Authors: Susan Isaacs
But inside, the rooms were spacious, the ceilings high, and the rent not outrageous. I opened the refrigerator and took out the only thing we had to drink—a can of presweetened iced tea. After work, I was generally too tired to market and Jerry never considered it; he could thrive on year-old saltines.
Since we had no dining room, I sat at a small round butcher-block table in the end of the living room near the kitchen. The chairs, made from bentwood, were not ungraceful, but they were uncomfortable. The woman who had lived with Jerry before me, a demographer who worked for the Harris polling organization, had had an unerring eye for the decorating cliché. Kathye Baron, for that was her name, had built her dream house for Jerry, furnishing the living room with an ersatz Tiffany lamp, an oak umbrella stand, several floor pillows fashioned from midget-sized Oriental rugs, and a huge bronze jar that sprouted tall stalks—dried wheat or swamp grass.
The scale of the furniture would have gotten a first-year interior design student an unequivocal B minus, but Kathye Baron’s sense of color was off. The room irritated people. The couch was not a true red, but a cherry so dull it was almost maroon. The carpet, probably intended to be a neutral pale brown, had so much yellow that it looked stained by some unhealthy secretion. Even an impulsive purchase, a small mohair blanket she had bought for Jerry’s birthday, was jarring. It was thrown over the arm of the couch. She had probably thought she was selecting a soft pink to harmonize with the red fabric. Instead, the blanket was the color of human flesh and guests made certain not to lean against its hairy softness. Then, just two weeks after Jerry’s birthday, in the cold end of January, Kathye Baron had moved out.
I traipsed across the rug and turned on the television. Channel Five featured a man pointing to a piece of oak tag with a diagram featuring a red esophagus and a blue trachea. Channel Four was running a head shot of Gresham along with Verdi’s
for background music. Channel Two, finally, had a newscaster, a young woman in her mid-twenties with thick swirls of blue-black hair, luscious garnet lips, and a heavy mid-western accent.
“… according to New York City Medical Examiner Irwin Robinson, the cause of death was a piece of liver knish. A knish“—and she blinked at the teleprompter—“is a fried or baked turnover of dough with a filling like potato or kasha or, in this case, liver. The knish lodged in Governor Gresham’s—” She pronounced “knish” with a silent k; I changed channels.
Channel Seven showed the same few hundred feet of film that I was to see over and over that night, film taken by the stations’ pool camera. Gresham smiling. Gresham not smiling. Gresham falling. Gresham dead.
“How,” asked Dr. Donald Finkelberg, dean of commentators, later that night on Channel Five again, “how could such a thing like this happen?”
And a panel of experts on Channel Thirteen, to a person, could not answer him. Dr. Hazel Bennett, identified as “thoracic surgeon” in small letters that hid part of her chin, was able to offer several theories. “But bottom line, Mel,” she informed the program’s moderator, “bottom line is that the Heimlich maneuver should have worked.” She adjusted her microphone with long, flexible surgeon’s fingers. She wore no nail polish.
Dr. Bennett was right. As we learned several days later, the reason Officer John Baker failed in his first-aid attempt was because access to Gresham’s diaphragm had been blocked, cut off by the hip-to-chest corset the governor had been wearing until he lost the forty pounds ordered by his media director.
I watched Gresham die, again and again, until it was nearly ten o’clock. By then, it had become so familiar that it was almost comforting to watch. I knew Gresham would fall sideways and would lie on his left side, jerking his legs about as if he were having a dream about running. The left half of his big blond stand-out mustache would be squashed against the floor of the truck, leaving the right half sticking up in the air like a hairy question mark.
“Marcia?” Jerry had a gift for smooth, silent movement. He would have made a superb burglar, sneaking in on cat feet. I hadn’t even heard him opening the locks.
“Here. By the TV.” The room was dim, lit only by the glow of the television. I was somewhat obscured by the darkness and Kathye Baron’s dry, dusty stalks.
“Come on. You’re still watching that?”
I nodded, noting that the governor’s shoelace on his right work boot had become untied. I didn’t turn to look at Jerry.
“Would you please turn the damned thing off? It’s morbid, you sitting here in the dark, watching that.”
“It’s not morbid. It’s news.” The camera panned quickly, but there was an excellent shot of Paterno looking appropriately shattered.
“It’s not news,” Jerry said. “It hasn’t been news since lunchtime.”
“How’s Bill?” I asked.
“Impossible. Blabbing away and then all of a sudden sitting back stricken, like
had choked. I finally called his sister and got her to take him for the night; otherwise he’d talk himself into something fatal and I’d have to bail him out of the hospital at three in the morning. Now would you please turn that goddamned thing off?”
“How’s your back?”
Jerry moved gracefully through the darkened living room without tripping and turned off the television. Then he came, leaned over me, and said, “Let’s go inside.”
“Did you have dinner?” I asked, rising from the chair.
“Three pretzels. They were delicious.”
“And a drink too. Right?”
“I see,” he remarked. “You’re going to be the poor, long-suffering woman, staying home and mourning while the old Irish sot gets himself pissed. Well, I had two drinks. Scotch. Very tasty.”
“Don’t be so hypersensitive. I didn’t say you were a sot.”
“No, but in your heart you felt it. Nasty goyim drinking whiskey instead of a thimbleful of Manischewitz.”
“‘Goyim’ is plural.”
“So are two scotches. But they’re not enough to make me drunk, Marcia. Not even enough to get a mild buzz on.”
“I know you know. But every time you come home from your aunt’s house you need a little reminding. They weaken your resolve.”
“They weaken more than that. Listen, I’m really tired.”
“Then let’s get into the bedroom.”
“Jerry, it’s been such a long day….” He walked ahead of me into the bedroom, switched on the light, and began undressing, stage center, before I could finish my lines.
Jerry’s skin was very light, but without that dead New York pallor. Instead, it was opalescent, almost white and shimmery, and it contrasted with his straight black chest hair, making the hair look thickly luxurious, like a black flower on a white satin sheet. The stem of the flower ran down his belly and then rooted itself in the curlier hair around his penis. I moved in a little closer.
“Come on. All the way over here,” he said. With one hand he grasped my wrist while the other reached around the back of my neck, pulling me up to him.
“Oh, God.” His hands were so hot that, reflexively, I stiffened and then, almost instantaneously, softened. Each time he touched me, my skin startled to Jerry’s heat.
His temperature was always a degree or two above mine, but I never seemed to remember it until the moment I felt him. He was lighter in spirit than I, easier going, so I anticipated coolness. Calm, pale people should be cold to the touch, chilled by eons of exposure to icy winds off the North Sea. But temperate, tranquil Jerry always burned.
As his hand slipped over my neck to my throat and down past the open collar button on my shirt, it flamed the skin in its path. His fingers slid inside my bra and moved around in electric arcs. I moaned. I felt invisible, downy hairs standing on end, tiny capillaries dilating to rush blood in, compensating for the sudden fire that burned slowly across my breast.
His tongue and lips and saliva were hotter too. Even the prickles of his beard seemed heated; as we kissed, turning and maneuvering our heads, his roughness seared and abraded the soft skin of my face.
“Jerry, please.” He kept kissing and feeling me, so I pulled off my own clothes with shaking, clumsy fingers, letting everything fall around me on the floor. “Now. Please.”
Our thighs pressed together, breasts and chests and bellies rubbing hard. All at once, I had his whole body suffocating mine, his mouth and tongue infecting my openings with hot licks and kisses, his teeth nibbling away at my flesh. And at that moment, like always, I caught his fever.
hat do you actually get from him?” my cousin Barbara demanded.
“No, seriously, Marcia.” Her voice was muffled because she was inside her closet, debating which pair of gray shoes to wear with her gray and violet tweed suit. “You can get
any place, apparently. From what I’ve been reading, people are having relationships with mechanical devices. Ridiculous, going out for D batteries instead of cocktails.” She emerged from her closet with a pair of spike-heeled shoes with pointed toes, the sort that must have been worn to country club luncheons in the mid-fifties. They looked dated. “Do you like these? I bought them last week. Horrendously expensive, but I loved their lines.” She turned a shoe to show off its profile. I nodded. “Now, what was I saying?” she asked.
“You were teetering on the brink between vibrators and Jerry.”
“Oh,” she murmured. Barbara sat on an antique ivory satin chaise longue near a window in her bedroom. This bedroom, in the Drexlers’ ten-room Manhattan pied-à-terre, was less elaborate than the one on their Long Island estate. There, she and her husband glided over rugs fit for a Chinese emperor and slept in an ornate canopied bed reputed to have belonged to Louis XIV’s second-favorite mistress. “Sometimes I blather on, don’t I?”
“Well,” I muttered, “I was kind of intrigued with the vibrators.”
“Have you ever seen one?”
“No.” She seemed disappointed. “Have you?” I inquired politely, knowing the answer.
“No. Of course not.” She paused and brushed a thick lock of her dark hair behind her ear. “Could we talk seriously, Marcia?”
“No. Come on, don’t be intentionally difficult. You’re bad enough without trying. Really, whenever we have lunch, you’re only relaxed when we’re discussing my life—or politics. The minute I steer the conversation to you personally, you gulp down your coffee to make a fast getaway or glare at me as if I were going to beat you into submission: force you to wear eyeliner, or sell you into marriage to an Orthodox computer programmer.” She slipped her new shoes over her pearly-gray-stockinged feet. “Trust me, Marcia. You know I’ve always been on your side.”
“How are they?”
“My new shoes.”
“Fine. Lovely. Very chic.”
“You don’t like them.”
“You don’t. You said they were chic. Chic isn’t one of your words. What don’t you like about them?”
“I don’t know. Aren’t they kind of nineteen fiftyish?”
“Of course. They’re supposed to be.” She lifted her eyebrows and added, “They’re very chic.”
Except for carrying around her father’s lush, dark eyebrows, my cousin Barbara showed few signs of having sprung from five minutes of heaven between Aunt Estelle and Uncle Julius on some blacked-out night during World War II.
She was much taller than the rest of us—her mother, my mother, and me—about five feet seven inches, and big, but in an entirely different way. Barbara’s figure was giving and generous. Her shoulders were wide, her breasts heavy and round, her hips wide, like two parentheses enclosing important information.
For six months of each year, she remained Aunt Estelle ‘s girl, going to fashionable diet doctors, even though, as on that day, she suffered under the regimen, looking pale and drawn from deprivation. But, like the rest of her mother’s friends’ daughters, she carried little plastic bags of carrots and celery sticks to crunch, to drown out her silent screams for ice cream. But for the rest of the year, she was herself, comfortable, full, and at peace. To look at her, you sensed she was content. Hot fudge fills deep needs. You could almost hear her purr.
Women loved her. She was relaxed. She was friendly. There were no hard edges to Barbara, just round warmth.
Men loved her too. For many, her size signaled sex; it was padding to cushion and comfort them during long nights of bed work and, later, for mornings of cozy pleasure.
Not that Barbara had a past. She was no Lady Bountiful, spreading her ample thighs for the boys at Syracuse. On the contrary, being the child of Julius and Estelle, she was far more level-headed than lustful. I visited her once, during our sophomore year at college, and saw how she cooled the fires burning inside the cuffless pants of the brothers of ZBT.
“Barbara!” they’d call, trotting up to her on campus, throwing a ski-jacketed arm around her raccoon-covered shoulder. “Hey, Barbara.” And she saw, as I did—because it couldn’t be missed—that heavy-lidded stare of nearly crazed need, saw how they wanted to fling off her Lindenbaum fur, pull up her pleated skirt, and roll her right into the nearest snowdrift, sensing that having her would make their world feel like Fort Lauderdale. “Barbara,” they’d murmur. But Barbara was schooled to be patient.
“Larry,” she’d say, or “Vic, how
you?” her voice pitched just high enough to shatter their desire. But her dark brown eyes held theirs for just long enough to suggest that—well, maybe next time. “This is my cousin, Marcia. She’s a sophomore at Queens.” They would glance at me, startled, as though I’d just been blown before them by a whoosh of February wind.
“Hi,” they would mumble.
“Hi,” I’d reply, although by that time a response would be superfluous. Their eyes would be back on Barbara, on the thick black hair that framed her creamy, full-cheeked face.
But Barbara could wait. She touched my arm and said, “Let’s go get some hot chocolate, Mar,” leaving the boys from Syracuse behind.
A month after her graduation, at a friend’s wedding, she met Philip Drexler, just back from Oxford, where he had spent two years reading British jurisprudence after graduating from Brown and Harvard Law School. Barbara stood close to Philip, the only son of what the other guests were whispering was the second richest Jewish family in America. She smiled. “Tell me, Philip,” she asked, “what are the
differences between the English and the American systems? Not the superficial ones.” He told her, at length.