Authors: Susan Isaacs
“I’ll speak to you tomorrow,” I suggested. “When you have more time. Okay?”
“Tomorrow will be even worse. I have to be in court at nine o’clock.” Eileen was spending June in three-piece linen suits, challenging the validity of Appel’s petitions. “It’s unspeakable. His lawyer is a screamer. ‘May it please the court,’ “Eileen imitated, shrieking,” ‘there is a presumption of regularity here, Your Honor!’ Do you know what it’s like to have to listen to that? For hours and hours and days and days to that crazy, high-pitched voice. He sounds like a hysterical eunuch. Forget what I said. I should have gotten married. Spend the day talking to a mop. Anything. Anything but this.”
“Would you drop into my office when you get the chance?”
“Sure,” she said. “Next month. Sorry, Marcia.”
Jerry spent the beginning of June in bed. Occasionally he spoke to me. “You look tired.”
“I am tired,” I began, kneeling to pick up the sections of the
New York Times
he had dropped to the floor. “It’s beyond the usual campaign fatigue. There’s an aura—”
“I really don’t want to hear about auras.”
It was a warm evening and he lay without clothes on, covered to his chest with a light blanket. His left arm was lying limply behind his head, and his underarm hair was separated into dark, damp strands. I stroked it with my palm, taking up his sweat.
“Stop it,” he snapped. “It’s annoying.”
“Where are you going now?”
“Inside. I’m going to watch the news. I’ll tell you if anything interesting—”
“I haven’t eaten all day.”
“You haven’t wanted to eat all day.”
He turned his head away as though I were saying something excruciatingly boring that he couldn’t bear to hear.
“All right, Jerry. What would you like? A sandwich? An egg or something?”
“For dinner? It’s six o’clock. I told you if you didn’t want to bother, my sister could take me in.”
“How about a veal chop?”
“All right.” The silver hair at his temples blended into the pillow, so it appeared to be a part of him.
Jerry slept stiffly each night, as though his body were concentrating all its resources on healing itself, so it could escape. Occasionally he would grunt and it would sound more sexual than painful, but when I would reach over to him, he would shake off my touch.
Awake, he wanted neither kisses nor cuddling nor succor of any sort. When I undressed, he’d close his eyes or pick up a newspaper.
On what turned out to be the final night of Jerry’s invalid-ism, we lay in the dark bedroom. Since he did not want to talk, I listened to his breathing, trying to analyze it for signs of sleep or sadness or anger. But it was just inhale, exhale, inhale, over and over, with not even a snort for me to interpret. The evening had cooled, but I did not want to grab more blanket for fear of annoying him, and I did not want to get up and get a nightgown for fear of signaling defeat. Like Jerry, I had begun sleeping naked, perhaps trying to test the depth of his indifference, or maybe hoping that his body would be a heat-seeking object, attracted to my warmth the way I was to his.
Finally he spoke to me. “Come here.”
I eased across the bed so as not to jiggle the mattress, feeling how chilly and stiff the sheets were that stretched between us. Pulling close, nearly touching him, I sniffed his body, bitter and pungent from lying in anger, and it made me want him more. I stretched myself along his side, feeling the hot skin of his side and hips and thigh. I was ready to dissolve into him in reconciliation.
But Jerry wanted only a limited merger. “Get on top,” he said. “It’s easier.” I did. I bent over, my tongue peering out in the darkness, searching for his mouth. But he just put his hands on my breasts and rubbed, a routine, impersonal male feel. Then he rolled and squeezed my nipples between his thumb and index finger with the detachment of a biologist noting the responses of a new specimen. “I’m ready,” he said a moment later. Slowly I lowered myself onto him and slid down carefully. I wanted to prolong that first moment of entry. And I wanted to move lightly, so the result of the union would be melting pleasure for him, not traction. I moved in easy circles and listened for him to call out in the dark, to groan a deep “oh” or moan “Marcia.” But he lay mute and still, letting me pace my own ride. And then, as I began to go faster, back and forth, leaning forward, closer to him and nearer to my goal, he finished unexpectedly in silence, with a sudden gush of hot juice. “Okay,” he said, his voice conversational, and I sat on him, stunned, as he shrank away. “Thanks. You can get off now.” He put his hands on my waist and gave me a light shove. “See you tomorrow,” he said, as we lay in the dark again, apart.
In the morning, he banged on the bathroom door. “Please get a move on,” he called.
My grip on the toothbrush tightened. I yanked open the door. “I thought you’d still be in bed,” I managed to say through a foam of toothpaste. “Do you want breakfast before I go?”
“I’m going too,” he said. “I need the bathroom. And I’ll need some help with my socks and shoes.”
“You didn’t say you were going to the office,” I remarked later, trying to maneuver the sock over his heel without breaking his ankle. “Because Bill is out of town. I didn’t mention it because you weren’t in a talking mood, but he’s on an upstate—”
“Oh. I thought if you wanted to speak with him personally, about leaving, that you wouldn’t want to make the trip uptown and only find LoBello there. That’s why I mentioned it.”
“I’m not going to headquarters. I’m meeting Bill in Rochester this afternoon.”
“To tell him?”
“You’re staying on?”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I guess it slipped my mind.” He glanced down, at his sock, not at me. “I’ll wear the brown loafers.”
“When will you be back?”
“How would I know?” While I stood to get his loafers, he filled his pockets with coins, keys, handkerchiefs, a billfold. “Now come on,” he said. I stood before his closet, shaking. “No scenes. I mean it, Marcia. This is my affair. Don’t keep trying to inject yourself into the middle of my life.”
“What’s happening?” I whispered.
“Why are you being so melodramatic?” he asked and brushed me aside. “I have a nine o’clock plane to catch. I’ll manage my own shoes.”
He did manage his loafers, but I had to fetch his suitcase since it was on the floor of his closet, way in the back, under his sneakers and boots. As I handed it to him, his mouth twisted a little in annoyance. Now he had to speak again.
“Thank you,” he muttered and then began packing, slapping down precise piles of shirts and underwear, smoothing long ribbons of ties over them. He filled one corner with political mint mouthwash. Another he stuffed with a very social, special-occasion English Fern cologne.
After those days and nights watching him lie in bed naked, magnetic, faintly animal, I was stunned to see his civilized magic again. I had forgotten how seductive he could be in a white shirt and tie. Jerry’s panache had remained intact. The stewardess’s smile would turn genuine as he boarded the plane. I began to cry.
“I can’t believe you’re carrying on like this,” he said as I followed him to the door, tears pouring down my face. “This isn’t the first time I’ve been away.”
“Jerry,” I managed to say, “can’t we talk straight to each other?”
“See you,” he said and marched out the door.
A few minutes later, still weepy, I called my cousin Barbara, telling her it would be nice if we could talk.
“Don’t cry, Marcia,” she said, pressing a handkerchief into my hand. She had dashed into Manhattan from Long Island without even inquiring what I wanted to talk about. I patted my eyes with her monogram, letting the big D of Drexler absorb most of my sadness. “Why am I saying that?” she asked. “That’s stupid. Go ahead. Cry.”
“Not here.” I glanced around the restaurant where she had suggested we meet. The waiters were all formally dressed. The silverware was etched with a coat of arms. I tucked the handkerchief into my sleeve. I tore my roll in half.
“Don’t be silly. Ridiculous, pretentious place. Look at them,” she said, motioning her head to the busboys, who wore footmen’s uniforms. “They look like Cinderella’s mice.” She smiled and patted my hand. She turned her eyes away as I coated my roll with butter. “If I ever find out I have a fatal disease, I’m not going to fritter away my last days surrounded by loved ones. I’ll lie in bed and have a team of private nurses feed me banana cream pie.” Her dark eyes narrowed a little. “Your weight never shows, does it? It never did.”
“Of course it shows. But it’s all below the waist. If I were a Victorian, with those huge skirts and dark bedrooms, everyone would think I was the most adorable, delicate thing since the invention of the doll. But—”
“But you never got really fat.”
“Yes I did.”
“Not serious fat, Marcia. Not big-time stuff. I remember, my mother would always give you seconds on the starch. She’d say, ‘Have some more noodle kugel, darling.’” Barbara’s imitation of her mother’s warbling, refined tones was nearly perfect. “And then she’d look at me and shake her head before I got up the nerve to ask for more. She’d say, ‘No, Barbara. You’ve had enough. Marcia needs a little extra. Her shoulder blades stick out.’”
“So did my behind. And you know I can carry ten pounds on each hip. Even Jerry says—” My words choked in my throat. My eyes began to fill again.
“Tell me everything,” Barbara said softly. I did, pausing two or three times to sniffle back a potential torrent of tears. “Marcia,” she murmured, when I had finally finished delineating my woes.
“Do you want to be fair?”
“Fair?” I asked. The waiter came with a platter of cold asparagus. Each spear was the same size, as if one perfect asparagus had been cloned. He gave me six. Barbara got eight but didn’t seem to notice.
“What I mean,” she said, in her slow, easy voice, “is do you want to have an objective discussion about Jerry or do you want to sit around and attack him?”
“How would you attack him?”
“I’ll get out my list.”
“Let’s make it objective.”
“Okay. Well, he’s spent the last few weeks being threatened on every level. Really, Mar. First his job. Then his health. On the one hand he knows his back will get better, but on the other he sees himself lying in bed, dependent, for the rest of his life. And then you, his woman—I mean, from what you said, it was obviously upsetting to him that you had had an affair with that Lyle.”
“The word ‘affair’ makes it sound so glamorous. It wasn’t.”
“But does Jerry know that? Did you ever tell him going to bed with this Lyle was a great big zero? You didn’t, did you? So here is Jerry, feeling down and out and probably worried sick that at any moment you’re going to run off with this terrible person with biceps.”
“Why would he think that?”
“Why wouldn’t he? What had you really said to reassure him?”
“He knows how I feel about him. Anyway, Barbara, he could have any woman he wanted. Anyone.”
“But he wants you. He’s living with you, Mar. God, at his age, on his salary, what’s he going to do with hundreds of women? You make such a production about his looks. I can’t tell you the number of men I’ve heard about, horrible looking, like turtles, who run around on their wives. You’re setting up false—”
“Don’t be fair.”
“All right. But give me a minute to work up a vicious streak. See, I just close my eyes and imagine my mother’s voice.” She actually shut her eyes and leaned her head back. Her hands, like a medium’s, remained on the table.
Barbara’s fingers were devoid of the gems my Aunt Estelle would have loved to have seen her wear. She wore only a thin gold wedding band. However, her handbag, which she had dropped to the floor as she sat down, was probably made from the jowls of a minute Chilean reptile and no doubt cost as much as a decent diamond. And one wall of her room-sized closet was lined with shelves for her handbags.
“Okay,” she said, opening her brown eyes, “he doesn’t want to get married. Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”
“Very good, Barbara.”
“Thank you. I am my mother’s daughter, you know. Should I go on, or do you know what I’m going to say?”
“That there’s something wrong with a man who refuses to even consider a commitment.”
The waiter came and made a slight bow. “Ladies,” he said, looking at Barbara. He set down a platter of seafood salad, tiny white bits of lobster and crabmeat, dainty scallops mixed with a minuscule dice of celery, like a mound of pearls and scattered emeralds.
“But to tell you the truth,” I said, “I’m not sure marriage is such a great idea either. I mean, we’ve never really discussed it because I never found it all that appealing.”
“You did once,” Barbara said, serving me a generous portion of seafood salad.
“Come on. I was just doing what I had been programmed to do, to marry a doctor. If we hadn’t been divorced, I’d be following the rest of the programming. I’d probably be out right now, getting my eyelashes tinted.”
“That’s not fair, Mar. Do I get mine tinted?” She blinked her dark, thick lashes at me. “Anyway, it was more than programming. You and Barry had a lot in common.”
“Only sexually.” For an instant, a flash of memory blinded my consciousness: Barry and me making love in the warm sea, on our honeymoon. I felt a flush. I crossed my legs and shifted about in the chair. The memory faded.
“And what about you and Jerry? Your dominant theme is his looks. I mean, all I get from you is a feeling that you’re enormously attracted to him. But that’s enchantment, not love. He may have the best profile in the world, but what good will that be ten years from now?”
“Barbara, come on. I could skip lunch with you and go over to your mother’s and get the same argument.”
“Marcia, what does he really give you?”
“He cares about me. He’s interested in me.”
“What else?” she demanded.
“What else is there? He’s intelligent. I enjoy his company. We have loads in common. I mean, there’s always something to talk about, and I can talk as his equal. There’s none of this ‘How was your day, dear?’ crap.”