In its motions, her face was passionately earnest—her eyebrows always traveling up with her curiosity, or down, often with disapprobation, her nostrils fluttering; yes, you’d find her too intense, if not for the mole. It was grape-colored and roughly nickel-sized and situated right where a dimple would be. She wouldn’t like to hear it gave her a sweet and comic quality. She wouldn’t like to hear she looked like a doll. Yellow-haired. Rosy-cheeked. Given to florid blushing or so I imagined. I’d never actually seen her blush, but she slipped their rent under my door every first of the month along with a crisp pamphlet. The latest was about raising the minimum wage.

“No Marina today?” Angie asked. Quarreling enlivened her. The color in her face was higher than ever and there was excitement in her voice. She wore baby-blue cotton pajamas. “I heard a party night before last, didn’t I? That wasn’t you, was it, Celia?” There was that curiosity, that rigorous hopefulness.

“No, no. George? From downstairs? He’s going on sabbatical. I meant to tell you both. I’m allowing him to sublet. As a lark.”

“Yes,” Mitchell said grimly. “He told me.”

“He didn’t tell me,” Angie said, and to her husband: “You didn’t.”

Mitchell worked the muscles of his jaw faster and faster, gaining toward something—yelling or bolting or both. I thought it would be good to draw their attention to me.

“You both know I look to maintain a consonance of characters, some harmony…” As I went on with an abridged version of the speech I’d given George and Hope, though with none of the same resolve, Angie wrapped her plump arm around her husband’s tiny waist. He tried to wriggle it off, but she wouldn’t let go. “… But Hope seemed a good temporary guest…”

They didn’t hear me; he tried to remove her arm with his hand; she wouldn’t budge. I coughed then, like I had something caught in my throat. “Oh, dear. Excuse me.”

“Need water?” Angie asked.

“No, thank you.” I had work to do.

“I’m late,” Mitchell said.

“Come back in here for a moment, honey. Just for a sec. Okay? Okay.”

Had I not been there, I doubt he would have cooperated.

Their door shut and locked. A resolute sound—of one world effectively separating itself from another. I worked over the spot on which Mitchell had just been standing. I heard Angie say, “Sweetheart, sweetheart,
.” She was probably up on her toes, trying to get to him. Didn’t they know fighting about whether to have a child was a luxury?

Not long after moving in, she had painted every room in their apartment, even the short entry hall they stood in now and the bathroom, a different color. She’d asked permission. I didn’t think to say no. She opted for pale violet and jade green and a Provence yellow and something like amber, though muddier—a jumble of moods, anticipations, feints. A luxury also.

I was dusting the stair railings when Mitchell flew past, grunting something at me.

I forgot him as I wiped each step a smooth new face on my way down to the next floor, George’s, and once there, I set my supplies to one side, out of the way, to go outside as Marina would—she took cigarette breaks when it moved her. I didn’t smoke, but I could take the excuse a smoker might to be still and alone, feel the fresh air for a minute before I completed my work. I must say as I dried my hands on the denim of my skirt and straightened up to go, the world almost seemed simple and knowable; I allowed myself a breath so deep I felt it in the bottoms of my feet; I breathed it out through my mouth, even my eyes. Perhaps I was smiling; I tasted sweat on my upper lip, and felt the tackiness of Pine-Sol on my hands.

What I saw first was her hair. It had been let loose and looked like it had been laid on, rolled on, tugged at, pushed away from her long neck; hands had been inside it and had left their shape and moisture there. Hope hadn’t bothered to tame it, reassembling it into a twist. Her blouse, which had seemed stylish but prim when last I saw it, was unbuttoned to the end of her breastbone under her open raincoat. The skin of her face looked rubbed raw; and alarmed red marks on one side of her neck were purpling already as we stood there, not speaking. Hope knew what I was seeing—must have known—and yet she had no impulse to get away, to hide. She licked her lips. They were pale and dry.

“Hi,” she auditioned in a whisper as she held herself there before me.

Maybe she was drunk, but she didn’t look it. She looked stunned—and though her regard was vacant, her silence and stillness seemed full of expectancy. Maybe she wanted me to fuss over her or apply querying or disapproving looks. Maybe she needed that. To help her feel real again. She had let a man harm her, and now I had some duty to do or say something. As a woman. Yes, the whole complicated landscape of women’s relationships was before us on that landing. How we judge one another or try not to, how we care-take, and how much we believe in similarities between us or refuse to.

“I’m cleaning today.”

She looked to my supplies, started a smile and then abandoned it, nodded at me once, opened her mouth to say something and didn’t. Nothing.

I saw gray in her hair—on the side that stuck straight out; it looked as if someone had made an example of it. Still she stood there.

“The woman who works for me doesn’t show some days,” I said.

She blinked.

Then I gambled. I wanted so much to go outside and surely what she most needed was her privacy—some reassurance of her own self-possession. I had needed that once; I’d had a map of bruises on my body once. “You’re okay, right?” I could have waited for a reply or just waited longer, but I was impatient. I could have reached for her hand, even if it seemed unnatural, too hastily built a bridge right then. Yes, my tone could have been more querying. Instead I instructed, I told her: “You’ll be okay. You’re all right. You just need a … shower. Coffee. These things are—”
What was I saying?
“—common.” I fell too hard on “common.” What was I saying?
Common enough?

This woke her eyes. They squinted at me as if she hadn’t really seen me there before, then they watered and the gold inside the blue of them glowed.
glowed. I had embarrassed her. She was not all right, emphatically, and seemed too confused to move to her door, George’s door. For an instant it appeared she didn’t quite know where she was or how she got here until she jabbed her hand into her bag in search of her keys. She turned the pockets of her long raincoat out and then sent her hand diving again until it found its object. Then all of her was in motion, to the ends of her hair. The door was opened and then closed. One world effectively separating itself from another.



, I
from Hope, from her feet that should have been walking my ceiling or from any other part of her, for a day. I thought to knock on her door, bring something—what? What did women bring one another these days? Casseroles? Booze? I thought to apologize—for what? For being where I did not belong? Where I had such a poor compass from years of disuse. Instead, I crowded myself into inaction with platitudes, the ones we all barter in, that time heals, that a good night’s rest is the stuff, that we’re all grown-ups here. I even composed other speeches, practiced divulging something, for her sake, but my tongue only flopped around, incapable. So when the crying came I listened with relief. At first. Was attentive to it out of respect. She hiccupped, working her way in, and then leaned into peals, which said no and please and no again. I found out she had lungs and stamina for this.

It went on for three nights, sometimes during the dinner hour but mostly just after, when the rest of the world had done their washing up and were preparing to go to bed and more often than not into someone’s arms. I knew this nowhere time well. She moved from bedroom to living room and back again. When one room was too full of grief, she found the other, to fill it up. She shuffled, walked, bolted. To the bed, then to the hardness of that leather couch, letting it hold her for as long as she could bear it. Last night, she’d gone hoarse yet she stayed at it. Her cries were staccato and pointed and she carried them into both rooms, back and forth, moving slowly, as if spraying the present with the shards of them, trying to break it up. A battery. Steady enough.

My sleep had become fragmented too. I’d lived with sleep deprivation before. I had cried and worked the floors. I had examined my hands that had touched him last and marveled at them. Not here. I hadn’t brought that grief with me here or that was my intention. I wanted order for me, the building. I’d wanted certain barriers, the right to them. But sleeplessness makes your days feel rubbery, the walls thin and movable. How much could I have expected from this new place once I’d filled it with people? And in a building that had already been stretched and reimagined by locals so many times?

I took some refuge in its history—that long before I was born or dreamt of the building that I would own, it had been classified as a brownstone once, or so the record keepers indicated, but when the city bureaucracy was a network of cronies with itchy palms someone had looked the other way and its conversion began. Before there was a landmark preservation committee, before Robert Moses tried to raze much of downtown Brooklyn in favor of an expressway, the grand front stairs were disassembled and taken away. Fireplaces were closed up and what remained of them was encased in the walls. Stained glass was carted off.

It must have taken more than a few pairs of hands to accomplish the theft—and so conspiracy—to strip this building of mine and make it something other than it was intended to be. In modern-day parlance, it became a walk-up and then came the complication of the elevator. No one had approved its installation, though someone, his pockets full, had known of it because then the official designation of the building changed to apartment building. Stolid. I could not restore all the Italianate touches that had been sanded down or removed. I did my best by the ceiling moldings that remained, by the floors, the light fixtures, the banisters. What I could not restore, I replicated; what I could not replicate, I left simple but clean. I could feel the bones of the place—that I’d fortified them. And me. But now Hope rattled them through the night, and my head was not clear.

When the heat cycled on at 6, I was awake to hear it. Outside, birds complained of what continued to be a cold March—as the light gained, they did too in their fussing and calling and bickering. Still, my ears picked out Mr. Coughlan’s approach. He was not a heavy man, but as he went up or down the stairs, it was never hard to make out his reckoning with what it was to convey his body around now and the care he assigned to every step.

Soon after came Mitchell Braunstein’s feet. The soles of his sneakers barely landing on the wood. He bounced down, leaving little evidence of himself behind him, already envisioning himself moving with the morning on the other side of the door, and full of the sort of energy that shamed me sometimes.

I struggled to drag myself vertical, telling myself that the early light is so often the answer to confusion.

I’d had to visit a sleep clinic; in my first year alone, when insomnia had become a constant, and I could not keep from remembering for fear I’d forget. Evidently I had to reteach my body what time it was, reset its clock. If we let them be, our bodies can be simple mechanisms, as responsive to light and dark as tulips. Did Hope know this? To force herself into the light for at least twenty minutes every morning? How essential routine was to keep us upright? I listened for her as I forced a cup of black tea down, made myself as presentable as I could in a light coat and jeans, and still I listened for her and could not find the door. It was my habit to go out just before or after rush hour. I hesitated and as I did was put in mind of a woman, a stranger to me, who announced she’d never sleep again. “It’s not safe,” she explained.

BOOK: The Affairs of Others: A Novel
6.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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