Authors: Charlotte Silver
rofessor Sobel asked to see the wine list. It was April in New York and he and Cassandra were having lunch together at a French restaurant.
“Champagne, it seems to me,” said Professor Sobel, scanning the menu. Cassandra had no opportunity to scan it herself. This was not so casual or collaborative a lunch as that. Professor Sobel was paying, and as such, in charge, which was the way both of them liked it.
The French restaurant was one of those that have a storied past but are seldom spoken of in these days of competitive dining and celebrity chefs. It was even in midtown, on a rather dowdy stretch in the East Fifties, a neighborhood in which Sylvie, for one, would not be caught dead. But Cassandra would be, and Professor Sobel knew this, just as he knew that she would think that an invitation to an illicit lunch was much more chic than dinner.
He ordered two glasses of champagne. After the waiter left, he dropped his voice to a whisper and said to Cassandra: “Ordering wine always reminds me of a favorite joke of mine. Oh, you might remember from my classes what a weakness I have for telling the occasional bad joke. So. A man walks into a bar. One woman says to another: ‘Hey! Check out the size of the wallet on that guy.’ ”
Cassandra laughed, and then looked down at her menu.
“Cheese soufflé,” she said immediately. It cost twenty-five dollars
Just wait till she told Sylvie. Sylvie wouldn’t approve, because when a man was paying, you ought to make the most of it and order meat—the ideal outcome of any date in Sylvie’s view being not getting laid but getting to tuck into a big rare steak. For otherwise she lived on bloodless, spinsterish things like Wasa crisps, lentil soup, carrots, and raisins.
But to the more romantic Cassandra, the pleasure of being in the moment was the goal; and cheese soufflé, a delightfully old-fashioned dish, straight out of the pages of Julia Child and not much seen on menus anymore, seemed to her exactly
thing to order at a French restaurant on a spring afternoon. The elegance of her selection was not lost on Professor Sobel, who, being an old fogey himself, went with frogs’ legs Provençale.
Cassandra made a note of this, thinking that there
something slippery and sinister, rather like frogs’ legs, about Professor Sobel. Professor Sobel’s energy was very masculine but, at the same time, subtle: an unusual combination. Surely a more obvious man would have ordered the filet mignon. But there was nothing transparent about Professor Sobel, nothing stable. A deep ocean, Cassandra thought with approval, not a shallow pond.
Cassandra had just turned twenty-eight years old and was now officially living in New York City. That February, she had seen Professor Sobel for the first time since graduating from Bennington. The two of them had locked eyes with each other during intermission at this concert she was attending with her new boyfriend, Edward Escot. Cassandra had been introduced to Edward at a dinner party the year she was twenty-seven, about six months after the fallout of a broken engagement to her first boyfriend. She and Edward had been together for nearly a year when she decided to move to New York, to get closer to him. Edward was a Harvard man and he and Cassandra did grown-up things together like go to chamber music concerts at Bargemusic. The program that night was called “The Complete Bach Cello Suites Part I.”
Professor Sobel thought that Cassandra, who, back at Bennington, had been a pet of his because she was one of the handful of students there who actually could write a cogent analytical paper, was looking very fetching and that being on the arm of a man, as is so often the way with a woman, much enhanced her appearance. He found her far more lovely and poised than she had been at college. She had on big turquoise beads and a décolleté black dress. Great tits, he thought, and went up to her to reintroduce himself.
The boyfriend obviously wasn’t a Bennington boy. For one thing, he was wearing a blue blazer, and for another, he had a firm handshake. He might, almost, be a figure to be reckoned with as competition. But, no, Professor Sobel reminded himself. It won’t matter if she has a boyfriend. Bennington girls are easy.
During intermission, they drank gin and exchanged e-mail addresses. And come April, that stirring season of young love that can make a smoky, disheveled man with a tall, once lean frame so nostalgic, he sent her an e-mail headed “Henry James in Manhattan,” because he happened to recall a conversation at Bennington in which Cassandra had said he was her favorite author.
May I take you to lunch sometime? I believe the Classical cuisine is French, and I know what a Classicist you are, as am I.
Solomon, thought Cassandra to herself. It would be sexy to get the opportunity to call a man Solomon in bed.
Sylvie had been at home while Cassandra was getting dressed to meet Professor Sobel earlier that afternoon.
“Liquid eyeliner? Really, Cassandra? Remember, he’s an asshole!”
Sylvie had never forgiven Professor Sobel for the nasty comments he’d scrawled across a paper on Wagner she’d knocked off while thoroughly stoned.
But Cassandra continued applying the liquid eyeliner in a smooth, feline swoop, then added an extra coat of mascara. She also put on perfume before leaving the apartment, something she didn’t usually do during the daytime; and when Professor Sobel kissed the palm of her hand at the restaurant, she couldn’t help but notice him drinking the scent of it in.
When the champagne arrived, he raised his glass and, searching for something or other to celebrate, came up with: “Fancy us both loving Bach so much…and meeting again.”
The champagne went to Cassandra’s head and suddenly she felt very happy. The waiter had told her to allow extra time for the cheese soufflé, and this news, which might have been an inconvenience to some people, was to her just another sign of a most pleasant decadence: she thought how nice to be living in New York and not Cambridge, and to have time to enjoy a long lunch on a weekday afternoon.
Evidently, the champagne was going to Professor Sobel’s head, too—he was now on his second glass—because he was murmuring across the table, “Cassandra, Cassandra…” He loved her name, too, as it happened; he found it lushly dramatic, and the chord of doom it struck, going all the way back to the ancient Greeks, very much to his taste for tragedy. “We ought to go to Germany.”
“Yeah, ever been?”
“Well. See. We ought to go one of these days. We ought to go together.”
Cassandra blushed; Professor Sobel noticed the deepening, thrilling pink roses in her cheeks. Still blushing, she admitted, “Well. I do have German heritage, you know.”
“You would. Is that where you get your exquisite sense of
“That’s a French word.”
“So it is. But you’re a Francophile, aren’t you? So. I’m onto something.
…The point is, both of these cultures have a fine sense of the tragic. They’re not—Caribbean! Would you ever want to go on a Caribbean vacation, Cassandra? No? I didn’t think so. Neither would I.”
Their food arrived with a soothing, old-world flourish, Cassandra’s cheese soufflé, Professor Sobel’s frogs’ legs Provençale. Deftly Professor Sobel’s lips slid the skin off one of those legs, savoring it with what was to Cassandra an exciting, nearly narcotic degree of focus.
He said: “Me, I only like the great civilizations of Western culture. Berlin, Rome, Vienna…”
Then he talked for a while of his fantasy of sweeping her off to the Glyndebourne opera festival in England, describing all of the details he thought a girl whose favorite author was Henry James would lap right up, from the perfectly cold salmon they served to the white gloves the waiters wore. That she expected to be swept into bed with him as well was not in question. She was attracted to older men, always had been.
“Oh, it sounds absolutely like paradise!”
Paradise, thought Professor Sobel, stopping to ravish the last of his frogs’ legs. It was to him a striking word. Suddenly, even though here he was drinking champagne with a very attractive and delightful former student in the middle of a spring afternoon, he felt this wash of Wagnerian sorrow come over him. The last several years had been unkind to Professor Sobel. It all started with Penelope Entenmann getting pregnant. She had gone off the birth control pill without telling him because she wanted her body to feel more “natural.” This was right around the time when her friends started to notice that she was going round the bend in general, sitting for long spells at the edge of the brook while claiming to be giving Reiki to butterflies. The president had found out about the affair and sacked him. Changing times, thought the professor, and not for the better…
Worse, just as Gala Gubelman had reported to her cohorts on the nude beach of Martha’s Vineyard way back when, Penelope had insisted on
having the baby.
Going so far as to give birth to it on a beach in Hawaii, with another Bennington girl, trained as a midwife, helping. Then she’d had the audacity to name his child—his firstborn son!—Prajeetha, which means “precious gift” in Sanskrit. If he’d had no interest in the baby before that, after that he really didn’t.
Nevertheless, Penelope, though she tried not to let on, was the heiress to the Entenmann’s coffee-cake fortune. If you were going to knock up a Bennington girl, it was only common sense to knock up one who had a trust fund.
He then realized that Cassandra wasn’t one of the Bennington girls with a trust fund. Culture and taste, he thought, recalling the pretty, touching sight of her in that décolleté black dress at the Bach concert, but no trust fund. Suddenly it came back to him that her father was dead, a misfortune that was entirely to his advantage. Professor Sobel murmured: “Paradise, paradise…I suppose that paradise for me was the Secret Garden at Bennington. I used to call it ‘the little college on the hill where nothing bad ever happens.’ So you see, childhood is ending all the time.”
“Remember how the head of psych services at Bennington had this poster on the door of her office that said ‘It’s never too late to have a happy childhood’? Do you think that’s true?”
“Bullshit! I think one often finds that it’s too late for a hell of a lot of things.”
Afterward he was smoking a cigarette outside when, feeling emboldened by his old friend nicotine, he kissed Cassandra’s hand again. She wondered if he could still make out her perfume—if after their lengthy lunch any of its flirtatious essence remained.
Suddenly, she thought of something she hadn’t thought about in years. Maybe it was just because it was the month of April; maybe it was just the gentle lull of the weather and being in the company of one of her old professors that carried her back to her college days. It was almost as if, standing there on the streets of New York City, she could sniff the lilacs of Vermont.
“Do you ever think of the dancers?”
“The modern dancers. The girls who died, falling through the window. It happened the spring of my senior year. Chelsea Hayden-Smith and Beverly Tinker-Jones.”
“Terrible, a thing like that,” he muttered, shaking his shaggy old head. “Terrible, terrible, terrible.”
“She was in your class. Your class on Stravinsky.”
“Chelsea. Don’t you remember her? She had these amazing curly long lashes. She was just so incredibly beautiful.”
But Professor Sobel thought the same thing Sylvie did. All of the modern dancers at Bennington were so incredibly beautiful that after a while they all just blended together.
“No,” he told Cassandra, “I don’t remember her. I don’t remember her at all.”
ylvie babysat every afternoon. That was what she was doing to make a living now: babysitting. Over the course of the last year, she had built up her own business among the wealthy families gobbling up the beautiful, tarnished old brownstones of Fort Greene, positioning herself perfectly to swoop in and make a winning impression on their children. And she did—make a winning impression. None of these parents ever suspected that beneath the sparkling brown eyes, smooth white skin, and upright, can-do carriage of this delightful young woman, the wheels, the wheels were turning. For instance, this one time while the girls were standing in line at the dry cleaner’s, Sylvie struck up a conversation with a Russian woman and her toddler. The toddler took an immediate shining to Sylvie. The mother then asked her if she would be available to babysit, adding that she was hoping to find somebody who was bilingual in English and Russian. Was there any chance that Sylvie spoke Russian? she wanted to know.
Sylvie faltered and said: “Oh, that’s so too bad! Because I am fluent in Italian and French, actually, but my Russian is kind of middling.” In fact, Sylvie’s Italian and French were kind of middling and her Russian nonexistent, but no matter; she managed to imply, thanks to the gentle, apologetic dip in her voice, that the loss was all the woman’s own.
Afterward, Cassandra chided her: “Oh my God, Sylvie, I can’t believe that you admitted that.”
“Well, that you weren’t fluent in Russian. I mean, I thought for sure you would just pretend and then somehow get away with it.”
“Goddamn it! You’re right, Cassandra. I
could have just pretended I spoke Russian and gotten away with it!”
“You’re normally so much quicker on your feet than that, Sylvie,” said Cassandra admiringly.
Sylvie now relished the sway she held over these unsuspecting families of Fort Greene; a good nanny, much like a good man, is hard to find, and Sylvie was a good nanny. Children thought so, and children would know. Also, how egotistically gratifying was this turn of events, when for the better part of the last two years—commencing with the great economic collapse of the year 2008—Sylvie had been unemployed after being let go from her day job at the fashion agency in the meatpacking district and had fallen so behind on her rent that even so spineless a character as Pete the landlord, who was supposed to be a hippie for God’s sake, had been compelled to threaten her with eviction. (Sylvie, on coming home one day and discovering that she had been served with eviction papers, merely crumpled them up and hoped that this, too, would pass. It did.) The couple of jobs she did find during this desperate time lasted only briefly and were either corporate and in midtown and the only place to eat lunch was Chipotle, a fate that the girls agreed obviously was not to be endured, or else they were sketchy and out of people’s home offices in Brooklyn and the exact nature of one’s payment was not to be discussed.
“What is being unemployed like?” Cassandra had wanted to know in that tone of radiant curiosity that people always use when inquiring about the misfortunes of others.
“It’s like this. When you are unemployed, every twenty-four hours will feel like seventy-two.”
“Wow,” said Cassandra, who would not have any reason to recall this particular insight of Sylvie’s until some time later when she was in similar circumstances herself.