Authors: Charlotte Silver
fter having lunch with Professor Sobel, Cassandra got off the train to go meet Sylvie and some of her charges at a playground. Today she was watching a brother and sister named Quinn and Imogen. Part of the fun of having Sylvie babysit was that there was plenty of juicy human material in it: she and Cassandra loved discussing the kids and what problems they were doomed to have when they grew up. In the case of these two children—Quinn was four and Imogen seven—the verdict was in: Quinn was homosexual and Imogen a bitch.
Quinn, it went without saying, the girls liked much better. He was a beautiful child with long, pale yellow ringlets and a face that, no matter what the situation, never dared convey any emotion beyond a wan, sulky boredom; Cassandra could well picture those sour lips smoking a Gauloises. His parents dressed him well, as was only the norm with four-year-olds in Brooklyn. How poignant his shoulders looked underneath his thin, hipsterish T-shirts; at this rate, he’d be wearing oversize glasses in no time. Quinn adored Sylvie, as children usually did, drawn to her physical energy and her noncondescending candor. The two of them did art projects, Quinn exquisitely sensitive to the colors he used in his watercolors. Like Sylvie, he gravitated toward a soft, sophisticated palette—pale blues and mushroom grays. No primaries! Ever. Primary colors were for other children with lesser taste.
Today, Sylvie and Quinn were sitting together, doing pastel chalk drawings on the pavement. Cassandra, seeing them, thought: Oh God, am I going to have to sit
on the ground
? This babysitting business sometimes got a little too rugged for her, even as a spectator. She looked down at her shapely navy blue dress—much more chic than black on a spring afternoon—worn to show off her figure to Professor Sobel. It was going to be difficult to kneel in that dress without the fabric tugging.
Quinn, seeing Sylvie’s friend coming, the blonde with the big boobs and the name he couldn’t be bothered to remember, thought: Oh no. She was going to spoil everything; she was going to take Sylvie away from him. And Sylvie was
babysitter. Sylvie was getting
. Sylvie had to watch him and Imogen for
, which his parents had plenty of and Sylvie did not. Already, he and Imogen had these things all figured out; they were New York children and they knew the score.
“Hello, Quinn,” said Cassandra, with the phony voice she always used when speaking to children. The girls didn’t know this, but Imogen, who was an excellent mimic, did a fantastic imitation of Cassandra behind her back, saying:
Hello, Quinn. Hello, Imogen. How are you?
The syrupy emphasis Imogen placed on that last word,
, was lethal. Whenever she imitated Cassandra, she could count on putting Quinn in stitches. She never did it in front of her parents, though. Her parents were such fools, they liked Cassandra; they actually fell for that voice the way no child ever would. Parents just thought she had good manners.
“Hello, Quinn,” said Cassandra again, having failed to get even a perfunctory response the first time around. “How are
? Oh, and what are you doing? Drawing? Oh, I just love pastels, I remember those.”
Now this was another annoying habit of Cassandra’s around children: she was always waxing nostalgic around them. Every banal detail—a stick of pink chalk, a child’s green galoshes—could send her, madeleine-like, into a frenzy of reminiscences. Whenever Cassandra began a sentence with the words “I remember,” it meant the death of the conversation in the eyes of any child. What did
care about some chick’s old party dress, or forgotten birthday cake? They did not care, for they had not yet learned what Cassandra had at far too young an age—that all could be lost; that these banal details would be remembered with an aching heart forever afterward.
There are beautiful children and then there are beautiful children. Imogen belonged to the latter category. She had the kind of silky blond femininity, combined with a straight-backed confident carriage, that marked her already as the prettiest girl in the class. Even Sylvie was intimidated by the directness of her arctic blue gaze and had decided against telling her parents about the girl’s breathtaking tantrums. Like so many parents today, they considered their child flawless and would have considered the tantrums to be Sylvie’s fault.
Right now, Imogen was in the midst of practicing cartwheels, or perhaps
is not the word, for Imogen’s cartwheeling technique had long since been perfected. Her long legs spun in gorgeous circles. She was demonstrating for some other hapless little girl, who was rather on the chubby side and did not seem to get it. “Like this,” Imogen kept on insisting, bouncing up and down on the balls of her little blue Keds—Keds were an “in” sneaker this season, in Brooklyn, edging out even Converse. “Like
” And then she’d do another cartwheel.
“Clap for me, Sylvie! Clap for me!” she called once she was finished. “Why aren’t you clapping?”
“I’m clapping, Imogen,” said Sylvie with great weariness, and then she did just that. Cassandra joined her, a little too late, which Imogen noticed, thinking:
I hate Cassandra.
Like her brother, she thought it was obnoxious that Sylvie let a friend of hers tag along when she should have been paying attention to them.
Cassandra was looking at Imogen doing cartwheels and, as usual, making it all about her. She had been quite hopeless not only at cartwheels but also at hand-clapping games and four square and…well, you name it. She sighed, remembering. It was true that childhood was a kingdom of many lost pleasures. But it was also a kingdom populated by other children, and other children could be so cruel. Maybe there was something to be said for surviving into adulthood after all.
Then Imogen, finally sick of doing cartwheels and hoping that Sylvie would cook up something exciting for her to do, threw her arms up in the air and ran toward the two young women. She braced herself for the inevitable, Cassandra saying: “Hello, Imogen. And how are you?”
“Why is your face so red?” demanded Imogen. She had cool, soap-flake coloring herself and already wondered what was the matter with the skin of so many grown-ups, when hers was so perfect.
Cassandra, whose naturally rosy skin
red from all of the champagne, put a demure hand to her burning cheek. God, she hated this kid.
No wonder Sylvie was so bone-tired these days, having to put up with her.
“Actually…” said Sylvie, addressing Cassandra, “I was wondering that myself. Are you…?”
“Drunk? Well. Tipsy anyway.”
Imogen’s ears pricked up at the word
was getting interesting. One thing she did kind of like about Cassandra: once she got the phony
s out of the way, she often forgot that children were there in the first place and started letting all kinds of adult tidbits drop. At times like that Cassandra was worth paying attention to, or you might miss out on something good. Imogen’s parents were careful never to say things like “drunk” in front of the children and that kind of attitude got pretty damn boring after a while.
Quinn couldn’t be bothered to pay attention to any of this. He was deep in his drawing, massaging various tender shades of blue into the pavement, quite pleased with the results.
“Oh, Cassandra!” exclaimed Sylvie. “Don’t tell me that you and Professor Sobel…”
Aha! thought Imogen, picking up on the words
, almost as compelling and forbidden as
. So there was a man involved. This was going to be great.
“No, no! Professor Sobel is very subtle. He thinks it’s sexy to prolong things, I have this feeling.”
Imogen, having no idea just what it was this Professor Sobel fellow might want to prolong, listened to the two women hungrily.
“Subtle! Subtle! Is that what you call it? This, about the man who once did a baboon impression in front of you? Sitting on top of his desk in the music building? Do you remember that, Cassandra, or have you blocked it out?”
Cassandra now took a moment to recall the time when Professor Sobel, wearing a black cashmere sweater pitted with moth holes, hoisted himself up on top of his desk and crossed his legs. She had watched as Professor Sobel, still sitting cross-legged on top of the desk, started beating his chest and waving his arms and making these queer, animalistic, broken, moaning sounds. That episode lasted a good long time and had an almost operatic quality about it. Once he had finally stopped, he had looked long and hard at her with the
I’ve got you
gaze of the animal kingdom, and explained, “Every so often, a man just has to get in touch with his inner primate.”
Afterward, he’d sighed and put on a Beethoven string quartet and the two of them had never discussed the incident ever again.
“Oh that,” said Cassandra now. “Well, there is something kind of animalistic about the attraction between Professor Sobel and me—I’ve always felt that Professor Sobel has just a touch of this very male dominance and cruelty, combined with this veneer of verbal sophistication…”
All this was lost on Imogen, but she did think a grown man doing a baboon imitation sounded pretty cool. She loved imitations, being so good at them herself.
“If that’s a fantasy you have, you’d best be rid of it.”
“Oh, but I agree! By acting it out, right?”
“No, Cassandra, that is not what I—” Jesus. Sylvie stopped, realizing that she often found herself speaking to Cassandra in the same tone of voice she used on Quinn and Imogen. Quinn and Imogen! They were right there. They had heard everything, probably. She turned to the little girl and said: “Hey, Imogen, why don’t you show us your cartwheels again?”
There it was, staring her down, the fearless arctic blue gaze. No way Imogen was going anywhere. Oh, the hell with it, Sylvie thought, remembering her own wretched childhood. Kids always figured out what was up with the adults anyway.
So Sylvie turned to Cassandra and got to the point: “But Cassandra. You have a boyfriend, remember.”
“Oh, Sylvie, you’re being awfully—unimaginative about this. You know I’ve never necessarily believed in monogamy. I think there can be far worse betrayals between people than
Monogamy. Imogen didn’t know what that meant, but even so, she was with Cassandra on this one: that didn’t sound too hot. Monogamy. It sounded like being forced to do something boring, like going to bed on time. Like something her stupid parents would believe in.
“Infidelity can hurt people, Cassandra.”
“Everything can hurt people,” Cassandra shot back, and Imogen, thinking, Well then, grown-ups must be wimps, because nothing ever hurt
, sighed and went back to doing her cartwheels.
assandra’s boyfriend, Edward, lived in Philadelphia. When she first met him, she was still living in Boston, and for many months now, they had been having a glamorous long-distance love affair, featuring classical music concerts, regattas, why, even corsages and bouquets of long-stemmed white roses, which Edward was bold enough to send, from time to time, to Cassandra’s office. They also attended, the previous November, the storied Harvard-Yale game. Cassandra met Edward on the train platform in New Haven, just, as she related to Sylvie over the phone, “like something out of
Franny and Zooey
“Hey, wait a minute. Didn’t Franny go
after the weekend of the Harvard-Yale game?”
“Oh, Sylvie, Sylvie, must you be so
“Yes, actually,” said Sylvie, and laughed. “If experience has taught me anything, yes.”
There is no good time, really, for one’s friend to get a new boyfriend, unless you happen to have one yourself. And Sylvie didn’t, at the moment. She hadn’t been in love or had a torturous crush, even, in quite some time. Torturous crushes were fun; she missed them. Just recently Gala Gubelman, who, while she was on her computer at work, loved to stalk other people’s exes online, had discovered that Ludo Citron was now dating a washed-up nineties movie star who had her own clothing line of ungainly separates sold at Opening Ceremony and had expected Sylvie to be jealous. But she wasn’t—she only felt a remoteness from that part of her past. The days when she had been involved with guys like Ludo seemed a long, long time ago. The idea that she could have been attracted to an artist was preposterous to her now. Sylvie had come a long way since college, and she no longer believed in art. It wasn’t sacred anymore. Nothing was. Money, maybe. Yes, money to Sylvie was starting to feel sacred.
As for Edward, he was an academic and handsome in a rather stiff, professorial style. He was several years older than Cassandra—in his thirties already—but Sylvie, upon hearing Cassandra’s description of him, said, “Wait, wait, wait, I think I get the picture. He’s a guy of our generation, but he has more in common with someone who’s sixty?”
“Yes!” exclaimed Cassandra, not in the least insulted. She just had that sweet, cozy feeling she got—that rush of serotonin—whenever Sylvie immediately understood what she was saying.
Meanwhile, now that she was finally living in New York, Cassandra figured that living with Sylvie would be only temporary. The plan was that she would stay there for the summer, then move to Philadelphia, once Edward proposed. Being the old-fashioned type, he didn’t want them to live together before marriage. Sylvie disagreed with Cassandra’s plan. Sylvie thought that Cassandra should move to New York City for good.
“And live with you?”
At the back of Cassandra’s mind was the thought of the security deposit that she had given Sylvie so many years ago now: she didn’t expect to get it back but she did think that there would be a kind of justice—good karma accrued—in getting to move into the apartment for a while.
Sylvie murmured her assent on the other end of the line, preoccupied with the evening ritual of rolling a joint.
“That would be nice,” Cassandra said. “That would be great!”
“Well, why not? We’ve always wanted to live together, and we haven’t, have we? Ever since college, I mean.”
“Is there anything you need?” Cassandra asked her, eager to appear to not be a mooch. Sylvie was sensitive about people being mooches, she knew. She was swift to complain if roommates used her shaving cream or if they preferred to get takeout at the soul food joint down the street rather than split the groceries: Sylvie was always trying to save money by eating at home and, being the child of hippies, favored a healthy diet. That anybody should treat themselves to takeout, ever, was a personal affront to her values, particularly fatty, low-rent takeout. “And now the whole apartment smells like barbecued chicken wings!” she had thundered to Cassandra once, over the phone. I will be different, Cassandra vowed. I will be the ideal roommate. (There is no such person, in fact. They do not exist.) “I mean, is there anything you need for the apartment?”
Everything, Sylvie thought to herself. I need everything. She had a bare, ragtag collection of silverware and dishes, none of which matched. She
didn’t own a toaster. Or facecloths; she took her mascara off with paper towels at the end of the night. That is, assuming she had a roll of paper towels on hand in the apartment. Sometimes she didn’t. Paper towels are expensive, too. Everything is expensive, Sylvie had found. Even things, like paper towels, that in her considered opinion had no right to be.
“Well…I could use more cooking stuff,” she said carefully, thinking that cooking stuff was only the beginning. Cassandra was known by her friends to be generous and a soft touch with money, and Sylvie felt that she might be convinced to spring for just about anything.
“How about a Le Creuset pan? My mother gave me this really beautiful old Le Creuset pan. It’s kind of a mustard color, on the bottom. Would you use it?”
“All right then, I’ll bring it.”
“Can I ask you a question, Cassandra? It isn’t about the Le Creuset pan.”
Smoking pot had made Sylvie contemplative.
“It’s about Edward.”
“Do you like him?” asked Sylvie, because she wasn’t convinced, from the way Cassandra talked about him, that she did.
“Like? Like…Well, that depends. Do you think it’s possible to like a man
be in love with him?”
“Of course it is!” shrieked Sylvie, to whom even the suggestion of such a contradiction was outrageous.
“Hmm. I’m starting to wonder. The sex is much better, I think, without all of that just hanging out and trying to be best friends with each other stuff. Because I don’t think I like Edward all that much, actually, but I
in love with him. And he’s in love with me.”
“Oh, so does that mean he doesn’t like
The girls laughed.
Cassandra had this orange suitcase. Hermès orange, she called it. It was a very fancy suitcase and exactly the kind of thing that Sylvie, leading her threadbare twenty-something life, didn’t own. Cassandra first got that suitcase when she started dating Edward and it was the most potent symbol of her happiness. It was her vehicle out of the past and into the future—everything that the poor, discarded
coat had failed to symbolize to Cassandra, the orange suitcase did.
Another symbol of her happiness was that ever since meeting Edward she no longer stooped to taking the Fung Wah bus; those greasy, perilous days of her youth were over. The first time she visited him in Philadelphia, she had mentioned the possibility of taking it. With his detached academic’s eye, he had compared traveling by the Fung Wah to traveling by steerage class, not that he had ever taken the bus himself.
“But, Cassandra! The Fung Wah was good enough for you to take when you came to see
“But Sylvie, just imagine it…”
“Just imagine traveling by the Fung Wah to go see a
Remember that weekend when my hair smelled like chicken vindaloo?”
“Oh God! Well, now that you mention it. Or you could end up smelling like McDonald’s…”
“Pork fried rice…”
“One time I was on this bus they were
using to transport dried fish.”
“Yes, really! Did I ever tell you about this one time, we pulled off at that hideous bus stop in Connecticut, you know the one, the one with the McDonald’s. I was sitting up front that time. So the driver turns to me and says—
—apparently he actually could speak English when it suited him: “ ‘Hey, I’m going to take a smoke. Do you mind pumping gas?’ ”
“Oh my God! What did you
“I pumped the gas.”
“Cassandra! Think about it. What if I didn’t do it, and the guy took his smoke break and forgot or something? Would you have wanted to run out of gas on the highway?”
Cassandra thought that was like Sylvie all over—petite but indomitable, pumping gas on a lonesome stretch of Connecticut highway.
“See, Sylvie. I have to go see Edward by Amtrak.
I have to
. And taking the train is so nice! I always go to the club car and order myself a Scotch and soda and potato chips. It’s the perfect combination.”
Scotch, thought Sylvie. Drinking Scotch on the train. Cassandra really was living it up, these days.
She had left Boston on April 1. That day, it had been raining, but then, as she might well have remarked to Sylvie, it always seemed to be raining in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Cambridge was a melancholy town. She wheeled her orange suitcase across the streets of Harvard Square, a young blond woman in a trench coat making, she fancied, an
Umbrellas of Cherbourg
type exit. Oh, the songs she might have sung! The child, the young girl she used to be!
That night, Cassandra and her orange suitcase—as well as her monogrammed navy L.L.Bean Boat and Tote, at the bottom of which, weighing it down, was the wonderful old mustard-colored Le Creuset pan of her mother’s—traveled by Amtrak to Philadelphia. It rained, and rained. Good-bye Massachusetts, good-bye Rhode Island, good-bye Connecticut…Outside Cassandra’s window, the Connecticut shoreline was shrouded in gray. When the conductor announced that soon they would be at Penn Station, Cassandra rubbed sleep from her eyes and thought, Good-bye, New England.
She got in so late that Edward did not come meet her at the station, something that a woman who was not in love—the pragmatic Sylvie, for instance—might have recognized as a very bad sign. What it might have told her was that Edward did not understand what an immense night this was in her life. When she got out of the cab at his apartment, though, he apparently didn’t think it was too late to go upstairs and have vigorous sex right away.
But Cassandra just wasn’t into it, that night. She remembered how, in the days of more simple, drowsy lovemaking with her very first boyfriend, she used to doze in the crook of his long arm; something not necessarily sexual but soothing. Something more in that mode was what she wanted right now. She was going to have to remember all of this to tell Sylvie; they were both fascinated by how different sex was with different people, or even with the same person, depending on the way you were feeling. Sex is so
, Cassandra would say. I know, it’s
, Sylvie would say, smoking a joint.
The next morning, it was clear and beautiful. To someone who had grown up in Boston, spring came early to Philadelphia. The magnolia blossoms were out on the well-groomed streets of Rittenhouse Square. Cassandra put on a pale blue shirtwaist and moccasins and she and Edward went for a long, leisurely breakfast, reading sections of
The New York Times
like a real adult couple, at their favorite French café. Afterward, they went back to his apartment and had sex on the original Colonial floors of the living room. It was fantastic. Cassandra adored him. This was her new life and it was going to be splendid.
When she got back to Brooklyn, Sylvie asked her: “Do you think you’ll get married? He seems like the marrying kind.”
“Oh, yes.” Cassandra sighed sumptuously. “Absolutely.”
“But then, you might end up getting divorced.”
“Well? Don’t pretend like it doesn’t eventually happen. Just look at my parents.”
At this point in their lives, Sylvie and Cassandra were both big on judging the messes their parents had made of their lives because they still believed that they, themselves, would do no such thing.
“I wonder what it’s really like,” Sylvie went on. “Divorce. Loving someone and then
loving them, and how with divorce you have to make it so official. You know. I’ve never been able to forget this. My mother once told me that the day she had to sign the divorce papers was the saddest day of her whole life.”
Cassandra never forgot that, either.