The banner outside the gallery, six feet high and twenty feet across, said:
Stepping Out of the Shadow
The Next Generation:
Mallory, Kopko & Shea
I was too stunned to react, but I could feel the reaction coming, like the moment when the clam tastes funny but you swallow it anyway. My first coherent thought was – this is some kind of prank: April Fools’ Day in December. I always hated those fake-out jokes people played on each other. Either the terrible thing hadn’t really happened, and you had to live with the adrenaline bite on the back of your tongue for the rest of the day anyway, or the good thing hadn’t really happened and you had to suffer both disappointment and the embarrassment of having been the fool. Well, what did you expect? It was your day, after all. April Fools’ Day. You had two choices, and standing in front of Natalie Crane’s gallery on that cloudy December afternoon, I felt like I’d gotten both of them at once.
Natalie had lied to me effortlessly, and casually wrecked any chance of pulling off my humble little subterfuge and tricking my father into an unguarded moment of respect. More than that, Natalie had mocked my aspirations and put me firmly in my place, the place I’d been trying to escape since high school: son of the great man, charter member in the copy-cat kids’ club, all those worthless wannabes clinging to the family name and the Dad’s reputation to pull their noses up over the edge of the world. It was me and Chad McQueen now, me and Julian Lennon, me and Jamie Wyeth. Maybe if I was lucky I could stand tall with the likes of Arlo Guthrie and Jakob Dylan. They had at least shown the occasional sputter of separate success. Jakob had pop star looks and managed to eke out one hit album in the nineties. As for Alice’s Restaurant, that was a long long time ago, and no one was fighting to anoint it the national anthem as people had been doing for his father’s This Land is Your Land, basically since the day it was written.
Then there was Verdi’s son, my dad’s favorite anecdote, who should have died and let his father write the requiem.
No, it was one of those universally accepted facts of life, right up there with if-you-have-two-keys-the-first-one-you-try-won’t-work and everyone loves Italian food: No one confuses Bobby Kennedy Jr with Bobby Kennedy. No one confuses Frank Sinatra Jr. with Frank Sinatra. Invoking the family name is strictly for construction companies and hardware stores.
In art it’s just a mortifying joke, the tomato sauce on your shirtfront, the bad haircut, the Kick Me sign taped to your back.
I could feel the sickness beginning now, starting from somewhere below and behind my stomach, rising like mildew on a damp wall. I knew Fred Kopko and Larry Shea. Kopko was the son of a great abstract expressionist. Instead of painting intricate grids like his father he scribbled stick figures fighting, the war-time fantasies of kindergarten kid. Shea, son of Alexander Shea, the great portrait artist, painted dirt. That’s right, dirt – close-up, photo realistic dirt: the rut in a dirt road, the furrow in a back yard garden, the grime on the cuff of a pair of jeans.
That was it, that was the program for today’s exhibit: the stick figure guy, the dirt guy and me.
All we had in common was that none of us had any business strutting our work in an elite downtown gallery. In fact, none of us could have gotten our work into any venue better than a street fair without the magic last name.
Mallory Kopko and Shea. How the mighty have fallen. She should have called the show ‘copy degradation’. I fully expected some critic to stumble on that phrase, if anyone bothered to review the opening as anything but a misguided mercenary footnote to a slow season.
And this was what I’d been waiting for, my big moment, my hard-won triumph. This was the reason I turned down Tarses’ offer. I didn’t need to be head of some high school art department -- I was an artist! How many hours had I spent thinking about this moment, planning for it and much more important, planning my life afterward, that magically transformed life of financial security of professional respect? There was no way to get those hours back.
But there was no reason to waste another one.
I was turning to go when I felt Natalie Crane’s hand on my arm.
The bite of those slender talons was unmistakable.
“Don’t be angry, darling,” she said. “Look at this crowd. You’re a hit.”
“They’re not here to buy anything. They’re here to gawk. ‘Failed kids from famous families -- on The View!’ It’s demeaning, it’s --”
“Actually, that’s a fantastic idea. Would you do The View? I can call Joy tomorrow. I think she’d pounce on this.”
“Natalie -- ”
“Robert, don’t be a spoilsport. People are fascinated by fathers and sons. It’s drama, Robert. And drama sells. Besides, Shakespeare was dead wrong on this one. Everything is in a name. Names are money. Names are power. You have one of the greatest names in modern art. Why not use it?”
I spoke quietly, holding myself tight. “I was trying prove I don’t need to.”
“Well of course you do! There’s no shame in it. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. designed Rock Creek Park. That’s a beautiful park. And I’m sure Ravi Shankar is very proud of Nora Jones.”
“Who didn’t ride on his name to succeed.”
“But everyone who mattered knew, sweetie. And they all knew about you, too. How else could I have gotten major critics to a group show down here? Look over there – Michael Kimmelman and Holland Cotter. You’re going to be reading about yourself in the New York Times. And New York Magazine. There’s Jerry Saltz. How can you argue with that?” She pivoted away from me, her smile cranked up another notch “Malcolm! How are you?”
I ducked away before she could introduce us, and I steered my way through the crowd towards the two critics from the New York Times, hoping to eavesdrop. Not a great idea.
“It’s pathetic,” Cotter was saying.
Kimmelman shrugged. “I don’t know. I think it’s kind of amusing. But they should have gone all the way -- Lisa Marie Presley on the stereo. Mamie Gummer showing home movies. Neil Bush at the cash register. I mean, do it right or don’t bother.”
I edged away from them, looking for familiar faces. Tyler Bains had said he might show up but I saw no sign of him. I was just as glad. He would know the precise meaning and scope of this rout, and I could easily imagine the faint gloating undertone in his sharp-edged witty condolences, like the chemical taste in the tap water.
I saw Alfred Barudsky from across the room, frowning sourly at one of my pictures. I avoided him, too. The nightmarish intuition that my father might show up gave me a moment of debased panic, but I pushed through it. There was no way he’d bother with this event. That was the bright side.
Natalie wound up guiding me through the crowd, introducing me to collectors and other artists. Through the blur I saw some red dots on my pictures. So this wasn’t a total disaster. They might be buying the paintings as curiosities or conversation pieces, but at least they were buying them.
Inevitably, we wound up in front of Alfred. He shook my hand gravely. “Nice work, young man. Very nice work.”
It sounded like a classic Barudsky brush off, delivered without any of his usual charm or humor. I said thank you just as tonelessly, formal meets formal, one more point in the pointless game of protocol ping pong, and dodged away checking my watch. It had been just under an hour.
Two hours later I was home.
I tried to read but couldn’t concentrate, thought about working on the portrait but couldn’t gin up any gusto for it. Scrolling through the numbers on my phone I found nobody I wanted to call, except Joanna. I couldn’t do it. The call would have been futile anyway. She knew my Dad’s attitude about me better than anyone. I remembered describing the whole “I’ll come to your first one-man show” debacle. She had reacted with such credible surprise and outrage; but she must have known about it. She must have gotten an earful of Dad’s dismissive contempt, over the years. I paced the messy apartment, gathering dishes and bringing them to the kitchen sink. “Calling all dishes” my Mom used to say as she rounded up the errant cups and glasses, the plates left on the floor for the dog. She made the most tedious chores feel like fun. I knew suddenly who I felt like calling, but that was the most futile impulse of all.
I needed to keep moving. The mendacity of Joanna’s wide-eyed shock that day twisted inside me like a cramp. What a liar! Pretending she was on my side. Well, maybe she was, she had dumped the guy after all. Maybe that was one of the reasons. But I still couldn’t call.
Tom Kyle came in while I was doing the dishes and started drying them and putting them away. He had come to the show but gotten there late.
“So much for Raoul Morris,” he said.
“Yeah,” I nodded, soaping a wine glass. “Rest in peace.”
Dalton was the only real sanctuary in the final week before Christmas vacation. First there were the simple academic routines that packed the hours of the shortening days – teaching class of course, but also collecting the final lab reports of the semester, grading papers in the teacher’s lounge, working with kids on charcoal and watercolor technique in the studio after school.
Then there were the seasonal rituals, like the candle-lighting, unchanged since Emily Parkhurst first devised it in the 1920s. Paul Haddon lit the candle for the senior class, doing his part to “consecrate this house with light” in the founder’s lovely phrase. The high school chorus sang Christmas carols and we all finished with the school song, “We go forth unafraid” and I have to say I felt a little more capable of doing so, filing out of the auditorium when the ceremony was over.
Haddon himself, not so much; he seemed glum and distracted in the lobby afterward. I felt a little snag of annoyance at his adolescent moodiness. He seemed to have it all: looks, money, brains, talent, a graphic novel that had apparently been the hit of the New York ComicCon, early admission assured at RSDE and Yale -- and a beautiful high spirited girlfriend, on top of everything else.
But as it turned out, that was the problem. Emma Traherne had just broken up with him.
He had told his parents about the pregnancy. They had proved surreally supportive, offering to help raise the baby in a sort of Kibbutz-like co-operative arrangement with Emma and her parents. Emma wasn’t thrilled with the good news.
“Thanks for ruining my life!” she’d shouted at him. “You couldn’t leave it alone, could you? You had to finish it off. You had to take everything.”
“I guess … she didn’t want me to tell anyone, Mr. Mallory,” he said before the ceremony, when I caught up to him over catfish Thai curry in the dining hall.
“Including your parents.”
He pushed the plate of food away .“Especially my parents.”
“Well … I understand it, I think. It’s her baby, her choice. Even just about sharing the news.”
“It was my baby, too.”
“Not yet. I mean, she probably felt --”
“I know. But what am I supposed to do now?”
The past tense hit me, a little late. Maybe I just didn’t want to hear it.
“Was your baby, too?”
He looked down, addressed puddle of curry on the formica beside his plate. “Yeah.”
I felt a brief swoon of guilt and despair. Was this my fault? But Emma had never discussed her plans with me. I know what I would have told her. Regardless of the morality involved, every woman I’d ever known who wound up getting an abortion regretted it bitterly forever. That was just anecdotal evidence, though. Apparently in France it was one of the most common forms of birth control, with unwanted children disposed of like sanitary napkins.
It seemed to be that way with Emma. She lingered after her last Art History class.
“I took care of it,” she said. Then, searching my face: “Paul told you.”
“And that makes it okay.”
“He feels bad.”
“He just – I don’t know. Forget it.”
“His parents told my parents. It was horrible.”
“Yeah, but … I mean, they were willing to – you know …”
She smiled -- a chilly humorless lift at the corners of her mouth. “I paid for it myself, Mr. Mallory. With my baby sitting money. If you like irony.”
“I don’t, much.”
We listened to the between-class racket in the hallway outside, footsteps, shouts, laughter.
“Listen, Emma --”
“I’m fine, Mr. Mallory. I’m relieved actually. I want to move on. Just keep going. Not think about things. I feel good. I do. I feel like -- I got my future back.”
She stuck out her hand awkwardly and I shook it.
“Have a great vacation,” she said. “See you next year.” And she darted out of the room.
I found Pam Brinkley in the library, just before I finally left the building. I was actually looking for Sue Jelleme, who often hid out there. I knew from Tarses that she had backed Travis when he finally told the truth. So their romance was out in the open again and the drug dealing accusations disappeared. Though Travis still made Tarses uncomfortable, I think on the whole, the Headmaster was pleased. He had regained boasting rights to the school’s first interracial couple. They ratified Dalton’s standing as a progressive institution, even more than his embattled African American History Class or last year’s graduation address by Toni Morrison. I hate to sound cynical but the canny old fund raiser inspired it, the way the sight of Sue Jelleme and Travis Blake holding hand shyly in the hallway could get Ambrose Bierce writing Hallmark cards.
They had left for day, but I saw Pam standing at the front desk returning the last of her semester’s books.
“These are both late,” Miss Dundee was saying as she stamped the endpapers. She jabbed the little calculator on her desk. “That comes to thirty-nine dollars and forty eight cents.”
Pam pulled her face into a frown of amused disbelief. “Forty-eight cents? Really? You care about the forty eight cents?”
“The late fee is forty seven cents a day, times forty days, which comes to nineteen dollars and seventy four cents, times two books: Thirty nine dollars and forty eight cents. So the answer is yes. Every penny counts. Every day counts. You’ll understand that when it’s too late to matter.”
Pam passed over two twenties and let Miss Dundee count out her change.
“Senility is wasted on the senescent,” Pam said as we walked to the elevator.
I laughed. “She’s not senile. Just crabby.”
I pushed the call button and were settled in to wait. The library is on the top floor -- it was a roof playground in my father’s day -- and the elevator moves slowly.
“Patty got suspended,” Pam said finally.
“She’ll be out for the first two weeks of the second semester.”
“She might not get into college now.”
“Yeah.” It was going to be more difficult – Pam would have a lot of apologizing and explaining to do. But for some admissions people, the blemish on her perfect record might actually be a good thing. It made her look more human. The kind of teeth-gritting high-strung perfectionism she showed everywhere else could have been a red flag for them. The tightly wound ones tended to unravel under the stress and expectations at an Ivy League college. I didn’t say any of this. I didn’t want to make things easier for Pam, or minimize what happened.
“I’m clean now,” she said as the elevator doors opened. The car was empty. We stepped inside. When the doors were closed and we had started creaking down toward the lobby she said, “Ritalin wasn’t the only drug.”
I looked at her face more closely. There were circles under her eyes.
“How are you doing?”
“Getting enough sleep?”
“I never get enough sleep.”
“Maybe there’s no such thing.”
“Maybe. But I’m pretty sure I can do better than three hours a night.”
We rode on down in silence. When the doors opened again I said, “If you need someone to talk to over the holidays --”
“I have someone.” She pulled a NarcAnon medallion out of her purse for a second, then dropped it back. “Thanks, though. I mean … really. Thank you.”
I lingered in the elevator for a few seconds to let her cross the lobby alone. When I followed, I saw Noah Lewis and Max Bulojic at the far end of the big lobby, near the door to the east fire stairs. I didn’t have time to notice much – just a quick mime show of vulnerability and rejection: Noah’s arm extended, Max batting it away and taking a step back with his hands up, palms out in a mute rebuke. I sighed as I pushed out into the chill December dusk. Get used to it, kid. Still, I was proud of him for trying, proud of him for wearing that gay pride pin. That first taste of independence could set you off on a bender. Your first crush carelessly blowing you off in public? That was the hang-over. He’d recover. Anyway, I didn’t have much time to linger over Noah’s adolescent romance. I had my own adolescent romance to deal with.
When I got home there was a friend request on my Facebook page from Kelly Stackhouse.
She had put up some photographs since the last time I checked her page. Her status was single and her most recent update said she was moving back to the city, with a teaching job at Parsons. She was probably apartment hunting when Tyler saw her on the subway. She still looked good – better if anything. Of course I accepted the request, but this wasn’t my first Facebook fandango.
You’ve been there: you think – hooray I’ve finally found my old friend, or better yet, my old flame … and they friended me! We’re back in touch, as if no time has passed, all through the miracle of the internet!
Of course you don’t think at that moment of all your other ‘facebook friends’, many of whom you don’t even know and some of whom are groups and institutions – the very definition of a “virtual” community – in other words, about as real as the Coliseum in Gladiator or Jar Jar Binks. There’s a story about George Lucas visiting the massively elaborate and gorgeous exterior set of lower Manhattan that Scorcese designed for Gangs of New York and making some typically idiotic comment about how it was the “last of its kind”, soon to be replaced by the wonders of CGI. Really? Like the city planet in those unwatchable Star Wars sequels? I don’t think so. Welcome to the world of holograms. Lucas must love Facebook – the first totally CGI community.
But it does serve one purpose: it gives you a sense of the untouchable richness and complexity of another person’s life. A few photographs (O my god, they have a kid?, Crap, do I look that old? How long have they lived in that huge house?), a few wall postings that refer to family trips and graduations, circles of friends over-lapping with other circles of friends, and you get the sense of it – like the pulsing halo of light above the hills that promises the still-invisible Las Vegas as you drive through the desert night.
So you sit back and think – did I really believe I could fit myself somehow into that humming sprawl? And could this person fit into mine? A few novelty e-mails, check the box and move on: you’re conscious but not connected. It turns out that information is inert -- simple awareness (they’re still alive, they remember prom night, they got fat, they published that stupid book they could never finish) doesn’t generate much energy. They drop away again the search for new prodigal pals goes on.
Or you can yank that friendship out of cyberspace and make it real. I sent Kelly a message, asking for her phone number. She wrote me back two hours later and gave it to me. I called her and made a date for dinner on Saturday night.
We didn’t talk much. That rich contralto of hers stuck a wire into me. She had the same easy laugh, and I could hear the pleasure in her voice, happy to be hearing mine. But I don’t trust the phone much more than I trust the internet.
“I want to talk face to face,” I told her.
“I want to do lots of things face to face.”
I took a breath. “That was bold.”
“Timid hasn’t been working for me.”
“So – Sparks steak house?”
“I’m a vegetarian now. How about Dirt Candy? It’s the greatest vegetarian restaurant in the city.”
“By which you mean the world.”
She laughed. “Basically. It’s on east 9th Street, just off Tompkins Square Park.”
“See you then.”
I walked into the restaurant, exactly on time, irrationally worried that Kelly will be there first and I wouldn’t recognize her. But Kelly was always late. I had forgotten that. I gave my name to the hostess and she seated him halfway along the narrow corridor of tables.
I settled in to watch the entrance. Fifteen minutes later, she arrived: Five foot ten, with masses of auburn hair framing the same big eyes, wide mouth, high cheekbones. What had Tyler said about her? She looked like an Indian mask. More so now than ever: she had lost weight, rendered herself to an austere sharp-edged beauty. Did we really look like brother and sister? Less now, but did share the thick lips, the high forehead, the wide-set blue eyes. If we were in fact brother and sister friends would quietly agree that Kelly got the looks in the family.
She clicked her way to the table in her high heels and
sat down without a greeting.
“I was drunk when you called,” she said. “I’m already regretting this.”
I stared at her waiting for the smile. She sat at the edge of the seat, ready to bolt.
I lifted my hand off the table, palms up, in a shrug of amused defeat. “Yeah? Well, personally,I try to wait until after the first. Or at least the first drink. It’s just a courtesy. Like not interrupting the blowhard sitting at your left at a dinner party Or staying to help clean up.”
“You do that?”
I thought of Dad’s eulogy: it’s what Oliver would have done. “Sometimes.”
“I just flee.”
I signaled the waiter.“Campari and soda?”
“It’s a memorable drink.”
“You used to say it’s a punishment drink.”
“Aren’t we all?”
I smiled. “Not me.”
“Still teaching school? Failing as an artist? Disappointing your Dad?”
“But I see the bright side.”
She tilted her head up, looked down at me. “Really?”
“Teaching is fun, failure is freeing and I don’t care about my Dad.”
“One out three aint bad.”
“One truth. I bet you do like teaching.”
“I like the kids.” The waiter arrived. “Could we get a Campari and soda? And a Long Trail IPA?”mHe nodded and disappeared. I turned back to Kelly. “This is so odd. In a good way. What?”
“I can’t believe this. I’m still mad at you. My shrink says I’m supposed to move past things. Move on. Like changing apartments or something. But I read on line that moving is the third most traumatic event in people’s lives.”
“What are the other two?”
“I don’t remember. A death in the family? Public speaking? Seeing old boyfriends?”
“So either was you lose. But this way you get a free dinner.”
“I assumed we were going Dutch.”
The waiter returned and set our drinks down.
“Let me order for you,”Kelly said to me. “I know the menu by heart.”
“She eats here a lot,” the waiter said.
“We’ll start with the Kohlrabi salad and the Portobello mousse. Then I’ll have the Chard gnocchi and my friend will have buttermilk battered cauliflower” She touched my wrist “You’ll love it. It comes with waffles – like fried chicken with waffles, but with horseradish and wild arugula. When I first came here it was all I ever ordered. Finally Amanda made me choose something else. Which was smart, because everything is great here. Trust me.” She turned back to the waiter. “And we’ll have a bottle of the Les Graviers Chardonnay. I know it’expensive, but he’s paying.”
The waiter slipped away again. The restaurant was filling up and getting loud. I couldn’t help noticing that everyone around us was dressed much better than me. Dirt Candy was obviously the hip spot at the moment.
Kelly was watching me. “Tyler said it best. He knows you really well.”
“What did he say?”
“He said your body makes promises your heart can’t keep.”
“That’s Lisa talking.”
I took a pull on my beer, set it down. “I don’t what to tell you. I was confused. I thought it was finished with Lisa and it wasn’t.”
“Yeah, well. I figured that one out for myself. The real question is --who do you think it’s finished with tonight?”
“There has to be somebody?”
“For you? Oh, yeah. You’re not the bachelor type. I liked that about you.”
“I’m trying to start fresh here. So come on – who is she?”I took a breath and let it out slowly. This was not what I wanted to be talking about. “Bobby?”
“Her name is Joanna Clark. But it really is over, Kelly. She had an affair with my father.”
“I don’t like talking about it.”
“Uh – no. It’s like one of those old tabloid TV shows, where the trailer trash women throw chairs at each other and every third word gets bleeped out.”
“I know. You guys throw vases.”
“I told you about that?”
“We had some long phone calls, back in the day. You almost convinced me to leave another boyfriend. But Rosie liked him, so I stayed.”
“How is Rosie?”
“She’s seventeen now. That about says it all. Your students are seventeen, right? You know what I’m talking about.”
“It gets worse: if she had a kid when I did, I’d be a grandmother by now. Think about that one. But she’s not that stupid. Thank God.”
“Wow, you just ...”
“I don’t know, but … it’s just -- I’ve been daubing paint and kwonking about chiaroscuro and perspective --” “Kwonking?”
“It’s one of my Dad’s words. It means ... making boring noises.”
“I like it. Kwonking. It sounds like a monkey hitting a frying pan with a stick. Kwonk, kwonk, kwonk.”
Her drum banging gesture made me laugh. “Anyway ... I’ve been doing that stuff, and you’ve been -- raising a kid. It’s incredible.”
She nodded. “Plus I did it alone, basically.”
“What about that guy Rosie liked?”
“I dumped him. He started acting like her Dad, telling her what to do, yelling at her, giving her advice. Hey, I admit it’s tough. That’s a weird position ... adult in the house who’s not a kid’s parent. We don’t even have a word for it.”
“But we weren’t even married.”
“Step boy friend? Step-dude?”
She smiled. “I like that one. Step dude. That fits him perfectly. I tried to explain --the trick is -- stay out of it. If you want to put your two cents in? Don’t. Just shut up. But guys aren’t trained for that. You know? Most guys have no idea how to just shut up.”
I stared at her.
“I’m not saying a word.”
“Hey, I can’t judge. I have trouble taking care of house plants.””
“So you live alone now?”
“I have a room-mate. But even that’s a problem. He never cleans up. He talks when I’m painting. And he watches videos every night. Cartoons. Pixar DVDs. It makes me wonder -- is anyone else sick of Pixar yet? It’s always the same movie: some bug or fish or toy or car -- talks! – It’s a talking car! It’s a talking doll! It has feelings. And takes a journey. Enough already! What’s the next one? You can fill in the blanks yourself, like Mad Libs. CHAIRS! The little kid's chair wants to be a big chair “The master wants to throw me away. They’re redecorating!” and the evil baraclounger rules the house and there’s a lovable old couch that’s lost a pillow and Randy Newman will write some crap song - “You can sit on me”. It’s a world with nothing but chairs in it. And there’s more where that came from. Just buy the ticket. We don’t care. Well, I've had it. Enough with the inanimate objects already.”
She stared at me at me as if I was crazy. “I don’t understand.”
“They’re just movies. Bobby. Who cares?”
“I’m a captive audience.”
“Then buy ear plugs.”
“I t doesn’t matter. I was just trying to amuse you.”
She looked down. “Sorry.”
“I used to be able to get you laughing.”
“There was more to laugh about then.”
“Are you kidding? There’s tons of stuff to laugh about now.”
“I mean ... the world just seems more serious.”
“Well, yeah -- that’s why you have to laugh about it. Politicians who don’t believe heat melts ice? Pharmaceutical companies selling drugs on TV? I love the side effects. ‘May cause suicidal thoughts or actions’ -- while you watch some lady playing with her dog. And you’re thinking will she take the dog with her when she goes? And if the drug gives her multiple personality syndrome, will her personalities all get to sue the company separately? If they fuck you up enough, you can be a class action law suit, all by yourself. ‘Ask your doctor of Dethamil is right for you.” My guess is -- probably not. What?”
“Sorry, but I find that stuff just -- it’s horrible. People getting sick from drugs. Global warming. I don’t see the humor.”
I was saved the mortification of having to explain my jokes -- the waiter arrived with our food. It was delicious and we ate quietly for a while, letting the soft clatter of the narrow restaurant turn the silence sociable.
Over the main course we talked about her dry point etchings (she had illustrated several children’s books, including kind of a famous one about a dauntlessly self-reliant pug left home alone by a neglectful family) and my struggle with the portrait of my mother; Northampton versus New York (She would always be a small town girl); and even, briefly, politics. She had voted for Romney. I had voted for Jill Stein.
We let it go at that.
Over coffee she said, “I feel bad for my students sometimes.”
“Well, they’re just … they all sort of assume they’ll stroll out of Parsons and fall into some great career in advertising or book design or …”
“But you did.”
“Not really. If I made the kind of money they’re dreaming about, I wouldn’t be teaching them. I just scrape by. And I’m one of the lucky ones.”
“How about Rosie? Is she interested in art?”
Kelly laughed. “Forget about it. She’s going to business school. She spent the last three summers interning at Goldman Sachs. She has her own account at Charles Schwab. Her father staked her at first, but she paid him back long ago. It’s unbelievable. I think she made more money than I did last year.”
“That could change,” I offered.
She sat forward. “Did you ever read the Harry Potter books? No? Okay. But Sophie loves them and so do a lot of my students. One of them said something to me the other day that I can’t get out of my head. He told me the art world is like a Quiddich game. That’s – it’s a sport wizards play, like hockey, except you’re flying around on broomsticks. Anyway, no matter what the score is, you can win if your team catches the snitch. It’s a little golden ping pong ball with wings. It zips around like a fruit fly. Very hard to grab. Well, anyway … that always annoyed me about Quiddich. The snitch made everything else that happened pointless. Harry Potter captures the snitch and the game is over. And now this kid is telling me if he gets a downtown gallery show, he wins it all. That’s the snitch – a write up in Art News. Everyone’s looking for the short-cut. But it’s a sham. You got a gallery show. How’s that working out for you?”
“It’s a step.”
“So you’re still clinging to the dream.”
“I call it a plan, actually.”
“Did your Dad show up at the opening?”
“A sentence or two. Mostly they talked about Larry Shea. I think he’s onto something with those dirt paintings.”
“Maybe you could come in and talk to my class. They could use the wake-up call.”
“You have a non-career day?”
That tricked her into a laugh. “At least you have a sense of humor about it,” she said, folding the unguarded moment away.
The rest of the dinner went the same way and we didn’t even discuss prolonging the evening as we stepped out into the windy street afterward. She just wanted to get away from me as fast as she could. I felt the same way about her, but the rejection still stung a little. I should have been pleased. Did I really want to make up transparent excuses and hurt her feelings? We had finally reached a moment of perfect compatibility. Yet I was feeling sad and unsettled as I put her into a cab and started walking uptown. Kelly was supposed to be the love of my life, the one who got away, the link between my past and my present, the map to my future. Maybe the Kelly I had conjured in my nostalgic fugue state was all of those things. The woman I’d just spent the evening with was a reserved, cynical mostly humorless stranger, oddly unattractive despite her striking good looks, which I admit had only improved with age.
I realized that what I truly find attractive in a woman is something as simple as her response to me – the sense of being seen and heard, appreciated, relished, desired. It’s not just vanity, it’s connection. The zing and snap of mutual interest and amusement means everything, it’s the current that lights up a house or a city. We had suffered a major power outage over dinner, and the blackout between us felt like my fault. I hadn’t won her back and even known her well enough to know that the effort was a waste of time.
At one point, deep into a conversational dead-end about Mitt Romney’s mythical and now irrelevant business acumen, I took a bite of cauliflower and thought, “Joanna would love this restaurant.” She also understood the giddy nerve jangling relief I’d felt when I read the election results that November morning – as if I’d just escaped a head-on crash on an icy highway. Plus she laughed at my jokes; and made me laugh at hers. She could rant with the best of them. I smiled, thinking about her diatribes on baby carrots, leaf-blowers and Chinese-made sponge mops.
Whatever she was hating on now, it was none of my business. I had seen to that.
I took a cab home and went to bed. I was asleep by nine O’clock. My phone woke me at just after midnight. I groped for it in the dark, knocked over an empty glass on the nightstand. I didn’t recognize the number and I didn’t recognize the voice on the other end of the line, either. Not at first.
It was like a dream, some eerie vision of my future, every parent’s nightmare – the call from jail, or the roadside after the accident. Every kid’s too, let’s face it. The last late night call I’d gotten lying in this bed was from Alfred Barudsky and half an hour later I’d been bailing my Dad out of jail.
“Dad, listen, I’m at the Stonewall, on Christopher Street. The policeman says if you’ll come down to get me he’ll let me off with a warning.”
Now I recognized the voice: Noah Lewis. I’d given him my cell number, in yet another lapse of professional judgment.
“Nothing, nothing – it’s … they went through the place carding everyone. I showed them a fake ID which is a really bad thing to do. This really great policeman took it away and got me out of there and now he says if you come pick me up --”
“I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
Noah was shivering in a pea coat, standing on the siewalk, near the corner of Seventh Avenue, when my cab pulled up. A tall, reedy looking black cop stood next to him. Noah looked tiny and sad in the big man’s shadow. I told the driver to wait, and climbed out.
“You the father?” the cop asked me. I knew he didn’t believe it. I would have to have been fifteen years old when I had Noah and I looked young for my age anyway. Plus there was zero family resemblance.
“I’m his teacher,” I said. “I’ll get him home.”
“Make sure you keep him there, professor. Especially after midnight. Kid can get into a lot of trouble in a place like this.”
“I’ll talk to his parents.”
The cop gave me a level x-ray stare. “You do that.”
I bundled Noah into the cab before the cop could change his mind, and we starting rolling towards Sheridan Square. Noah gave the driver hbis address and we headed uptown.
“What’s going on, Noah?”.
“It’s almost one in the morning.”
He smiled faintly in the shifting illumination from the street lights. “But it’s not a school night.”
“I’m really sorry, Mr. Mallory. I didn’t know who else to call. I couldn’t call my parents. I mean … ”
“A fake ID?”
“Max made it.”
“Well, I’m glad to see there’s something he’s not good at.”
Noah smiled, but his face fell again, defeated by gravity, like he was pushing a piano up a service ramp. “Max was supposed to meet me. He said he was coming. Instead I’m sitting there with all these creepy old guys hitting on me.”
“No one nice?”
“There was this one guy but he said I was too young. He said ‘in five years call me.’ That was helpful. I was almost relieved when the cops showed up.”
“Singles bars suck. No matter what you’re looking for.”
We jolted up Sixth Avenue. The driver timed the signals expertly and the traffic was light. Noah lived somewhere on Riverside Drive. At this rate he’s be home in fifteen minutes or so. Then he’d have his parents to deal with, but it would just be about breaking curfew. He wouldn’t be outed by a cop at a gay bar, not tonight anyway. This morning, I mean. The sun would be coming up in a few hours.
“I hate everything,” he said as we turned left on Central Park South, the big pre-war apartment buildings rising on our left, the dark bulk of the Frederick Law Olmsted’s masterpiece, dark and silent on our right. Olmsted’s son had designed Rock Creek Park in Washington – that’s what Natalie Crane told me. I would have to check that place out. Maybe I could chaperone a class trip to D.C. someday. I wondered what the old man thought of it. Fathers and sons. I leaned my head against the cracked vinyl of the seat. I had no easy con consolations for Noah, no advice for dealing with his Dad. He wouldn’t have wanted them anyway.
“You won’t say anything to anyone?” he asked me as he was getting out of the taxi a few minutes later.
“No. But that cop was right.”
“I know.” He paused a second before he shut the door. “I just want to be happy.”
Maybe it was the words, maybe it was the look on his face, but I felt it, I knew what he meant and it was right then, as the cab door banged shut and we started the long drive downtown through the sleeping city, that I decided. Whatever Joanna had done with my father before we met, whatever discomfort and embarrassment had stopped her from telling me about it, didn’t seem to matter anymore. I had been a selfish dick, not much more mature or able to cope with the adult world than the hapless teenager I had just taken home. I wanted to see Joanna. I missed her. I wanted to see the look in her eyes when she looked at me, and I could only hope it would still be there.
I wanted to be happy. Maybe it was that simple.
I told the cab driver to pull over, paid him and got out. Broome Street was walking distance from here and I needed to move. Joanna might be working in the restaurant at this hour, she wouldn’t be sleeping much as her opening day approached. And even if she’d given up for the night, she lived right above the place and there was a buzzer by the outside door. I strode through the quiet city, the nearly deserted streets, accompanied only by the distant cry of a siren, the groan and rattle of a bus on Broadway, the occasional greeting of a street person. I gave a bum a ten so he could get a hot meal and took a lost cat flyer from a haggard-looking woman in a camel hair coat. “We’re desperate” she said. I knew the feeling.
As it turned out, Joanna was in the restaurant, sitting cross-legged on the bar, drinking a cup of take-out coffee, reading some pages on a clipboard, lit as on stage through the big plate glass window. All the other store-fronts were dark, closed and gated for the night. Music leaked out from inside: “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”.
I stood across the street watching her for a few minutes, not thinking about what I wanted to say, not thinking at all, just standing in the icy wind, feeling my future gathering under me, lifting me like a wave.
When I knocked on the big glass panel, she looked up, set her cup down and vaulted to the floor. She ran to the front of the restaurant in three steps, and flung the door open. Then we stood there, grinning at each other.
“I knew you’d come back.”
“I was a dick.”
“I knew you’d say that. But it’s not true.”
“You know me better than I know myself.”
“No,” she said. “I just like you better.”
I stepped into her embrace and kissed her and she took me upstairs and we didn’t get out of bed until ten thirty the next morning. We went to Starbucks just like the day we met and she ordered black coffee for both of us. No Lattes this time.
“I learned my lesson,” she said.
Then she took my hand, and we walked together into the bright winter morning and began again.