My worst week ever began pretty well.
I woke up the Sunday before my first group gallery show, made love with Joanna Clark and fielded an early morning phone call from Natalie Crane, asking me for more pictures. One of the other artists had dropped out and the rest of us were getting more space. I read the last of a pile of insightful, well-researched essays on the Fauves over fresh bagels scotch salmon and French press coffee. Excellent food, smart students and best of all, a wildly, extravagantly ,ostentatiously wonderful girlfriend and an actual career snorting and bucking at the starting gate. I was feeling as little cocky, I admit. I hate irony, especially when it’s happening to me, but looking back on that bright chilly December morning, I have to admit it made perfect sense. I was riding high.
And a downfall is just a stumble, without altitude.
We put on our coats, it was finally coat weather in the city, and walked south into Chinatown, haggling with street merchants – Joanna snagged the twenty dollar Cartier watch she’s always wanted, for thirteen fifty – and had lunch at Ping’s Seafood on Mott Street, steamed dumplings of shrimp and scallop and crab on the sleek Art Deco balcony.
We talked about her restaurant, inspectors would be swarming it soon, and my students and Natalie Crane’s eccentricities – apparently she ate Campbell’s soup cold out of the can and listened to Linda Ronstadt Chicano canciones records.
The first indication that something might be wrong manifested itself like the edge of winter in the air outside, rolling down from Canada, something about the sky – pale blue , newly fragile in the oblique sunlight. She didn’t want to attend Oliver Graeme’s memorial service.
“I don’t know. I’m not that comfortable at those things. Funerals.”
“This won’t be a funeral. Just a lot of cool people talking about how great Oliver was. With lots of champagne and delicious food. My Dad knows how to cater a party.”
“I know, I just … I’m not really up to a lot of socializing right now. Especially with such a high powered crowd.”
“You’ll be fine.”
“I don’t have anything to wear.”
“You have that Audrey Hepburn black dress. What’s wrong with that? It would look great with your new watch.”
She smiled, put down her chop-sticks, let the clatter of the noisy restaurant come down between us like a curtain.
“Come on,” I said. “I don’t want to go there alone. I want to show you off. And some of my students will be at the service, the ones I nominated for Oliver’s scholarship. They want to meet you.” I took her hand. “We don’t have to stay long. Half an hour and we’re out of there. Okay? Please?”
Her shoulder drooped a little and she slipped her hand out from under mine, braced her palms on the table, looked up at ceiling then back at me with a wide eyes blinking, tight-lipped smile. She had made her decision “Okay. Sorry. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
“Actually I could use a drink.”
We each had a Tsing Tao and talked about Ping , a children’s book we had both loved, about a duck who lived on a houseboat on the Yangtze river. I had copied the Kurt Weise illustration of the little yellow duck, separated from his family and caught under a basket, a hundred times. Joanna had seen the movie. I had no idea there was one. Of course Ping had no relation to the dim sum restaurant where we were eating. The ducks were charmingly independent, but probably not up to opening their own business.
We laughed and the moment of tension was forgotten.When we went back outside, the sky above the grimy buildings held that pale cast of winter. I buttoned my coat against cold wind as we trudged toward Canal Street. For a second I considered blowing off the memorial service myself. But that was impossible. I had to go, Joanna had to go with me, everything had to happen exactly the way it did. It wasn’t even fate. More like geometry: all the congruent angles. Connect the dots. How many triangles do you see in the diagram?
Too many, that would be the correct answer. Way too many.
When we arrived at the memorial service, a uniformed guard at the Riverview Terrace gate was shouting at my students. At the edge of the crowd Haddon stood with his arm around Emma’s Traherne’s waist. Noah hung back with the twins, letting Travis do the talking. Sue Jelleme was hovering behind Travis, one hand pressed protectively to his arm. Were they together again? That would explain Sue’s happier mood lately, though the two had been keeping their distance during school hours.
I was touched: they’d all made a respectful effort, dressed in dark colors, Noah in what looked like some version of his Bar Mitzvah suit, Haddon in a blue blazer and grey dress slacks, the girls in black dresses. None of them but Travis had bothered with coats, obviously planning on the Upper East Side door-taxi- door dance, with minimal exposure to the weather.
They stood shivering on the pavement while Travis, in a black peacoat, argued with the guard.“That is bullshit,” he was saying, as we pushed through the group at the curb. “We don’t need invitations. We were invited as a group. They told us.”
“I don’t know about that,” the guard said, softly now, trying to defuse the situation. “I have a list and none of you are on it. Besides -- everybody else who’s showed up today has at least twenty years on you. It’s old folks only, all right? This isn’t the kind of party you want to crash.”
“Were going in,” Travis said. “Try and stop us and you’ll get your ass fired. After I kick it.”
He pushed the guard and the guard pushed back. Haddon jumped to get between them but I got there first, wedged them apart.
“It’s okay. Travis, back off. Now. They should be listed as Graeme Scholarship candidates. Seven of them.”
The guard snorted. “This punk’s a scholarship candidate? Forget about it. He’s too small for football and too short for hoops. He aint no scholar, that’s for sure. Bet he can’t even spell it. There’s an ‘h’ in there, tough guy.”
“Just check. Seven scholarship candidates.”
“Yeah sure, right, whatever.” He found the listing, looked up. “I see it, but I don’t buy it.”I could sense the other guests growing impatient behind us. The wind off the river was bitter and steady.
“I’ll vouch for them.”
“And who the hell are you?”
“Robert Mallory. I’m on the list. This is my father’s house, and these are my students. They’re artists. Any one of them could sketch a caricature of you in thirty seconds that would make you look even dumber than you really are. And that takes talent.”
“Just let us in.”
He relented and we let the throng push us into the narrow cobblestone cul-de-sac. Walking beside Paul Haddon and Emma, I could she’d been crying. Or was it just windburn?I took his arm to slow him down .
“Is she all right?”
His voice felt a degree or two colder than the east wind. “She’s pregnant, Mr. Malllory. Which doesn’t usually happen when you get a vasectomy.”
Before I could even start to assimilate that information, I saw the rainbow flag lapel pin on Noah’s jacket as he trotted past me, and Pat was whispering in my ear: “I think Pam got caught on camera buying drugs.”
I had never felt less qualified to give anyone advice, but Pam caught up to us at that moment anyway, with Joanna next to her. They had already introduced themselves and were deep in a conversation about river frontage real estate values. The consensus seemed to be that none of us could even afford my Dad’s property taxes.
When we got into the starchy warmth of the big house (There were blazes going in all three fireplaces), I finished the introductions, and went off to find Joanna a glass of champagne. Half way to the bar I felt a tug on at my sleeve and looked down to see Natalie Crane smiling up at me with her usual predatory glee, like she was sizing me up for a quick meal.
She pulled the smile down. “Terrible loss.”I nodded. “My boy Chapin will swing by for the pictures on Monay.” So much for mourning the dead.
“I was going to bring them over myself.”
“No, no – absolutely not. No artists hovering around the gallery while we hang a show! That’s an absolute. That’s the Eleventh Commandment, sweetie.”
“Like the groom seeing the bride before the wedding?”
Her mouth opened in a quick silent laugh, as if I’d fed her worm. “Exactly! Is the portrait done?”
“I want that portrait. How do you even know when it’s finished? How can you tell?”
She cocked her head up at me. “Sleight of hand, not magic. I love you darling, but please.”
Maybe I should have sensed something wrong in that brief conversation, but I didn’t know enough to form an intelligent opinion. I’d never had a gallery show, never known any art dealers except Alfred Barudsky. Natalie’s quirks might have been standard operating procedure.
“Robert, how are you?” This from Barudsky himself, standing at the bar.
He took two glasses from the bartender. “I found your website the other day.”
It was hard to imagine the hold man cruising the information super highway.
“Very impressive. Of course a photograph can be misleading. I’m actually tremendously photogenic myself, which tells you all you need to know about the vagaries of the camera. In person I’m a hideous old goat, as you can plainly see. But the camera loves me. So there you are. And the question becomes, when will I get to meet these elusive pictures in person?”
I took two glasses of my own from the bartender. “Come to my group show at the Crane Gallery next week. Wednesday, six O’clock, 254 Prince Street.”
He smiled. “I’m familiar with the location.”
“Then I’ll see you there?”
“Without fail. Now you must excuse me, Maggie can’t survive at these ghastly functions for very long with a steady drip of excellent champagne.”
By the time Joanna found me again I was chatting with Tyler Bains and his new tall scary looking girlfriend. Three months out of Julliard, She had just joined the corps at the New York City Ballet. She posed unconsciously, her right leg taking her weight, her left foot extended slightly, on point. Her name was Gabrielle. Her new pointe shoes were too tight, the ballet master was a sadist and she was coming down with a cold. Tyler waited for her to take a breath and introduced us all.“I went up to Northampton last week to see my sister,” he said a few minutes later. “Flew the Cessna out of Teeterboro.” He turned to Joanna. “My sister is one of those tragic creatures who went to school in the Pioneer Valley and could never bring themselves to leave. She’s getting her second PhD at Smith right now. Seriously, she’s like some eternal student out of a Chekhov play. Of course, there’s no place better to be a lesbian than Northampton. Small world -- she had a terrible crush on Kelly Stackhouse for a while. I told her, she’s got to stop making passes at the straight girls. We actually saw Kelly at dinner one night. She asked about you.”
“She’s built up a relatively pristine view of you over the years.” He turned to Joanna. “Bobby improves with distance, like a Chuck Close painting.”
Strolling away Joanna said “Kelly Stackhouse -- the one who got away?”
“Actually, I got away from her.”
The lie came easily, but I had to pay for it. Talk about instant karma; I got my dose in less than five minutes.
Dad walked up to us with a tall slender woman on his arm. She must have been in her early fifties, but strikingly attractive in a black sheath dress, with wide-set eyes and a mouth poised on the edge of a smile. “That’s Julia,” Joanna said, and then we were in it.
I knew everything, before they started talking. I could feel it. Some stupid penterating damp, like sitting on a wet car seat after the rain, wishing you’d remembered to roll up the window: careless, forgetful, paying the price. I realized suddenly that I’d known it on that first day, the first time she mentioned him, in that Starbucks on First Avenue, the odd stutter not in her voice but in the thought behind it, an extra beat folded into the conversation, bobbled for a second, but caught. I felt it. I felt it and ignored it and I felt Joanna’s little flinch now just the same way. Some tension on the skin as if she’d felt a draft. She hated the cold, loved my overheated loft. She must have hated Dad’s house, gotten sick of hearing him brag about how the old drafty houses were built to last, unlike these new hermetically sealed death traps, blah blah blah.No one saw Joanna cringe and no one saw me see it.
No one knew that I knew. That was my secret,knowing their secret, secrets inside secrets, the condom in the wallet in the pocket in the pants. Did they use condoms? Would that make a difference, would that make it better? One last withheld intimacy, the particular friction of skin on skin. Or did the premeditation make it worse? Everything made it worse, awareness opening like the mouth of a wound, raw pulsing red, opening down like the blue plastic tarp over the hole in the floorboards, wrapping you in the crackle and the synthetic stink as you fell.
They chattered on, Joanna studying Dad, him studying me, Julia watching all of us, taking it all in, ready to referee.
Awareness gathered in my stomach, worse piled on worse. Could I be wrong? Could I be crazy? Was I missing something, seeing something that wasn’t there? I remembered checking and rechecking my bank statement after the IRS cleaned out my account for back taxes, checking and rechecking and it still added up to zero.
I stuck it out, give me that. Finally we were done and I bolted. I didn’t want to puke in the house. Better to do it in the street like any other bum. There was a couple kissing one doorway down, someone having a smoke at the gate, talking to the guard. The air was cold and I realized I’d forgotten my coat. I wasn’t going back for it. I decided to get a cab on Sutton place. I opened the gate and edged between the two men there, the sweet reek of the cigarette smoke turning my stomach, a slow roll, turning over a stone with your foot, worms squirming in the black dirt underneath.
I couldn’t think, this new reality was too big, too jagged to fit in my brain, it lodged there, choking me. What was the Heimlich maneuver for this emergency? Maybe shock treatment. Scour the cortex clean with sheet lightning from a dial. That sounded good. I’d take that. Supposedly it gave you short term memory loss. That would be the best part. That would be worth the price of admission, all by itself.
I heard running footsteps behind me: Joanna. I swallowed spit and my throat seemed to expand. I was still queasy, still tilting on the edge. I might barf on her if she came too close.
I picked up the pace. She jogged beside me. The sidewalk was empty, both sides, uptown and downtown. A line of traffic was moving toward us, a few blocks south.“Robert, you have to talk to me. I can explain.
”Of course she could. There’s always an explanation, from the horrific to the mundane. They’re embedded in the culture now. “You go to war with the army you’ve got,” “The heart wants what it wants.” “It’s expensive, being me.”
I didn’t answer.“
I meant to tell you, I wanted to tell you. But it was sort of –none of your business, at first. Hi, nice to meet you I slept with your Dad? That’s crazy talk. Then I’m starting to like you and I don’t want to scare you off, and then I’m falling in love with you and it’s too late and I’m terrified. It kept getting worse and worse, and then …I knew we’d see him here, when he --”
“Him? He? Say his name.”
“Robert --”“Say his name. How hard can it be?”
“Harlan, all right? Harlan Llewellyn Mallory.”“
He told you his middle name.”
“How long were you together?”
“Please, do we really have to -- ?”
“A week, a month? Two months?”
She studied her feet pacing the asphalt, under the brittle orange glow of the sodium street lights, side stepping a dog turd. “Two years.”
I felt the words like blows, a left and a right to the gut.“Jesus Christ. This is so fucked up.”
We crossed 60th street as the light changed, running the last few steps.“So when were you planning to tell me?”
“I wasn’t! Why would I? You hadn’t seen your father in years, I never wanted to see him again. It was just… something in my past.”
“Then Oliver had to go and die.”
“I didn’t – I wasn’t -- ”
“Come on. Even the most fucked up families get together sometimes. Weddings and funerals. And what if Dad and I patched it up? That would ruin everything. What were you going to do? Undermine that somehow, keep us apart so I’d never guess your secret?”
“No, no, of course not. That’s horrible.”
“So you must have been thrilled thinking about that first Thanksgiving together .Shall we carve the turkey now? Or just give up and have a threesome?”
“Robert, please, you have to understand – you have to believe me. It’s over between us. It’s done. It’s so done. It happened before I ever met you and it’s done.”
“Like it never happened.”
“It happened. Of course it happened.”
“And unless he actually contracts Alzheimer’s or winds up with amnesia he’ll have the memory of you right there --” I jabbed my forehead. “Forever. How you sound, how you feel. How you – look. He could probably sketch you from memory right now.”
“Robert please, what’s the point?”
“That’s exactly what I was thinking. But I’m still curious. Did he need Viagra or were you enough for him all by yourself?”
“None of my business?”
“That’s right. Some things are private.”
“I guess so. That’s very clear right now. Shit. You and Dad. That miserable prick. He has to ruin everything, smear his stink on everything.”
“No, that’s not fair, he didn’t -- he had no idea, how could he -- ?
”“You’re right. Sorry. That’s true. This has nothing to do with him. It feels like it does but it doesn’t. This is all about you. You did this. Not him.”
“If you knew how many times I tried to tell you --”
“But those times don’t count. Are you kidding me? You know better than that. Only cowards and cheats want the stuff they almost did to count. ‘I almost jumped in the lake to save that guy. But I didn’t want to get my new sneakers wet.’ You think that’s heroic? That’s the opposite of heroic.”
“No one would say that.”
“Fucking right, they wouldn’t! Because it’s pathetic! Say you didn’t hear him, say you can’t swim -- anything’s better than I almost did it.”
“If you had any idea --”
“Did you do it in the dark? Old guys like to do it in the dark so no one can see their flabby old bodies. So just tell me you did it in the dark.”
“So that’s a no.”
“He’s actually in very good shape.”
I took a hard breath and bit down on a new wave of bile. “You know, when you think about this conversation later, that may be the comment you regret the most.”
“I never wanted to hurt you.”
“That’s what they all say. And they all manage to do it somehow. Fuck you. Just fuck you. Fuck both of you. Go back to him, I can tell he still wants it. That was so obvious back there. Like he wants to be dating your old boss.”
She jammed her hands in her coat pockets. She had taken the time to remember her coat. I envied her that presence of mind. “Bobby, can’t we just -- can’t we start over? Reboot? Put this behind us and go on?”
“Do you compare us? You must.”
“Don’t do this.”
“Let me guess. I have stamina but he has finesse. That makes sense. He’s had a lot more practice than me. In case you thought you were his first chippie.”
We walked on in silence, crossed 61st Street. The wind snatched up some grit, threw it in our faces. Finally Joanna said, “I love you.”
I almost laughed. “The term of last resort. That’s what Oliver called that particular sweet nothing. Rest in peace.”
“It’s irrelevant! Don’t you get that? Listen, I really need to be alone right now. So … get your stuff out of the loft, will you? And leave the key under the mat. I want you gone when I get home.”
I hailed a cab and opened the door for her. I could see she didn’t want to get in, she was still scrabbling for something more to say, the perfect words to rescue the situation. She was good but nobody’s that good. I felt like a hotel doorman, already on to the next guest, planning my coffee break.Finally she folded herself into the cab and shut the door. They pulled away from the curb and I stood in the cold watching the tail lights as they turned left on 63rd Street and disappeared.
I was stunned, immobilized, but I remember thinking to myself, ‘at least the worst is over.’ Wrong again, chump – the worst was just beginning.
All I had to do was wait.