Story for the Other Girl
It is a Monday in autumn. I am earlier than usual. I walk with purpose anyway, breathing into the gentle new chill of late September, bodily odors of stained concrete, fresh trash, last night’s party mixing with falling leaves and the distant breeze of the East River. I love these smells now, their various offenses, surprising pleasures, predictable sadness. I am going Northward on Ave B. I’ll get there faster than the subway would take me. I have finally learned how to walk instead of wander. I used to be frightened I would miss things, moving with speed. But I observe more at this quickened pace; I think my eyes have widened to take in my landscape, to rebuff, absorb, see, reject, all at once and all the time.
It is interesting that one of the most complimentary phrases we use to describe a face is “wide-eyed.” Predators are narrow, eyes close, they can afford to ignore the world. Prey must be all-seeing, like a wounded Buddha. We seem to prefer women and infants like this, watchful. Receptive. Aware of what might be coming.
Three days a week I work for an attorney. She specializes in probate, and used to work for one of the great old firms on Liberty. She is brilliant, unusually round for a New Yorker, and wears Tiffany bangles on her wrist that sometimes chime while she types. Blue chips and white shoes: I think she finally figured out there wasn’t much room for red lips and double strollers, so in a moment of delusional optimism she leased a small office with floor to ceiling windows not far from Washington Square. She is harried and an organized mess, usually one step ahead of her schedule unless she is four steps behind. Then her panic fills the room, drifting to the corners of the ceiling, seeping into the floorboards, until there is no air, only the missed deadline, the furious client, the sick babysitter, the bill the client won’t pay. Until knowing her I never knew that fear is capable of turning to substance.
I rescue her. She adores me; she doesn’t understand that she doesn’t really need me, I’ve only made her think she does because I really need the work. I watch her fear take shape. It is only a landscape; I make it dissipate with a tone and one, two, ten phone calls, like a painter adding brushwork to canvas. And she takes too much Xanax anyway.
I’m good at saving things: when I was a child I used to occupy myself by scooping up finches who stupidly flew into plate glass windows. Carefully I prepared shoe boxes with sticks, water, tufts of cotton. I had an unusual patience. For hours I sat with the birds, watching the slow resurrection. Unless the breastbone had been shattered, they usually came to, flew off into the twilight. I would watch them leave, my feet tucked into my dirty nightgown. My life divided into hopeless contradiction: my primary worth was service. And through service I gave Life. Thus I regarded myself as both receptacle and the force that fills it. These thoughts would occupy me from the earliest age, and so while my friends applied to colleges and had sex and worked and made other friends I took acid by myself and thought these thoughts. It took me awhile to catch up. I think I still am, although to what, I am not sure.
The attorney has two girls, twins. They sometimes sit and do homework in her office. They look so much like her I have trouble imagining another element was involved in their mysterious split-match creation. They are identical. To each other and, it seems, to her. When I met them they had just turned six, and because it was summer they had tanned shoulders and pale thighs, and their dark hair was full and lightened by long, bright and damp days. That summer they came to her office almost every day, dressed in flower printed sundresses and dragging along dolls that I am sure cost a day’s pay. Sometimes their father brought them, but usually it was another woman. Nanny, mother, mother-in-law, friend.
It is the world in a cave. It is the world by a river. A goddess helps women bear children. Bury them too. She hunts for them. She saves animals and girls. Sacrifices them. This is our conclave, here in New York. Work, women, men who are too busy to see what happens by the river.
Recently the girls turned eight, and they are not as easy in their bodies anymore; they are aware of themselves now, and it strikes me as a tragedy, even though it be a universal one. They visit less. Ballet, music, friends, French. Busy girls in a busy place. I wonder if they ever dream of lakes or animals. Or the moon. On the rare days they visit I’ll ignore my work and play with them instead, a habit that seems to further endear me to the attorney. She loves her girls, but I suspect she wonders if Love is an essence that moves in only one direction, outward, and that when I’m there she can close the tap, save her reserve for later. I was taught that Love is infinite, self-generating, that Love creates Love. I believed that for a long time, until my divorce four years ago, and I was emptied. Nothing has replaced me.
After the girls leave a silence comes over the office. Their absence is bigger than their presence. I think this is what it might be like to be a mother. What was your life becomes an eternal oblation to an ancient ritual; at the center is the monolith of every birth that has come before, will come after, and when you turn from it you find the image has imprinted itself upon you like a tattoo.
When I was married I did not have children. At one point I was pregnant. He welcomed the seedling but it never took root, and a heavy bleeding took the tiny beginning away in a rushing short lived flood. I retreated after that, and spent a long time holding my groin, my lower stomach, as if trying to put something into place, as one might rearrange a room. But I missed him. I missed his touch, our bar down the street, my soft silk dresses and the way he would look at me when I wore something red, thin stockings underneath. I missed the union, and I had never broken a promise before. When I came back his relief was palpable but quiet. For months and months the rush of love stood in stunning contrast to our slow life.
We lived in a town two miles inland from the grey sea. The beach was usually quiet. Too cold to swim, too windy for picnics and evening fires. It’s why we chose it: life would not be overrun there, the storms would see to that. We trained ourselves to embrace the wind, and the sharp rain, and every day we would run the dogs, watch them go a little too far out to sea to catch salt-weathered sticks. During the day he wrote and then did marketing for a company two thousand miles away. I worked early at the only cafe in town, and would come home shaking and hollowed from too much gossip and coffee.
I do not know why I loved him. He did not need rescuing, and his alien self-possession acted as both buffer and invitation. Everything was soft with him, and he accepted me as an animal might. I wasn’t there. And then I was. He was tall and had an odd kind of beauty that would fade to mere character with time. People found us a strange but fitting couple, and my physical perfection, his childhood friends would tell me, came as little surprise. He had always been with beauty, took it as a right. I did not know if I should have been proud or terrified.
What I loved most was the devouring. We lived as slowly as a rain-swollen river. We had managed the impossible: to control time itself, to smooth the edges, its precipice of fear and nervous anticipation. At night, after the bar, after the silk dress had dampened around my thighs, after his insistent tugging and tearing at my stockings under the table, I would fold myself into him, watch the sludge water give way to crazed eddies of movement, sensation. Fucking him was always a falling-in, and the falling itself gave way to dimensions to which I believe, still, only he possesses the key.
Our life, as all lives do, became a lattice work of pattern, close repitition. Silence, steadiness, the air usually heavy with storm. I ran the dogs, I danced, I read, worked a little, and grew close to the woman who owned the vintage store where I bought the dresses he loved. Our house was small and empty, and only books took up more space than the dogs. My body became hard, calves muscled from running on damp sand, skin pale from weeks without sun. Sometimes, watching the black sleek-wet dogs paddle in the waves, I saw myself as an old woman, walking along the same beach, coming home to the same man, white haired, spine curved from writing at the same desk.
For our third anniversary we left the dogs with my friend, got on a plane, and landed just as the sun was setting in Milan. It was the end of March, and the square by the Duomo was chilled and empty. Two days later we took a short train to Venice, where we sat for hours in the gardens at the Guggenheim villa, and got lost, over and over, through arched canals and close passageways. One midnight we hurried among the shadows and watched the water, swirled ink, my fingers blue-cold and sticky from marzipan shaped to irresistible fruit.
On our second evening, while watching the lion-griffen turn red, yellow, and then fade with the evening sun my husband surprised me with a small disc of white gold, three diamonds set in the middle, like the beginning of a constellation. The jewels in St. Marco are endless, and almost corrupt in their glittering, absurd beauty. These were the stores one simply looked into, as one peers into a Faberge egg: someone else’s life. He placed the delicate chain around my neck, an unusual smile of triumph on his lips. I still don’t know where he came upon the money.
At night we made love, his long fingers over my mouth to keep me quiet. The walls were thin. But I knew, too, that part of his pleasure was a sort of owning. His pride in his wife was casual, but fundamental too.
When I was 15 my father told me a funny story. He was a teenager, going to see a film with his friends. Still a virgin, introverted, in love with women, he and his friends silly with hormones. A man walked out of the theater, a stunning woman wearing a short sweater that showed her round, impossible breasts clung to his arm. “Look at the way he’s wearing her,” scoffed my father’s witty friend.
On the sixth morning in Venice we fought. It was our first, and sudden as a spring squall. It stunned us both, the cruelty of our mouths, machete down the middle. Young, stubborn, stupid. Or perhaps just curious: what does it mean, I thought, to smash a Love so big it has begun to feel like another presence in the room? What remains, as it spreads across the floor, knife shards, liquid glass? I left after a silent breakfast, boarding a bus for Croatia. I turned off my phone, expecting it to ring with incessant worried irritation.
When I turned it on again, a dozen hours later, sitting on a bench by the open sunbright sea in Dubrovnik, there was one message: “Come home.”
I stayed six months. I lived off credit cards, eating little, staying in hostels for which I was too old. I read, and walked. I went to Turkey, and spent a late spring month on the island of Alibey. An old woman let a room to me for almost nothing. She fed me, a worried and bossy look to her eye. Grandchildren drifted around her ankles like cats. After four months I took a lover, but he was a forgotten shadow, without embodiment even as he pressed his chest to mine. One night, a little high, I phoned him. It was morning at home. He was already working. The dogs didn’t run as well without me, he said. I’m here, he said.
We divorced the next year. Even if I could list the reasons I don’t think I would. Loss needs its mystery, otherwise all we become are lonely excavators of our own lives. We are still friends. Lovers when we see each other. I went where solitary types, the sort who like to live frenetically and silently fix things fit in best.
The attorney knows nothing of this. I got my job with her the way everyone gets things in New York: luck + perseverance. She said no twice. The third time I emailed she was having a crisis with her girls. I went to her office, called her clients, found her a new nanny. I rescued her. That’s what I do. Rescue things.
Tonight I’m meeting friends at Yakiniku. We’ll talk and get drunk, gossip about clothes and books, ignore the men around us. I know I’ll walk home alone, fast, with headphones on, eyes open, body soft from booze on the inside, stiff with the tension of the street on the outside. In the great city a woman must become an exo-skeleton. I’ll have to tell him that, the next time I phone. He’ll laugh, and tell me about a poem he’s working on.
When I get home – I am thinking this as I call an angry client whose father just died – I will take a bath. I’ll trace the cracks in the grouting, open the window wide, and count the extinguishing lights of my neighbors as they retire for the evening, falling into the next day, one by one by one.