Authors: Zoë Heller
Tags: #English Novel And Short Story, #Psychological fiction, #Parent and adult child, #Married people, #New York (N.Y.), #Family Life, #General, #Older couples, #Psychological, #Fiction - General, #Fiction, #Domestic fiction
For Mary Parvin
The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned.
At dawn, on the top floor of a creaking house...
Audrey was sitting in an airy, book-lined living room on...
The buoys in New York Harbor were flopping and bouncing...
For an hour or so, Lenny and Karla had been...
Standing at the corner of Forty-seventh Street and Fifth Avenue,...
Somewhere in the Columbia Presbyterian geriatric ward, a woman was...
"Lenny, have you seen my bag?"
The Jewish Women's Learning Center was located on the ground...
Karla was sitting in her office cubicle, examining a thick...
"Audrey, dear, you don't have to do this," Jean said,...
Raphael and Rosa sat on plastic chairs in the GirlPower...
Karla lay on her bed, sucking messily at a nectarine...
On the second Tuesday in July, Carol conducted the first...
"Tanya's all for sending him to some retreat in Arizona,"...
To lend some semblance of truth to the boast of...
Karla woke up agitated, mystified. She turned off her alarm...
"Thank you for coming in this afternoon," Dr. Krauss said,...
A deer stood at the bottom of the long, sloping...
"Welcome," Berenice said, standing in the middle of her living...
Rabbi Reinman held up a pomegranate. "Esther, can you tell...
One blue-skied morning in October, Susan Sarandon stood on a...
When Karla woke at six, Mike was already up and...
"I'm not being funny or anything," Audrey's sister, Julie, said...
At a party in a bedsit just off Gower Street, a young woman stood alone at the window, her elbows pinned to her sides in an attempt to hide the dark flowers of perspiration blossoming at the armholes of her dress. The forecast had been for a break in the weeklong heat wave, but all day the promised rain had held off. Now, the soupy air was crackling with immanent brightness and pigeons had begun to huddle peevishly on window ledges. Silhouetted against the heavy, violet sky, the Bloomsbury rooftops had the unreal, one-dimensional look of pasted-on figures in a collage.
The woman turned to survey the room, wearing the braced, defiant expression of someone trying not to feel her solitude as a disadvantage. Most of the people here were students, and aside from the man who had brought her, she knew no one. Two men had separately approached her since she had been standing at the window, but fearful of being patronized, she had sent them both away. It was not a bad thing, she told herself, to remain composed on the sidelines while others grew careless and loud. Her aloofness, she fancied, made her intriguing.
For some time now, she had been observing a tall man across the room. He looked older than the other people at the party. (Casting about in the exotic territory of old age, she had placed him in his early thirties.) He had a habit of massaging his own arms, as if discreetly assessing their muscularity. And from time to time, when someone else was talking, he raised one leg and swung his arm back in an extravagant mime of throwing a ball. He was either very charming or very irritating: she had not yet decided.
"He's an American," a voice said. Audrey turned to see a blond woman smiling at her slyly. She was wearing a violently green dress and a lot of recklessly applied face powder that had left her nose and chin a queer orange color quite distinct from the rest of her complexion. "A lawyer," she said, gesturing across the room at the tall man, "His name's Joel Litvinoff."
Audrey nodded warily. She had never cared for conspiratorial female conversation of this sort. Its assumption of shared preoccupations was usually unfounded in her experience, its intimacies almost always the trapdoor to some subterranean hostility. The woman leaned in close so that Audrey could feel the damp heat of her breath in her ear. The man was from New York, she said. He had come to London as part of a delegation, to brief the Labour Party on the American civil rights movement. "He's frightfully clever, apparently." She lowered her eyelids confidentially. "A Jew, you know."
There was a silence. A small breeze came in through the gap in the window where it had been propped open with books. "Would you excuse me?" Audrey said.
"Oh!" the woman murmured as she watched her walk away.
Pressing her way through the crowd, Audrey wondered whether she had dealt with the situation correctly. There was a time when she would have lingered to hear what amusing or sinister characteristic the woman attributed to the man's Jewishness--what business acumen or frugality or neurosis or pushiness she assigned to his tribe--and then, when she had let the incriminating words be spoken, she would have gently informed the woman that she was Jewish herself. But she had tired of that party game. Embarrassing the prejudices of your countrymen was never quite as gratifying as you thought it would be; the countrymen somehow never embarrassed enough. It was safer, on the whole, to enjoy your moral victory in silence and leave the bastards guessing.
Audrey halted now, at the sound of someone calling her name. Several yards to her left, a stout red-haired youth was standing between two taller men in an unwitting turret formation. This was Martin Sedge, her date for the evening. He was waving and beckoning, making little smoky swirls in the air with his cigarette: "Audrey! Come over here!"
Audrey had met Martin three months before, at a conference of the Socialist Labour League in Red Lion Square. Despite being one year her junior, he was much more knowledgeable about political theory--much more experienced as an activist--than she was, and this inequality had given their friendship a rather pedagogical cast. They had been out together four times, always to the same grimy pub around the corner from where Audrey worked, and on each of these occasions their conversation had swiftly lapsed into tutorial mode, with Audrey sipping demurely at her shandy, or nibbling at a pickled egg, while Martin sank pints of beer and pontificated.
She did not mind being talked at by Martin. She was keen to improve herself. (On the flyleaf of the diary she was keeping that year, she had inscribed Socrates' words, "I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.") There was a girlish, renunciatory streak in her that positively relished Martin's dullness. What better proof could there be of her serious-mindedness--her rejection of the trivial--than her willingness to spend the spring evenings in a saloon bar, absorbing a young man's dour thoughts on the Fourth International?
Tonight, however, Martin seemed at pains to cast off his austere instructor's persona. In deference to the weather and to the festive nature of the occasion, he had forgone his pilled Shetland sweater in favor of a short-sleeved shirt that revealed his pink, ginger-glazed forearms. Earlier in the evening, when he had met Audrey at the Warren Street tube station, he had kissed her on the cheek--a gesture never hazarded before in the short history of their acquaintance.
"Audrey!" he bellowed now, as she approached. "Meet my mates! Jack, Pete, this is Audrey."
Audrey smiled and shook Jack and Pete's wet hands. Up close, the three men were a small anthology of body odors.
"You out of drink?" Martin asked. "Give me your glass, and I'll get you another. It's bedlam in that kitchen."
Left alone with Audrey, Jack and Pete fixed her with frankly assessing gazes. Audrey glanced away shyly. Some of the more daring girls in the room had removed their stockings, she noticed. She could see their poultry-white legs flashing into and out of the party's undergrowth, like torchlight in a forest.
"So," Jack said, "you're Audrey. We've heard a lot about you."
"Vice versa," Audrey said.
"Sorry?" Pete leaned forward.
Audrey paused, wondering if she had used the phrase correctly. "I've heard a lot about you too," she said.
Pete lifted his chin and slowly lowered it, as if a great mystery had now been solved. "Bloody hot, isn't it?"
"Yes!" Audrey was wondering how to proceed with the exchange when a bearded man appeared behind Jack and Pete and planted his meaty hands on their shoulders.
"You made it!" he cried. "How are you two old bastards? Are you having a good time?"
"Tom!" Jack and Pete cried in unison.
Their host, Tom McBride, was a postgraduate student at the LSE, notorious for his rabble-rousing activities in the student union and for the inordinate length of time he had been working on his doctoral thesis. Martin had spoken of him in worshipful tones, but Audrey, examining him at close quarters for the first time, felt an instinctive hostility. He was cocky, she thought. And there was something upsettingly pubic about his beard.
"Sorry, love," he said, glancing at her incuriously, "I don't know your name." "Audrey Howard," she replied. "I'm a friend of Martin Sedge's."
"Friend of--oh, Martin? Glad to have you, Audrey!" He turned back to Jack and Pete. "Now, you two, I want you to meet someone." He pointed to a man standing behind him. It was the man Audrey had been watching: the American.
"Joel!" Tom cried. "Meet Jack and Pete." Pink with pleasure at receiving the imprimatur of Tom's attention, Jack and Pete smiled eagerly at the stranger.
"Joel is an American lawyer," Tom told them, "but don't hold that against him. He's quite a subversive, really."
In spite of this recommendation, a certain hardness entered Jack and Pete's expressions. Americans, it seemed, were one of the categories of person to whom they felt reliably superior.
Joel smiled and bent toward Audrey. "Excuse my rude friend for not introducing us. Did I hear that your name was Audrey?"
"Joel and I were just talking about Paul Robeson," Tom went on. "Did you see that he's been admitted to hospital again? Exhaustion, they're saying. It turns out that Joel here has met him."
"Well, only very briefly," Joel corrected. "As a kid, I used to go to this summer camp called Wo-Chi-Ca--the Workers' Children's Camp--in New Jersey. One summer, when I was twelve, Paul Robeson made an overnight visit."
He had the American trick of seeming to smile even as he was talking. And he was stooping slightly, as if attempting to minimize the height difference between himself and the Englishmen.
He wants to be liked
, Audrey thought.
"He was a big hero of ours, obviously," Joel was saying, "so we were thrilled. He toured the whole camp, and then, in the evening, after he'd sung for us in the dining hall, he made this little speech, asking us to dedicate our lives to fighting injustice. The whole place went nuts. We were all ready to go out then and there and lay down our lives for this guy. Anyway, the next morning, I happened to wake up early, needing to pee, and instead of walking all the way to the boys' latrines, I broke camp rules and went around the back of my cabin, into the woods. Just as I'm standing there, doing my business, who comes around the corner but Robeson! He's come to take a leak too! He doesn't skip a beat when he sees me. He just smiles and says--you know, in that incredible voice--'I guess you and I are the early risers around here.' Then he goes and finds himself a tree and does his thing. So, you can imagine, now I'm completely overwhelmed. I've got the hero of the American Communist movement standing right in front of me, and both of us have got our dicks out. 'Oh, yes, sir,' I say. 'I love to get up early.' Although, in point of fact, this was probably the earliest I'd ever been up in my life. And Robeson says--"
Martin appeared at Audrey's side, holding two paper cups of red wine. "Sorry about the delay. Some bloody idiot went and lost the corkscrew--"
Audrey put a finger to her lips to silence him.
"Oh! Sorry!" Martin said, glancing at Joel and hunching his shoulders in exaggerated remorse. "Didn't mean to interrupt."
Joel smiled good-naturedly. "--So Robeson says to me, 'That's an excellent habit, young man, and I advise you to keep it up. Life is too short to waste it lying abed.' And then, while I'm still thinking of something smart to say, he steps away from the tree, buttons his fly, and walks off."
There was a moment's mystified silence. Somewhere in the telling--perhaps when Martin had been shushed--the expectation of a punch line had been created. Tom gave a bark of ersatz laughter. "Ha! Just walked off, did he? Well!"
"Fascinating," Martin commented drily.
"This camp you went to sounds very interesting," Audrey said, eager to help the American recover.
Joel nodded. "Yeah, it was a sweet place. A little kooky. Instead of telling ghost stories around the campfire, we used to sing songs of praise to Uncle Joe and take pledges not to tell jokes that made fun of anyone." He laughed. Jack and Pete, suspecting something decadent in his laughter, pursed their lips.
Once again, the conversation seemed to die away.
"I feel so sorry for Paul Robeson," Audrey volunteered. "He's suffered so much."
Martin said disbelievingly. He was still smarting from being silenced. "Paul Robeson suffers in a very good coat and an excellent car. I wouldn't waste too much sympathy on him if I were you."
"Well, we don't have to ration our sympathy, do we?" Audrey replied. "It's not as if it's going to run out."
Martin blinked at her, bewildered by this unexpected betrayal. "Oh, come
, Audrey," he said with an unconvincing titter. "No one takes Robeson seriously anymore. He's still defending Hungary, for God's sake!" He glanced around the group, seeking support. Jack and Pete nodded, but remained silent.
"I think you're being a little hasty there," Joel said.
"Really?" Martin's face had the panicky look of someone realizing that he has swum too far from shore.
"I don't share all of Robeson's positions," Joel said. "But I think the guy has earned our--"
"It's always seemed to
," Martin interrupted, "that Robeson is basically a minstrel figure."
"Whoa!" Tom cried.
"You don't really mean that," Joel said. "Or, for your sake, I hope you don't." All trace of the ingratiating anecdotalist had now disappeared. "Paul Robeson has done more for humanity than you or I will ever do."
eh?" Martin smiled at the sentimentality of the American's vocabulary. "Well, I'm sorry! I'm obviously trampling on some very important childhood memory."
Joel made a weary gesture, batting Martin's sarcasm away. "Ach...grow up, would you?"
A redness appeared on Martin's neck and quickly spread northward, like wine filling a glass. "Yeah?" he said. "Well, maybe
should grow up, mate." His Adam's apple was bobbing grotesquely. His eyes were glittering with tears. For a moment, Audrey and the other men stood motionless, caught up in the compelling spectacle of his humiliation.
Tom raised his palms in a peacemaking gesture. "Come on, everyone..."
But Martin would not be placated. With a disgusted shake of his head, he stalked away. Audrey hesitated a moment, searching for some loophole in the laws of etiquette that might spare her from having to pursue him. Then, with a polite nod to the men, she departed also.
After Jack and Pete had slunk off, Joel turned to Tom. "That girl," he said, "what was her last name?"
"Horton, I think. No, Howard."
"Pretty, wasn't she? Is she one of mine?"
"Is she Jewish?"
Tom thought that she probably was--she had had a distinctly beaky, Hebrew look about her--but not wishing to give his friend the impression that the matter of Audrey's ethnicity was significant to him, he made a show of being startled by the question. "Christ, I don't know. I've never met her before--" He broke off, distracted by some commotion on the other side of the room. A crowd of people was gathered around the window, exclaiming loudly. "Well, thank God for that," he said, peering over the heads of his guests. "It's raining at last."