Authors: Hilma Wolitzer
I just missed the next tram going back to the city. Several passengers had disembarked, carrying briefcases and shopping bags. There was a woman in a wheelchair and someone wheeling a bicycle. The bus taking them home was going to be crowded, too. A few people had started walking, and when I looked back at the grid of buildings behind me, I saw that lights had gone on in random patterns in all those anonymous high-rises, that people lived there, just as they did everywhere. Some of them would be watching the evening news by now, preparing supper, returning phone calls. And in a little while I would be home, too.
There’s a certain thrilling authority to an art show opening, even in a co-op gallery. It’s like a party given by the friends of a writer for a book that’s been self-published, or published by some tiny, obscure press. There won’t be any reviews, and sales will be minimal, but the party room is always crowded with well-wishers, and the cheap wine is poured freely and goes to everyone’s head so that the noise level is high and celebratory. Even the platter of American cheese chunks and grapes is decimated, and all the copies of the book on display are grabbed up, giving the illusion that they’re in demand in the real world, too.
The excitement at One Art had spilled out into the street, where a few people were standing around smoking and talking in loud, animated voices, while a group of others, including me, went past them into the industrial building, and then slowly up the five flights in the cranky, padded freight elevator. I felt self-conscious and nervous during the ascent. This would be my first public event, my first social outing, since my father’s death and the improbable shock I’d sustained, and had seemed to almost
in Parksie’s apartment.
“Maybe children can be forgiven,” I’d told Dr. Stern on my next visit. “But I’m a grown woman now, on my way to becoming an
woman, and I’m still running around spreading unhappiness.”
“You feel pretty terrible about this,” she said. “But you didn’t really get to the truth until you’d spoken to Parksie about it, did you?”
“Not until she looked at me that way. I’ll never forget that look. But why did I ever even think it was Miss Snow? They hardly resembled each other.”
“You’re the one who made the switch,” Dr. Stern said. “Any ideas?”
“It was obviously convenient, with the whole whiteness thing. And I suppose I just couldn’t accept that it was Parksie. She must have been in her thirties back then, yet I’d never thought of her, even retrospectively, as a sexual being. The way Faye didn’t seem to have a self outside her role in my family’s life. Ev is right. What a spoiled brat I was. Am.”
“And Miss Snow was easier to accept?”
“I guess so. She was more expendable, for one thing. I mean, she was there, but she wasn’t a
I think everyone always knew she would get married and go away. And when Parksie referred to her the other day as a ‘type,’ that really resonated with me. I’d perceived Miss Snow as glamorous, which I guess was just an unsophisticated child’s take on sexy.” I took a couple of deep breaths.
“Would your mother have found Miss Snow more expendable, too?”
I hesitated; that seemed like such a crucial question. “I don’t know,” I finally said. “Maybe. Yes, I think so. As wounded as she was about my father and Miss Snow, it probably would have been much more hurtful to know that it was Parksie. She’d have felt more betrayed, all around, I think, angrier with my father, and even more threatened.”
Dr. Stern didn’t say anything. She sat there, letting me absorb the implications of what I’d just said. “Are you trying to let me off the hook?” I asked.
“No, I’m just trying to help you to see the whole picture.”
The whole picture kept playing in my head the rest of the day—in the supermarket on my way home from Dr. Stern’s, as I attended a meeting at G&F in the afternoon about Michael’s book, and on the subway that evening going downtown to the opening at One Art. But once I was there, the images on the walls gradually replaced the ones in my head.
The gallery was mobbed and vibrantly humming; where had everyone come from? I remembered helping Violet mind that other show months before, and how almost no one had shown up while we were there. I’d invited a few people myself this evening, as a hedge against a poor turnout, but I didn’t spot any of them when I came in.
These were probably mostly relatives and close friends of the artists. Aunt Lil and Uncle Bernie, who had signed the guest book that other time, cousins, neighbors. Opening night! The allotted fifteen minutes of fame. I saw the Steinhorns talking to an antediluvian woman in a wheelchair, sporting a corsage. There was a cluster of beautiful young girls; a couple of babies, riding like rajahs in back carriers; and a Jack Russell terrier struggling for release from a woman’s arms. A toddler ran gleefully between Imogene’s pillar-like sculptures and through the forest of legs, with a man chasing after her, calling, “Alexandra, you’re going to get hurt!” Only a few people were actually looking at the artwork.
I went to the wall of Violet’s paintings first. They were as familiar as old friends—gloomy, difficult old friends who stop you, like the Ancient Mariner, and insist on telling you their dark, convoluted story. A young couple, dressed in gothic black and with a lot of body piercing, stood next to me, gazing at one of Violet’s canvases. “Wow,” he said, which could have meant anything, and she said, “Yeah.” They guzzled their wine and drifted away, as Violet came up beside me and said, “Well?”
“I’m impressed,” I said. “And I’m not the only one. Do you see that guy with all the nose rings? He just looked at these and said ‘Wow.’ ”
“That’s my cousin Ralph’s son, Peter. He’s completely insane.”
“Well, insane people can still be very astute critics.”
“So which one do you want?” Violet asked.
“Oh, come on,” I said. “You know that isn’t necessary.”
“That was our deal, remember? Did you see the catalog?”
“I got one in the mail. It looks nice,” I said, happy to veer away from the issue of a reciprocal painting. Ev had sent the catalog to me, just as he’d sent the invitation, without a note. He really had done a fine job, though. The graphics were beautiful, and there were no typos in my essay. Well, how could there be? Everything’s printed from a computer disc today. I could see a little pile of catalogs on a desk in the corner, surrounded by half-empty plastic cups and crumpled cocktail napkins. The runaway toddler, still at large, had a catalog in each of her grubby fists.
“Nice?” Violet said.
She grabbed my arm, pinching the skin between her fingernails. “It’s fucking wonderful, Alice, and so is he.”
“Violet, listen,” I began, pulling away from her grasp, but she cut me off.
listen. That whole business with Scott?” she said. “Ev was right. The kid was screwing up again.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean he was lifting stuff from Tower, maybe selling it.”
“He was not!” I rubbed my arm hard where she had pinched it, trying to deflect the pain I felt everywhere else. “How do
“Because he told me.”
“You’re making this up,” I said, but I remembered the special bond Violet, the perfect not-parent, had always had with my kids, and that Scotty did have a kind of compulsion to ultimately confess, to cleanse his conscience without really altering his habits. “But why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because you would have said I was making it up, like you just did. Because you’re deliberately blind when it comes to Scott. So I told Ev instead.”
I’d been betrayed by everybody. “Thanks a lot,” I said angrily. And then, “What did he do to him?”
“Ev? I don’t know. He probably yelled and then talked to him. And I think he made him pay for the stuff he took and quit the job.”
I thought of my dinner with Scott at the Star of Bombay, of his sudden interest in filmmaking, his uncharacteristic deference to Ev. “I don’t believe this,” I said, but I believed it all completely.
“Ev handled it,” Violet said. “He saved Scotty’s ass. But that kid should be in treatment.”
“You think everyone should.”
“Why not?” Violet said, reasonably.
I glanced around the room, eager to escape our conversation. “Oh,” I said. “There’s Ruth Casey.” She had just stepped off the elevator, as if to provide me with an excuse for fleeing. “I’ll speak to
later,” I warned Violet, and I made my way through the crowd.
“Ruth, I’m so glad you could make it,” I said. Actually, I was completely surprised to see her there. The last time we’d met, a few days before, at my apartment, we’d worked together on one of her final chapters, in which her husband leaves and she finds herself rocking in place for hours alongside her daughter. It was a terrific and terrible scene. “This is very good,” I told her. “The whole book is.”
She seemed to wait. As always, she was pale, calm, inscrutable.
Then, in a burst of honesty, I said, “But I’m not sure about the market for it. The way things are, the sales departments make the big decisions, and they all seem to be hung up on happy endings. They probably wouldn’t take
today, unless she paid off her library bill and took an antidote.”
Ruth smiled, but not bitterly. What was a publishing disappointment in light of all the other catastrophic events of her life?
“You could change it, I suppose,” I said. “Make it more
somehow, or play up to the reader’s sympathies . . . But that would violate your intentions, wouldn’t it?” Before she could answer, I went on, “Listen, we might still be able to get it into the right hands.” A good doctor always told the patient the truth, but without destroying all hope.
“Okay. Thanks,” Ruth said.
There was a clumsy silence then. I noticed the invitation to the art show opening on the coffee table, next to Ruth’s manuscript, and I picked it up and handed it to her. “My friend is going to be in this art show,” I said. And I chattered a little about Violet’s co-op group, and how the artists in it didn’t compromise, or sacrifice their integrity to public taste, either. “You might like to take a look at their stuff. Why don’t you come to the opening?”
It had been a pretty perfunctory invitation, the filler for an awkward conversational pause, but now here she was. Maybe she just needed to get out for a change, to be among animated, social beings. Like me. “Would you like a glass of wine?” I asked. “Or some club soda?”
“Sure,” Ruth said. “Red, if they have it.” And she stepped away and began looking at the artwork.
I headed in the direction of the refreshments table, past Greta Gordon’s night-light collages. There were red dots next to two or three of them, indicating that they’d been sold. I made a quick survey of the room and saw that there were dots alongside a few other works, too, mostly the smallest, and likely the least expensive, ones. God bless relatives and friends.
Marjorie Steinhorn stepped up and blocked my path. “Alice,” she said. “How are you?” Her eyes ate me up and spit me out. “Where’s Everett?” she wanted to know.
So Violet hadn’t told her about the separation, or maybe she had; it was hard to tell. “He’s around,” I said, gesturing vaguely behind me. “Isn’t this lovely? Well, my congratulations to you and Leo.”
“For what?” she asked. Then she glanced in the direction of Violet’s paintings. “Oh,” she said.
“Excuse me, Marjorie,” I murmured. “There’s Ev.” It wasn’t him; I didn’t see anyone I knew at that moment, but I’d gotten away. Before I could reach the wine, though, someone took my arm and said, “You’re Alice, right?” It was the photographer, India. She was holding a single rose wrapped in wet paper towel, a thorny tribute from an admirer.
“India, hi. I was about to go look at your photographs.”
“They’re over there,” she said, pointing to the left of where I’d been heading.
She was still gripping my arm, the same one Violet had held, and I let myself be steered toward the wall she shared with an elderly landscape painter. The landscapes, fuzzy bucolic scenes—the painter’s vision was poor, like Monet’s—looked even more discreet next to the enlargements of India’s bold and witty work. I wondered who’d decided to pair these particular artists, and how it felt to stand clothed in a public place beside images of one’s self in the nude. India didn’t appear to be uncomfortable or concerned. “They look great,” I said sincerely.
“Thanks,” she said, and suddenly she seemed shy. “I like what you wrote in the catalog about them. You understand what I’m trying to do.”
“Yes,” I said. “At least, I hope so.” I felt uncommonly pleased and flustered. When someone came up behind India, covering her eyes and saying “Guess who?” I took the opportunity to slip away.
The elevator door opened, discharging even more people—although I could have sworn there wasn’t another drop of space—and Michael was among them. I’d forgotten that Imogene Donnell’s girlfriend had invited him to the opening. What had she told him again? That they needed all the warm bodies they could get.
I had called Michael that afternoon, right after the meeting at G&F, but I’d reached his voice mail. “It’s Alice,” I said. “I have some great news! Call me.” But when he did, I was on another call. “Oh, no, I missed you,” he’d moaned. And we continued to play phone tag for the rest of the day.
Now here he was, a warm body walking into my real life. “Michael,” I called. He looked around and waved when he saw me, and began to stride through the crowd. I was never going to get a drink.
The response to
Walking to Europe
at G&F had been even better than I’d hoped. The sales manager, who’d seen the completed manuscript beforehand and invited me to the meeting, asked me to read the first two pages aloud, and there was applause afterward, something I’d never heard there before. They’d offered a really generous advance for a first novel— although it was still easier to get money for someone new than for a seasoned writer with a bad sales record. And they wanted me to be the editor, freelance. Most importantly, they’d talked about positioning the book prominently, with a big first printing and a sizable promotional budget. He’d need an agent now, to set up the deal, and I had a couple of names to give him.
I broke all the news to Michael in the midst of that racket—I had to shout a little to be heard, and he kept whooping and laughing and hugging me. I glanced around uneasily to see who might be watching us. It would be just my luck to have Marjorie Steinhorn as the star witness for the prosecution. She wasn’t in sight, but Ev was.
He was talking to Violet, near her paintings, and he had a cup of wine in his hand. How long had he been standing there? And what were they saying? Neither of them was looking at me, and I went from feeling conspicuous to an eerie sense of invisibility. Even Michael’s attention was beginning to wander—all those lovely, long-haired young women—and I said, “Why don’t you take a look at the show. I’ll catch up with you later.” And once again, I was weaving through the crowd. It felt as if I were in the midst of another dream, the kind where you’re struggling to get somewhere, but never arrive. I’m walking to Europe, I thought.