Authors: Hilma Wolitzer
The most peculiar thing was that Violet remembered letting me be Donna once in a while in our game. “But you didn’t!” I cried. How could she edit memory that way?
“Well, you can be her now, if it’s that important,” Violet said drily.
“Thanks a lot,” I said, “but it’s a little late. I’m Ricky forever.”
“I let you be Jane Eyre, though, remember?”
“Yeah,” I said, “but that was so you could be Mr.
Violet changed the subject then, as she does on those rare occasions she fails to have the last word. She asked about my progress on the art show essay, and then she told me, in an offhand manner, that Ev had offered to print the invitations to the opening and the catalogs, as a gift.
“That’s nice,” I said, trying to ignore the sudden commotion I felt in my chest. “So, is he seeing anybody?” I asked. If she could change the subject, so could I.
There was an agonizing pause. What is it that lawyers say? Don’t ask a question if you don’t already know the answer. “How should I know?” Violet finally muttered. “Why don’t you ask him yourself? You are talking to each other, aren’t you?”
“Sure,” I said. “We’re both civilized.” As I said it, I pictured Ev, draped in a fur pelt and carrying a big club, dragging me by my hair across York Avenue. I let out a yipping laugh, and Violet said, “What’s so funny?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Everything.” And right then both of those opposing assessments seemed true.
Ev and Al, Al and Ev. Our names had never been on everyone’s tongues, like Helen and Sam’s, except for our brief, scandalous fame in Iowa after that first kiss. Once, newly married, we were at a large party, and the host introduced us to another couple, who immediately reversed our names. That moment, in which we could have easily corrected them, flitted by. One of us still might have said something, but when the man turned to Ev, saying, “So, what do you do, Al?” Ev and I exchanged conniving smiles over his head, and let the mistake continue all evening. “So, what do you do, Al?” I said to him later, in bed. And he turned to me with a gaze of concentrated desire and said, “I do this, Ev, and this, and this.”
We were rather smugly comfortable with our assigned genders and their complicated components. I’d already recognized what I thought of as the male, the “Ev” in me—that aggressive itch in arguments, my desire not to just defer to anyone louder or bigger. And Ev wasn’t afraid to display what I saw as his feminine side, especially the nurturing kindness he was capable of in a crisis. I still cling to some of those easy sexist notions.
The next time I saw Dr. Stern, I told her about that long-ago party and our switched identities. I wasn’t sure why I’d brought it up. There were so many things to talk about, so many events and incidents, dreams and memories. Our lives seem brutally short until you calculate all the crowded minutes and try to choose the ones that best define you. During that same session, I told her about ending the affair with Michael. Somehow I expected her approval for my good behavior, even though she had never evinced disapproval before. I guess I was spoiled by past rewards in my life—lavish praise for a childish poem, a big bonus for landing a big book.
But Andrea Stern appeared to be her usual neutral self. All she wanted to know was how
felt about terminating things with Michael. “Awful, if you want to know the truth,” I said. “The sex was fantastic, like a poultice over all the places that hurt. You know, the perfect panacea for midlife angst. But when I let myself think ahead more than a day at a time, I became terrified, so I walked away while I could still walk. I mean, I knew we were never destined to go off into the sunset together.” I sounded as if I were trying to convince myself, too, and I couldn’t seem to shut up. “Probably because I’m a lot closer to the sunset than he is.”
“It will get better,” Dr. Stern said.
I was startled; that was the most direct, unsolicited statement she’d ever offered me. “Promise?” I asked.
She only smiled. “What about the manuscript?”
“The real business between us? That’s still going forward. And maybe we’ll have more time for it now.” That last came out more wistfully than I’d intended.
Dr. Stern was interested in how Michael had masked his personal tragedy in fiction, and in my ability to figure it out. It boded well, she said, for an interpretation of my own psychological mystery.
“I went to see my father last week,” I said, “speaking of mysteries.” I recounted the highlights, or low moments, of my visit to the nursing home, the way I’d harassed my poor father about the past, to no avail. I could have throttled him when I was there, as if he were willfully withholding information, but he became an object of pity in retrospect. “I wish my children would ask me everything they need to know right now, before I lose it, too,” I said. “Favorite recipes, where the family jewels are, all the big secrets.”
“You see your father as the repository of family secrets?”
“Yes, locked and sealed forever. And he’s swallowed the key.”
“There may be other keys, other ways in,” Dr. Stern suggested.
“You mean me?” I said. “But I only have little snippets of early memory. And I’m not sure I didn’t make some of it up. I used to write fiction, remember.”
“Michael does, too,” she said. “It’s one way of processing the truth.”
“So what do I do? Write the story of my life? Or maybe I ought to try free association—the Violet Steinhorn method of recovered memory.” I was being sardonic, of course, but as I sat there, under Dr. Stern’s steady, gently inquiring gaze, it began to seem like a reasonable idea. So I leaned back into the wings of the chair, shutting my eyes, and began.
It became a habit, something I could do at will almost anywhere and anytime, without anyone’s awareness, the way I used to do the Kegel exercises for weeks after giving birth. On the checkout line at the supermarket, browsing in a bookstore, even talking on the telephone. I’d had a secret life under my skirt, and now there was one inside my head. The exercises gradually tightened my pelvic muscles, and, if nothing else, this new process let me know what was on my mind, which moved in a frantic zigzag, like a fly trapped between the panes of a window. Not all that free, really, and I wasn’t ever sure if I was trying to get in or out.
I thought about Ev of Ev and Al, and about Ev alone. Then, unexpectedly, of Ev with someone else. But I skittered away from that idea before it could turn into an image. The children were seen in riffled snapshots at all ages, an impatient glance through a family album. My mother, young and then dead, as if she’d barely lived at all—the life span of a fly? Geese flying in a vee over Central Park. The vee of my own crotch and Michael or Ev thrashing into me. And there were flashes, bulletins from childhood: bossy Violet as Donna Parker, as the Headless Horseman, Faye coming up the basement stairs, my father in his leather chair, with Beethoven pouring over everything, like honey in which to trap a fly.
One day I went to see where Ev was living. He wouldn’t be there, I was certain of that, because Scotty had told me they were meeting at Ev’s office at noon before going out to lunch. This news made me feel both pleased and envious—they had formed an alliance behind my back—but at least it gave me the opportunity to investigate Ev’s new life without his knowledge. I took the subway to 42nd Street and then walked a few blocks south and west until I came to the address on the blue Post-it he had left on my computer.
The building was one of those generic postwar places. Ugly yellowish brick, a revolving door. A dentist and a podiatrist shared the office space on the street level—they might have advertised head-to-toe care. I looked up, counting the uniformly blank windows; Ev’s sublet was on the tenth floor, apartment 10B, but I didn’t even know which way it faced. I could see a doorman sitting at a desk in the lobby, reading a newspaper. I imagined walking right past him as if I belonged there, and taking an elevator up to the tenth floor. But then what?
There were two hired cars double-parked in front, their black-suited drivers slouched against the hoods, smoking. Fast-food and video rental places were conveniently situated across the street, and the neon SAME DAY SERVICE sign of a dry cleaner/laundry blinked beguilingly only a few doors down. It didn’t feel like a neighborhood, although people obviously lived there. The revolving doors flashed in the sunlight. Two men with attaché cases went in. A woman in a leather mini skirt and big sunglasses came out and got into one of the hired cars. I felt like the spy that I was and, unaccountably, like a traitor.
“Need a ride?” someone said. I was so startled, you would’ve thought there was a gun at my back. But it was only the driver of the other double-parked car. Between fares, probably, or stood up by one of them.
As soon as my heart slowed, I realized that a ride was exactly what I needed, that I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. “Yes, I do,” I said. “How much to Mount Sinai Hospital?” I truly hadn’t planned to say that; I guess that’s what happens when you leave yourself open to free association.
My father’s offices had been on the twelfth floor of the old Klingenstein Building. My mother and I used to go in through the entrance on Madison Avenue, near 100th Street. The scene had changed, like everything else. I remembered a hot dog stand and someone selling Italian ices in the summer, but vendors lined the street now, offering everything from socks and watches to knockoffs of Gucci handbags.
Nuclear medicine took up the entire twelfth floor of Klingenstein. I was reminded of those dreams one has about places that are familiar, yet vitally changed: the school with an elusive homeroom, the house with a sudden, unexplored wing. The whole place must have been gutted and reconstructed, so I couldn’t even locate my father’s former space. It had been fairly close to the elevators—you made a left turn when you got off, and then veered right (my feet automatically followed an old path)—but I wasn’t sure if the elevators were still in the same place.
A doctor in a red turban went by, and a young man on crutches. I wandered around, peering into offices where strangers sat at computers and the sick waited to have their fortunes told, the way they always have. There was no one anywhere resembling Miss Snow or Parksie, though, and no gilt plaque announcing the inner sanctum of Samuel Brill, MD. Whatever I had hoped to discover, or recover from the past, wasn’t evident, and going there seemed like nothing more than a naïve and futile impulse. Yet I roamed the corridors awhile longer, hunched over and with one hand held against that distressed place in my chest; it’s a wonder no one asked if I was looking for cardiology.
I walked all the way home afterward, and found that my knack for leapfrogging thoughts was impaired. All I could think about, obsessively and with a keening sadness, was Ev in his new quarters, feeling restless and displaced. It was easy enough to imagine the furnishings, as undistinguished and anonymous as the building. The standard bed, sofa, end tables, and easy chair you’d find in any mid-priced hotel suite. Wall-to-wall carpeting in some neutral, desert tone; plants that don’t require that much water or light. Everything without particular character or charm, except for the handful of artifacts Ev had taken from home: his blue Clichy, the yellow catch-all bowl from the kitchen counter, some photographs of the kids.
Our apartment, on the other hand, had retained most of its idiosyncratic familial appeal, like a museum dedicated to our former lives. As I opened the door and stepped inside, I remembered the time Ev and I took the children to Sagamore Hill, Teddy Roosevelt’s old summer residence on Long Island, and how those roped-off rooms still contained the furniture, the bedclothes, the rugs, the abandoned toys of that long-dead family. We visited the graves afterward, in case their tenants’ absence from those rooms wasn’t proof enough. Even the family dogs were buried there, which made Scotty cry. This was a melodramatically morbid comparison, I knew. Everyone who’d inhabited our rooms was alive and well, even if most of us lived somewhere else now. The place was spooky with domestic history, though, and ominously quiet.
When the phone rang, I dropped my purse on the bed before I answered it, and when I heard Ev’s voice in my ear, I sat down beside the purse. My first, illogical thought was that he knew somehow about my spying mission, that he was calling to accuse or berate me. But it was only a friendly call; we
civilized beings, just as I’d told Violet, and there was ongoing family business between us. He told me that he’d had lunch with Scott, and that they’d had a pretty good time. “Scotty seems to have his head together,” he said, which amounted to a rare paternal tribute from Ev.
“So, are you going to take him into the family business?” I asked. I was just trying to be funny, I suppose, to go along with what seemed like his own good humor.
But I encountered what I can only call a shocked silence. “I would never do that to him,” Ev said finally. His voice had become cool and flat.
For the first time in a long while, I really contemplated his daily working life. I pictured him knotting his tie in the morning, stuffing his briefcase with papers, putting coins and keys and antacid tablets into his pockets. He’d taken the subway downtown most days, a claustrophobic, bone-rattling rush-hour ride. He would travel on a different line now, and for a shorter trip, but it would be a similar hustle to get to his office. And I saw the office itself, his desk covered with paper and font samples, and the bulletin board behind it a collage of annual reports, flyers, and bar mitzvah invitations.
The cousins Ev had grown up with, Barry and Lloyd, were stationed in identical cubicles across from his, two balding guys who shot rubber bands at their pretty Latina employees and talked loudly and incessantly on the telephone, making deals, haggling over prices. The printing business had undergone radical changes with the advent, the onslaught, of the computer. The founding uncles’ noisy old presses were long gone, like the uncles themselves; it was all desktop work for their successors, and very competitive. They had to keep reinventing the operation, making it ever more high-tech and cost-effective, and Ev’s vocabulary, which had once favored phrases like
was infused now with references to thermography and digital output.
As if it were a natural segue of thoughts, I remembered our first apartment together, in Iowa—on the top floor of a Victorian frame house divided into student rentals—with its whining bedsprings and the determined clacking of our twin typewriters. I felt a charge of regret and longing, like the last surge of electrical power right before an outage. “I know that,” I said, limply and too late. “I was just kidding. And, anyway, it’s not as if you’re Tony Soprano.”
Alice, think before you speak!
When he didn’t respond, I kept right on going. “I hear that you’ve volunteered to print the catalogs for Violet’s group. That’s really great—will they be in color?”
“I don’t know,” Ev said, still without affect.
I sighed. How long was he going to keep this up? I’d told him that I hadn’t meant what I’d said, which was tantamount to an apology. And what right did he have to be so damned sensitive? Just like me, he knew that everyone is disillusioned in the end, especially the most ambitious among us. You just have to make the most of what happens, without taking it out on the people around you. “I have to go, Ev,” I said.
“Yeah, I’m pretty busy here,” he answered, as if it had been his own idea to hang up.