The day Jeremy and I split up I scrubbed a lot. I was in my new apartment, a studio in a hi-rise on West 70th Street. The parquet floor (the only thing that didn't need scrubbing) had just been refinished, and the air was thick with polyurethane. I opened the windows, which overlooked an interior courtyard that got sunlight between the hours of eight and ten in the morning. Thought about the view I'd left behind. You really want to give this up? Jeremy asked when I said I needed some space, some time. He was staring out the window of the river-view apartment we'd shared for a year and a half. Not an easy view to leave behind in a city swamped by the darkness of too many tall buildings. You're sure now, he asked again, when I showed him the apartment I'd found. I took him there between the hours of eight and ten to prove to him, to prove to myself, that the light was not something I imagined. He was leaning, one leg crossed in front of the other, against the edge of a wall that extended halfway into the room. Like an unfinished thought, that's what the wall was like. They could have completed the wall, made this a real one bedroom, he said. What did they run out of Sheetrock or something?
Yes, I thought, studying the slant of his body against the unfinished wall that gave my studio the illusion of two rooms. This is what I want. He moved away from the wall, closer to the window. Sunlight flooded the room, licked his face. No, I said to myself, resisting the tug of the moon in his dark, pleading eyes. Reeling in the trap of a double negative. No, this is not about logic or persuasion or even love, which I can't say I don't feel. I twisted the key to my new apartment in my palm, sweaty now. This is about inertia.
I began with the bathroom, scrubbing the tub till it was whiter than fresh snow. The Black Beauty Jeremy had given me was beginning to kick in. This should help your inertia, he said. He had a gift for sarcasm, which usually made me smile. Until it was turned on me. If he understood inertia, I mean really understood it, he'd know how little it takes to move a body at rest. Which is what we had become. A body at rest.
After some two hours in the bathroom I took a break. My knees ached from the uneven mosaic tile floor, and I sat down against the unfinished wall, extended now by a Japanese screen Jeremy and I had bought at a tag sale upstate last summer. I didn't want the screen, I liked the quirkiness of the studio just the way it was, but Jeremy insisted I take it. It was the only thing, really, that belonged to both of us. I stretched out my legs, inadvertently knocking over the screen, which landedsafelyon a pile of sheets and towels. I picked up the screen, folded it. Unfolded it. Tried repositioning it in a corner. Started cursing Jeremy, not so much for the screen as for not warning me. This should help your inertia, was all he'd said. I'd taken speed a couple of times before. Once in college, when I needed a boost during finals week. And a few times with Jeremy. We'd pop the uppers, go out dancing, come home, take a Quaalude to come down, make love. I'd never taken it, until now, for mundane purposes like household cleaning and was not prepared for the rollercoaster effect on my psyche, one minute flying up up up into a stratosphere of thought not bounded by equations of space and time, the next minute fixating on the dirt etched into tiny bathroom tiles. My mind was spinning now, seeing shapes in the bare walls, mottled from too many coats of paint and uneven patches of plaster. Memories and images were churning. Turning over. Whipped around in a cerebral centrifuge sorting meaning from the chaff.
On her bed there was a crank, and a crack in the ceiling had the habit of sometimes looking like a rabbit . . .
Running together in a free association of sight and sound. One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small . . .
Seeing things with amphetamine-induced clarity. I ran my fingers along the wall, cold and bumpy, thick with plaster where pictures and mirrors once hung. Something there is, I thought, that doesn't love a nail. In a wall. That sends the plaster raining down in chips. That takes away the freshness. The newness. Bare walls, I thought, what I nice touch. I could live this way for days, weeks, maybe even months. If I had the guts, I wouldn't even unpack the boxes lining the walls, just put them aside until the day came when I could admit there was nothing that mattered in them. Old letters and postcards. Objects defined by time and place, imbued with sentiment. The ruby glass Buddha I bought at an antique store in Brooklyn the day I met Jeremy. The sea green vase Vicky gave me for my twentieth birthday, and the wall hanging she brought back from Guatemala. The Japanese screen.
There was a knock at my door.
"Bridie Highsmith," said the woman when I let her in. She was Scottish, and her voice had the inflection of a drummer's brush stroking a cymbal. "I live in 8W." She placed a lemon pound cake, freshly baked, on my dining table. I thanked her, probably ten times, apologized for smelling like Comet and rubber gloves. Said I'd invite her in for a glass of wine when I'd cleaned away all the dead cockroaches. "You're talking very quickly," said Bridie, glancing at my unpacked boxes. "Take a minute to catch your breath."
Bridie lived with three dogs in a small, one-bedroom down the hall. Her hair, white with sparks of grey, had the same texture as the fur of her terriers.
"Tea," she said to me. "You must have tea with me. Today." The elevator door had just closed, leaving the two of us in a slow, unsteady ascent from the lobby to the eighth floor. Her toy poodle started pawing at my leg. She had polish on her toenails. Butterfly Red. I knew the color well. Not cherry, not wine, it was a color that had its own distinct tone. I'd never seen a red butterfly, though I'd once seen a picture of one with red and black markings. Genus Parnassian, the red on its wings popped. Like expensive ruby earrings. That's how Butterfly Red made feel. Not cheap, like Hot Flash (a bright orangey red), or translucent like Mother of Pearl. I felt rich when I wore Butterfly Red, in a refined kind of way. I could almost feel my fingers and toes flutter.
I hated tea but I liked Bridie.
"How do you take your tea?" she asked. With a little grass, I was tempted to say. Just for effect. That's how Jeremy drank his tea. He'd smoke a joint, make a pot of tea almost every night. Try to get me to drink some with him. Chamomile. Hibiscus. Lemon grass. Something about the slow sipping of tea, he was convinced, enhanced the power of cannabis.
"Just some lemon," I said. Bridie's poodlePenelopehad decided to rest her body on my right foot while the two terriers, Rosie and Daisy, entwined themselves on a pseudo William Morris reupholstered armchair. It wasn't long before they were making strange belching sounds in their sleep.
"Snoring," said Bridie. "They're old." Her kitchen was separated from the living room by a windowed wall with a shelf where she placed a tray holding a porcelain teapot and some cups. Four to be exact. The pianist and the poet would be joining us, explained Bridie. Lynda (the pianist) lived in 8V and Jane (the poet) lived in 8R. "Lynda's very dramatic," said Bridie, with a flourish of her hand, "and Janewell" Bridie pursed her lips, thinking. "Jane is pale."
"Do you play?" I asked. A mahogany baby grand dominated her living room.
She shook her head, walked over to the piano, ran her finger along its shiny surface. 'An inheritance' was what she called it. "But that's a story for another time."
The doorbell rang. Bridie answered it. In walked the pianist, followed by the pale poet. The pianist had light brown hair that rippled across her shoulders. She shook my hand, positioned herself on the piano bench, picked up her teacup.
"Welcome to Lucky 8," she said.
The poet rolled her eyes, settled herself on the area rug near the dogs. One of themRosie or Daisy, I couldn't yet tell them apartjumped from the chair to her lap.
"Seven is for suckers," she went on. "People who grasp at the stars for answers. That is how it began, you know" she sipped her tea, inhaled the aroma. "JasmineI like that, Bridie." She drank some more, looked squarely at me. I began picking at a hangnail, something I hadn't done in a long time. Something I did when I was impatient, or nervous, or uncomfortable about something I could not define. It was a habit that annoyed Jeremy. "As I was saying, seven planets in the skythat's what the ancients thoughtbegat seven days in the week, not to mention seventh Heaven, seven circles of Hell, seven ages of man in the pre-Feminist sense. You get my drift?" I nodded. She leaned closer to me. I could smell her minty breath. "But eighteight is for people who know better." She put down her cup, began counting on her fingers, and singingDo Re Me Fa So La Ti" she paused, raised her eyebrow, twirled her finger like a baton. "Do. That's an octave." She moved back to the piano, played a scale. "Eight is what it takes for completion. Unity. Seeing the wholeness in things. Is there anything more mystical, more compelling than that?"
Her fingers danced up and down the keyboard. Her hair undulated, swept along in a sea of crescendos and dramatic runs. "Seven is for the unlucky, if you ask me. The poor souls who don't see."
The poet, who'd been sitting cross-legged on the floor, enveloped in a long gauzy skirt that was now a bed for Rosie (or Daisy), finally spoke. "Not everyone is so blessed." She was talking to me, about Lynda. I liked her understated sarcasm.
Lynda was past arpeggios, onto chords now. Deep, resonant chords that had a familiar ring.
"Barry Manilow," I blurted out.
"Chopin," said Lynda. "C Minor Prelude. Bastardized into a Barry Manilow-Donna Summer disco hit." She stopped playing, complained to Bridie that the piano was crying out for a tuning.
"I'll get to it one day," said Bridie, passing around a plate of cookies fresh from the oven. Lemon snaps. Penelope, roused into begging, got up, licked my ankle. I tried ignoring her, but it was no use. Her front paw nails (all eight of them) were long. They were persistent. They were Butterfly Red.
"Do you know," said Adrianna, "that most women have a more large left foot?"
"Larger," I corrected her broken English. "A larger left foot."
"Lar-ger," she repeated. It was part of our arrangement. She gave a little extra time to massaging my feet during a pedicure, and I helped her speak English like American. I also tipped her well.
"You like new apartment?" she asked. "You miss your boyfriend?"
"Yes," I said, "I like my apartment." I'd been living in it a month now. I still hadn't hung anything on the walls. To Jeremy, who'd stopped by last week, this was proof positive that I was totally noncommital. Which totally freed him to get on with his life, that was how he put it. Which really meant sleep with Amy Goodman, who lived across the hall from us (now Jeremy). Amy wore hot pants and platform shoes, both of which I hated. She had long French-tipped nails and long blonde hair that almost looked natural. She spent a lot of evenings in our (now Jeremy's) apartmentsmoking, drinking and in those long lingering moments before she left for the night, there would be a pause. A prolonged yawn that almost seemed practiced. I'd glance at Jeremy, who would be eyeing Amy, one hand discreetly over his crotch to avoid the embarrassment of a too-obvious hard-on. Quaalude, anyone? I could hear him thinking. How many would it take, I could just hear him thinking, to bring this ménage to sweet fruition?
"Being aloneit's no good," said Adrianna. She'd recently gotten engaged and was very much in love with her Tomcek, whom she'd met at a Romanian refugee gathering last Christmas. Love at first bite, I teased her, when she told me he was from a village in Transylvania not far from the one she came from. Like her, he'd managed to escape the Communist regime. In Romania he'd be a college professor. In America he worked as a waiter in an East Village Romanian Restaurant. Such is life, she'd say in her thick Romanian-American dialect. It was an expression she favored, an idiom that transcended all the linguistic gaps she struggled with.
"Maybe I no understand American women," she went on, digging her strong fingers into the balls of my feet. "Such is life." She pumped some aloe vera lotion from a container, smoothed it on my legs. "Or maybeI think life is too such." She sighed, raised her eyebrows, plucked thin and shaped into Corinthian arch perfection.
"MaybeI think" I leaned forward, whispered, "you think too much." She laughed, reached for her pumice stone, brushed it back and forth across the bottom of my feet. Began humming her favorite refrain from her favorite Janis Joplin song. Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose . . . It was a song she used to sing with her sisters (one older, one younger), and humming it soothed her into a reverie of three girls never separated. I imagined her sisters, thousands of miles away, picking notes from the sky, hearing their sister in America. Their free sister, working hard, making so much money.
"Life sucks." I recognized the voice, the sibilance left over from a childhood lisp. And the long French-tipped nails grabbing onto the arms of the chair next to mine. "I was that close she squeezed the air between her thumb and forefinger"to getting the lead in a new off-off-Broadway show." She dipped her feet into the whirlpool, leaned her head against the back of the chair. "I think the producer was expecting a blow-job." She swirled her feet around in the water. Like a baby in a bathtub. "Fuck him."
Adrianna, roused from her reverie, told Amy she was beautiful girl. "You find other job," she said, putting the final coat of polish on my toenails. Champagne was the color I'd chosen. "This man is animal. You no gohow you say?bending your knees for him."
Amy looked at me, a sly smile crossing her lips. "What man is worth it?" she asked.
"Is that rhetorical or specific?"
"It's mathematical," she said. "The pure logic of numbersthe science of assigning things a value know what I mean?" She flexed her ankles, absentmindedly, I think. Her tight denim shorts rose up, bringing even greater definition to her personally trained thighs. "If x has three red juicy apples that he bought for ninety-nine cents a pound and y asks him for one but x decides to keep them for himself, how many will he have four days from now and what will they be worth?" Amy picked at her teeth with the nail of her pinky. "The answer obviously depends on how many apples x eats, or whether, out of guilt or the goodness of his heart he changes his mind and gives one to y. Maybe they get brighter and juicier by the day. Or maybe those juicy red apples mysteriously rot and x has to throw them away."
"Fine," I said. Adrianna pulled a long piece of cotton from her cart, started coiling it through my toes. "What does this have to do with the worth of a blow-job?"
The woman to Amy's left, also getting a pedicure, looked up from the magazine she was reading. "It's the sex thing men love most and womenmost of themlove least. Which places it squarely in the realm of assigned value. Only who did the assigning?" The woman to Amy's left coughed out a laugh, pulled off her reading glasses, let them hang from the beaded chain they were attached to. "Forgive me for eavesdropping," she said, "but you know what it's like here. Kind of that assigned value thing you were talking aboutthe weekly manicure, bi-weekly pedicurethe femaleness of it all. Men have their locker rooms, I guess, women have their nail salons. And believe me, until today, I thought I'd heard it alldivorce, secret lovers, troubled kids, pampered dogs, sick cats."
The woman began playing with a locket hanging from her gold necklace. "I had a husband once. Married five years. For the first year or two I gave him his assigned value thing every time we had sex. Which really was what it became. Having sexnot making love."
Amy nodded, crossed her arms. I imagined her entwined with Jeremy, on the grey couch spotted with come stains from my year and a half with him, her nails, longer than mine would ever be, stroking him. It was what he loved, the soft scratching of nails on his dick. Which was the real reason he gave me, for my twenty-fifth birthday, a series of ten manicures and pedicures at Nails Plus. I'd never had a professional manicure before and it was Jeremy's notion of behavior modification. Once I'd gotten used to manicures, he thought, I'd stop pulling and biting the hangnails. An ex-nail biter, he liked to tell me how alcohol cured him of the habit. Not the kind you drink, he said. The kind your mother splashes on your fingers to make them unappetizing.
"Don't get me wrong," the woman went on. "I like sexthat sense of being entwined with a man, connected in time and space, moving in a sea of light waves, that instant of not knowing where you end and he begins. What I don't like is the unstated transaction that often takes place. It happened with my husband. Every week, it seemed, he was bringing me presents Tiffany, Gucci, Bloomingdale'suntil my taste for the assigned value thing began to pale."
"It never really is just sex," said Amy.
"American women," said Adrianna, moving her stool over to begin working on Amy. "I no understand them."
"Such is life," I said, getting down from my chair and slipping a ten-dollar bill into her pocket.
"I'm worried about Jane," said Lynda, pouring me a glass of wine. She placed the glass on a small round wood table. A porcelain ashtray from Israel, the site of her last competition, stood on the table alongside a lamp hung with colored beads. The light from the lamp was dusty gold, and it cast a bordello-like dimness throughout the room.
"She's doing this hermit-thing," Lynda went on. "Holes herself up all day listening to Moody Blues or environmental tapes that are supposed to give the impression of rain but really sound like static. Or else she's immersed in Sylvia Plath. If that isn't depressing, I don't know what is. Sometimes, when you pass by her door, you can hear her talking to herself. Or crying. If you knock, she doesn't answer, pretends she's in the shower or something." Lynda began fingering the fringes of the silk brocade shawl draped across her chair. It was a flowery print, powder blue and yellow. A larger throw, citrus and green, decorated her piano, a six-foot concert grand. "And have you ever read her poetry? It's trés distressing."
I'd seen one poem, which she slipped under my door late one night. Hot off the press, it was twenty lines of rhymed couplets about insomnia. I fell asleep reading it.
Lynda swirled the wine in her glass, sniffed it, took a sip. Jessye Norman's voice, trilling in the background, distracted her. She leaned back, closed her eyes, listened with rapture, as if I weren't there. Eyes still closed, she began talking about Jane again.
"You know what her problem isdon't you?"
I began listening closely, not to Lynda, but to the aria. Love hovered in those notes, like drops of water clinging to a leaf by the pure power of longing.
"Unsung passion," Lynda went on. Her eyes were open now, scrutinizing me. Behind her, on the wall, was a photograph of Jessye Norman, a study in self-possession.
"Hasn't been laid in I don't know how long." Lynda began tapping her fingers on the table. The tapping was silent, syncopated to the silky warble filling the room, like a presence. I stared at the diva, who stared back, challenging me to hear the loss nestled in half-notes.
"I tried seducing her." There was nothing unconscious about Lynda's tapping, no wasted motion. Her fingers were long, her nails trimmed to graceful ten-finger exercises. "It was one night after we'd gone to the movies. She hesitated at her door, didn't seem to want to say good night, so I invited myself in for cookies and milk, in a manner of speakingwhich is really what seduction is aboutthe manner of speaking. Wouldn't you agree?" Lynda leaned forward, rested her elbows on her knees. Her hair spread across her shoulders like a cape. "Anyway, the manner of speaking was as far as the seduction went. She asked me how/when/why I knew I was a lesbian. I asked her how/when/why she became so sure she wasn't a lesbian? She was smoldering, and I knew it. I touched her hand, she pulled it away. I kissed her shoulder, she jumped. I got up to leave, she said, 'waitcan't we be friends?'"
My eyes darted back and forth between Lynda and the image of Jessye Norman.
"'Four Last Songs.'" said Lynda. "Richard Strauss. Nobody modulates the phrases quite like she does."
"I like it," I said, floating in a sea of sound, no words or manner of speaking that I could understand, just voice as pure instrumentation.
There was a knock at the door. Lynda got up to answer it, mumbling something about Jane's bisexual curiosity, how obvious it was, and how giving in to it would spare her a lot of angst. A man walked in. He had the same dimpled jaw as Lynda, the same smoldering eyes. "Meet Peter," said Lynda, visibly annoyed at the timing of his visit. "My brother."
"I'm worried about Lynda," said Jane. She'd opened her door, just as I was dumping garbage in the cans in the stairwell. The music from her apartment was loud, resonant, spacey.
Nights in White Satin. Never reaching the end. Letters are written. . .
She grabbed me by the elbow, pulled me into her lair. Incense and scented candles masked a faint odor of cat piss. She apologized for the cat hairs covering her couch, said her vacuum cleaner was broken. I sat in a caned Bentwood chair at her dining table.
"She rang my bell at midnightyou know how dramatic she can betore into my apartment like a wind." Jane reached for a small black spiral-bound notebook on her kitchen counter. "That's a good imagedon't you think?" She scribbled something in the notebook, returned to talking about Lynda. "She was holding up a piece of paperwaving it like a flag." She stopped talking, became lost in thought, or the Greek chorus of Moody Blues.
Just what you want to be, you will be in the end. . .
I hoped she wasn't going to start writing again. "'This just put the nail in the coffin,' she said. She handed me the piece of paper. It was a letterfrom Julliard turning down her application to teach a master class." Jane's cat, mostly gray with a white circle around one eye, surfaced from under the bed, leaped onto my lap. I bristled. I was wearing new black pants. Jane unwrapped a chocolate Kiss, popped it into her mouth. "She's very talented, you know though she's never won a major competitionplaced third in the Rachmaninoff Competitionand it just kills her. Competitions winning themis what counts, she keeps telling me, and she's just about at the end of her competition years. All of twenty-fivecan you imagine? If you don't win competitions, you don't get the Carnegie Hall dates, and you have to do this back door thingteaching master classes, playing less well known venues. Her ego is too invested though, really, how could it be otherwise?"
Jane's voice was high, like someone afraid of breathing too deeply, and her words came out in a slow, steady tremble as she went on and on about Lynda's lost competitions and her string of one-week lovers. "She's desperate for lovereal lovenot this bravada thing she flaunts." The more she talked, the more she sounded like a proud and worried mother, or a lover.
"She's got a crush on you," I said. Jane coughed, put her hand to her neck. She had the smallest wrists I'd ever seen. And the milkiest skin.
"Had a crush on mewhen I was the new girl in town." It's this conquest thing with hera machisma kind of thing. She thinks every woman is bisexual, if not a lesbian just crying out for release." She lifted her crystal bowl of Kisses, offered me one. "Want a Kiss?"
"No, thanks." Her cat jumped from my lap, onto the table, and began playing hockey with the foil candy wrapping. I took the opportunity to get up, brush off my pants, make my way to the door. Jane opened it for me, accidentally hitting the racing bike she had hanging from a hook on the wall. "My ex-roommate's," she said. "She owed me a month's rent, so I kept the bike though I can't honestly say I've used it." Weaving through the streets of New York required a certain bravado entirely lacking in Jane. Her skin was much too transparent, her wrists much too limp. She had the body of a flamingo, not a biker.
"It's you she's got the crush on now." She raised her eyebrows. "You're the new girl in town though I have it from a very reliable sourcethe horse's mouth, so to speakthat she relinquished you to her brother."
"You've been seeing that brother of Lynda's," said Bridie. We were side by side, at the mailboxes in the lobby. She was looking at a letter in her hand, not at me. Her hand started shaking. She folded the letter, put it back into the envelope and slipped it into the pocket of her sweater.
"Bad news?" I asked.
"He's a drifter," she said. "Don't say I didn't warn you."
I followed her upstairs, made her invite me in. For tea. Penelope scrambled down the hallway when Bridie opened the door. Daisy and Rosie made slow circles around her, squealing and snorting. "Who's happy to see me?" she cooed, bending to pet them. Penelope came sprinting back. Bridie went into the kitchen, three dogs at her heels, begging now. She gave each of them a treat.
"Want to talk about it?" I asked when she set the teacups on the table.
"About what?" She stretched her hands out in front of her, like she was examining them. Her skin was dry, almost chalky.
"The letter," I said. "The letter that seemed to rattle you."
"Oh, that" She began cleaning her fingernails. I thought this was an act of distraction, nothing more, until I saw how methodical she was, digging under the nails of one hand with the thumbnail of the other. One by one. Each hand twice.
She walked over to the piano, ran her hand along the surface.
"I know all about drifters," she said. "Believe me." She sat down at the piano, brushing her fingers along the keys. Not making a sound. "He had very beautiful handsalmost too delicate for a man. It was why he played so well." She pressed down one key. And another. The weight of her pressing made the notes sound dull, almost dead. "He would disappear, for months at a time, but always came backto me, to his piano. I never asked where he'd been, and he never told me. Those first few hours together, I often thought, were worth every minute of separation. Do you know what I mean?" She looked at me, kept talking. "Every ounce of me aching with a longing that become a kind of sustenance. Every square inch of this room, of me, flooded, again, with his music."
"How long this time?" I asked.
"Fifteen . . ." she rubbed her hands on her skirt, stood up. ". . . years." She let out a sound, almost a moan, not quite a cry of disgust. "Fifteen years." She laughed. "Though he did call about two years ago. He'd settled down now, he said, somewhere in California, and wanted the piano. His piano." She became red in the face, flushed with the memory of a conversation she'd gone over in her mind a thousand times by now till it became, like a skipping record, fixed on one point. "His pianoha!" She shook her head. "You could say it was his pianobut not now. Not after all this time, all those disappearances. Isn't there something in the law about ownership being three-quarters possession? Doesn't all that waiting entitle me to something?" A smile, almost sinister, crossed her lips. "'Over my dead body,' I told him. 'That's when you'll get your piano.'" Her eyes narrowed. "'And not even then.'"
The letter, I kept going back to the letter. She kept talking about the drifter. Now he had a name. Frank.
"Though he was anything but," she said. "Before disappearing he would leave me trinketsfake pearls, glass bead earrings, things like thatin little boxes wrapped in brown paper on which he wrote effusive notes of love, always promising to be back soon." She repeated the word.
"Soonha! I could write a song about it. Counting moons. Wishing on stars. Thinking you see a facehis face from a distance. Hurrying toward it, only to feel like a fool in a desert grasping at a mirage." The letter, protruding from her pocket, slipped out when she bent over to pick up Penelope. The dog's nails, no longer Butterfly Red, were the color of orange blossom honey. Penelope licked Bridie's face as she picked up the letter, placed it on the coffee table, still caught up in the rhapsody of a drifter named Frank.
"His piano, Penelopewhat do you think of that?" She kissed the dog, sat down again, began fiddling with the small barrettes clasping bits of fur on top of Penelope's head. "He was like a big baby when we met. He'd broken his arm and it was just my luck to be the admitting nurse in the emergency room that night. 'Take me home with you, Bridie,' he pleaded. 'I'll sleep on the couch.' It was crazy, and I knew it, but I had a soft spotin a manner of speakingfor a man named Frank who would not stop crooning Scottish folk songs until I relented." A smile, fleeting, swept across her lips. "I washed his hair for a month. Then came the pianohis piano, though he needed me to pay the shipping fee straight from his home in Glasgow. Now you've got the end of it all, and the beginning. What more could possibly interest you?" Daisy and Rosie were now begging for food or attention or both, I could not tell. Bridie lifted Penelope from her lap, went to the kitchen and opened three cans of dog food, parceled out into three small bowls. She was humming as she fed them. Scottish folk tunes, I figured. "People don't get names for no reason," she called out to me. "If you think about it, it's all we really have to hold on to. A name. Frank certainly earned his, in the end."
The letter, face down on the coffee table, tempted me to flip it right side up. Embossed, raised letters in the upper left hand corner were easy to read: McKenna and Goldman, attorneys at law. I tried piecing it all togetherthe shaking, the memories washed ashore in a sea of moons once counted, now set to rest in a flat wintry landscape. I figured he'd contracted the services of a law firm to help claim the piano. His piano. I figured that seeing his namethe frankness of ittucked between the prepositions of legalese, pinched her nerves raw, unsealing that dark space between what was and what would never be. Nothing, I would soon learn, could have been further from the truth.
"Surprise," said Peter. He'd been visiting his sister, came knocking on my door. In his hand was a box wrapped in brown paper and tied with ribbon. For me. He kissed me, before letting me open the present. On my cheek. On my neck. On the bony part of my shoulder. I unbuttoned his work shirt, blue chambray, kissed his chest. Pressed him against the wall, the unfinished one. He put his hands around my face, kissed my mouth. I pressed into him, rolling in a wave of kisses, drifting in a sea of pure passion, no thoughts of pleasing, of being pleased. His lips were thick, full, soft, his body hard and smooth, sliding against mine like sweet wet soap.
The phone rang just when we finished making love. It was Jeremy. He wanted to come over, to see me. He needed to talk. "Not now," I said. "How about later?" he asked. I looked at Peter, lying naked on my bed, eyes closed. He was smiling. His hand was on my thigh. "I can't talk now," I said to Jeremy. "Are you with your mountain man?" His tone was sarcastic. He knew I was seeing a carpenter. I hung up. Rolled over onto Peter. Kissed his ear. Licked his eyes. No thoughts of pleasing, the way it was so much of the time with Jeremy. Or of being pleased. Peter kissed my face, his lips and tongue swirling across me like musical notes. I ran my fingers along the small of his back, up and down, up and down, in the pitch and roll of unmeasured waves.
"Peter . . ." I started to talk, cried instead, I didn't know why. He held me close, joked about this effect he had on women, making them cry. I had never cried after making love. I jumped up, reached over for the present he'd brought, still unopened. I shook it. Something jingled. I imagined a trinket, maybe a necklace or a bracelet of silver charms.
"Is this some kind of joke?" I tore off the wrapping, uncovered a box of nails.
"I thought I'd help youyou know, hang a few things." He kissed my head. I pulled away. "It's what I do well."
I looked around the room, walls still unmarred by nails, still infused with a sense of possibility. And mutability. I had taken to lining up my framed photos and artwork along the floor, moving them around to suit my mood, or for a simple change in perspective. Among the mostly black and white images was one watercolor, an abstract rendering in blues and earth tones painted by Vicky, and a Japanese woodblock print of a woman looking into a waterfall.
"It's not your place, Je" I started to call him Jeremy, it almost slipped out, rolled off my tongue. This tongue that had just scaled the surfaces of new love, raw love, love made sweet to the bone, untamed, untimed, caught from the air like grace notes. He missed the slip, still caught up in what he thought he did well. "It's not your place," I said. I was not being rhetorical.
"What is my place?" He smiled, ran his finger up and down my thigh, started kissing me. Again. He was one step ahead of me, for now. He was not Jeremy. I pulled away, for a moment. "Someone might get hurt," I said, taking the box of nails from the bed and placing them on a shelf in the closet.
It was around this time that Bridie disappeared for five days. Neither Lynda nor Jane seemed terribly concerned.
"She does this from time to time," said Lynda. "Goes off to a friend who has a house upstate. I don't ask her questions. She doesn't offer any information." The three of us were in the lobby. The mail had just been delivered.
"You don't think this is a little strange?" I asked, "Just taking off without a word?"
Jane was flipping through her mail, looking for letters of acceptance to poetry journals. The rejection letters were piling up. "There's a very private side to Bridie, in case you hadn't noticed."
"I still think it's strange." I stuck my hand into my mailbox, stuffed with bills, junk promotions, magazines. Tucked between them was a letter from Vicky, who was living in a small town outside of Guadalajara. She'd been there for three months. Her letter was a plea for me to come and join her. She always addressed me by a different name when she wrote. Today I was Praxilla, a Greek poet.
Later that night there was a knock on my door. From Bridie. She looked tired, haggard.
Now that you've broken up with that dork who shall remain nameless and whom I never thought worthy of you, you have no excuse. Come down and spend a few months (maybe a lifetime) here. You're not exactly on a fast track career, moving from book publishing secretary to PR firm research assistant to motivation expert in training (what exactly is that?) in a year's time. Forgive me if I seem harshI'm just desperate to see that glowing face of yours. Besides, it wasn't for nothing that we pricked our Briar Rose fingers in high school and rubbed them together, swearing to be blood sisters forever. I'm not going to tell you much more about my life down here, except that it never fails to amaze how the very littlest things in life manage to fill the biggest gaps in existence. Put that into your hatful of motivational expertise.
"May I come in?"
I was supposed to be meeting Jeremy at a restaurant in fifteen minutes. He needed to talk.
"You're going someplace," she said. Her voice was dull, filled with grief.
I nodded, nudged her in. Jeremy could wait.
"Daisy's gone," she said. "Oh, the sweet thing died in her sleep. I took her to a friend's farm upstate to bury her."
The grief was thick, oozing. Could this all be about a dog?
"I don't know how long Rosie will last now, without her." She rubbed her hands together, began picking at her fingernails. I'd seen her do this before. Cleaning them methodically, one by one, with single-minded attention, all the while talking about what a good life Daisy had. She'd found her on the street, where someone had left her. "Skin and bones. A frightened little thing. I'd only planned to clean her up, then find a home, since I already had a dog. But Rosieshe just wouldn't leave Daisy alone. Licking her all the timenever leaving her side. I think it would have broken her heart if I'd let Daisy go. Stray dogs have a way of insinuating themselves into your lifedo you know what I mean?"
I looked at my watch. Twenty minutes had passed. "You're very kind," said Bridie, straining a smile and patting my hand, "but I don't want to keep you."
Jeremy had already consumed two glasses of vodka when I arrived, late, at the Copper Hatch, a jazz bar we both liked. I apologized. He got right to the point.
"I want you to marry me," he said, reaching for my hand. "I've given this a lot of thought. There's nobody like younobody understands my rhythms the way you do. No woman makes me feel the way you do."
I was silent, said I needed a drink. Roberta Flack popped into my head.
Where is the love . . .?
"Maybe it's need, maybe it's love, I don't know what to call it. I just can't live without you."
I gulped down two shots of tequila in succession, stared into Jeremy's pleading eyes, felt something akin to love or affection, I didn't know what to call it. "I'm not ready" was all I could say. It seemed the kindest thing to say.
This was not how Jeremy apparently thought our meeting would go. "It's that mountain man of yoursisn't it?"
"Maybe." It seemed the most diplomatic thing to say.
"It won't last," he said. "These hot flings never do. And I may not be around when you do find yourself ready." He gave a strong syllabic accent to the last word he spoke before asking for the check and getting up to leave.
Buzzed on tequila, I remained sitting at the bar, sipping a margarita now, trying to pull one distinct sound from the rattle of voices surrounding me.
Marry me. The words had an echo, the kind that spins around and around in an empty barrel instead of reverberating across a mountaintop. Where were the sweet somethings, the soft caressing tone that could havemight haveturned the object of desire into the subject? I want you to marry me is a far cry from I want to marry you. Or was that just too subtle for Jeremy, a man who (not whom) I could not say I did not love. A little.
"Punch me," said a voice behind me. I turned to see a man, black leather jacket open to reveal a black muscle shirt. He was pointing to his abdomen, talking to a woman holding a glass of white wine. "Go on and punch me." He glanced my way. "Rippled as a washboard and hard as nails."
A woman next to me tapped a pack of Lucky Strikes against the bar, pulled out a cigarette, lit up. Her hair, frosted blonde, brushed against her rough cheek, the color of potato skins. She was wearing a beret, and her fingernails, ultra long, Luscious Grape, were tipped with white swirls. "You gonna marry him?" she asked, taking a drag.
The trio was starting to play its first set. Something familiar said the sax man. A Night in Tunisia.
"He's lonely," I said. "I know him too well." It all started spilling out. The five years, on-again/off-again, the year-and-a-half of unwedded almost bliss that culminated in a point of no direction. A state of inertia was the only way I could explain what had driven me from Jeremy, whom I could not say I did not love. In a way. In a manner of speaking.
"Some people jump into the fire," she said. "Others dance around it till it burns itself out. MeI'm in that first group. Couldn't live my life any other way, girl, and I got my burns to show it." She leaned her elbow on the bar. Creamy white eyeshadow highlighted her eyelids, defined by thick mascara and a brush-thin arc of black liner along her lashes. "And still others" she stared at me, through me" fool themselves into thinking they're dancing in the wind, flying freely through the trees, when all they're really doing is grabbing for the next available branch. Can't really call that choice, girl, can you? It's more like drifting, if you ask me. Or weighing options. Where's the choice in thatthe true, from-the-heart, from-the-gut choice?"
She got up, left me drifting in an improvisation, dangling on a branch held in the wind by the gritty notes of a tenor saxophone. Dance around the fire with Jeremy, say good-bye to Peter. Jump into the flames with Peter, risk losing Jeremy forever. Guadalajara was looking better by the minute.
I was too inebriated, when I got home, to pay attention to the envelope that had been slipped under my door. I did notice it, in fact stepped on it, choosing to ignore what I figured was a bit of Jane's late night iambic yearnings. Had I not been in that state of self-indulgence, I might have saved a life, though when I'm feeling less guilty I tell myself she planned this well. Too well. She was a nurse. She knew just the right dosage to make it all end. Swiftly.
It was the sound of one dog barking, incessantly, that alerted me the next morning. Why did I not notice it last nightthe barking of one dog, incessantly? Why did I not read the letter last night?
The letter, I kept thinking about the letter that had her shaking and seemed to set in motion this horrible turn of events. It was sitting on the dresser in her bedroom where I'd found her, shook her, screamed at her.
People will talk. They'll say I was a dotty old woman. If only life were that simple. If only seemingly rash acts could be explained away as the inevitable choices of dotty old women.
Rosie has been moping around, doing nasty things in the apartment since Daisy died. She's old. She can't control herself. It was time for her to go. And for me.
In the end, our names are really all we have. I've spent the last eight years trying to clear my name, sullied by an act for which I was really not responsible. There were three nurses on duty that night in the neonatal unit. Only one of us had long fingernails. I suggested that long fingernails were unsuitable for the handling of such tiny, tender things, and she laughed. When the Palmer baby died, nobody made any connection at firsthe was six pounds, his lungs barely functioninguntil pseudomonas aeruginosa spread its ugly net. Only one of us, really, could have harbored the bacteria under her fingernails. All three of us were implicated.
Hopefully you will not have found me until you've read this letter and have had a chance to absorb the shock. I hope you won't take it too hard. It really was time for me to go.
I hope, too, that you'll honor my wishestake care of Penelope; she'll be a good friend to you. Also, the piano is yours. I've informed my attorney that it's the only possession I care about willing to someone.
And don't ever underestimate the power of your kindness. You are not the 'tough as nails' young woman you try to pretend you are.
Until we meet again in a place beyond, I remain,
Dear Miss Highsmith,
Bridie had scribbled something, in a wobbly hand, across the bottom. What about my name?
This is to inform you that the Retired Nurses' Association absolutely refuses to hear your case again. They remind you, for the record, that you agreed to retire in light of the circumstances you were faced with. Technically, you were never held responsible for the death in question. While it's true that they never gave you a placement after the incident in question, you have been compensated over the years in a manner commensurate with your years of duty.
I trust this puts the matter to rest.
Harold McKenna, Esq.
There was a newspaper clipping, as well, on the dresser.
Bacteria and Long Nails Linked to Baby's Death
She'd highlighted the word long.
Bacteria beneath the long fingernails of nurses have been linked to the deaths of babies in an intensive care unit in a hospital . . .
"Nice piano," said Lynda, brushing her hand along its surface. "It completes this roomtakes the place of the unfinished wall." She sat down, played an octave. "I'll have it tuned for you, and Maria will treat it well." Maria was a student of hers (now a girlfriend) who would be subletting my apartment while I took off for places south of the border. With Penelope. My plan (my choice) was to go by bus, until Peter offered to drive me as far as South Carolina, where he was headed to help an old buddy build a house. I weighed my options: thirty-six hours on a Greyhound with Penelope on my lap, her Screaming Pink nails digging into my jeans; or however long it would take Peter to get to where he was going in his green Camaro. "I'm in no hurry," he said. "We can stop wherever, whenever, we want. Catch a few nights of carnal sin in sleepy motels. Drift in and out of towns with funny little names."
The choice, he said, pinning a kiss on my cheek, would be mine.
Deborah Batterman's work has appeared in Many Mountains Moving, Stray Dog, Sistersong, Palo Alto Review, REACT Magazine , The MacGuffin, The Westchester County Times, and Dunes Review. Online journals featuring her stories include The Alsop Review, Octavo, and Standards: The International Journal of Multicultural Studies. She was a semifinalist in the New Millennium Writings Awards VII contest and has completed a novel and a short story collection. An essay of hers appears in Surviving Ophelia (Perseus Publishing).