Authors: Jane Juska
Robert is an elegant man: tall, slim, deliberate in his gestures, thoughtful in his speech. Retired from medicine, he writes novels with medicine as the background. He is working on his fifth. From his desk in the apartment we share, he turns to me and says, “I would be grateful if you could bring yourself to read my current manuscript and give me your opinion.” I do, and I like the book, and I offer a few comments, some questions. “You might be my ideal reader,” he says. “Tell me about your own writing.” He listens, and not just politely either, as I tell him about my work at the college and the writing class at the prison, about my teaching in high school. He looks at me, he takes me seriously, he thinks I am smart. Of course I love him. How can I not?
When Robert's painful back (pain radiating from his lower back into the left leg, L-4, L-5 disk, I silently diagnose, candidate for laminectomy) allows for it, we go out. Wherever we are we talk. In bed and out of bed. In the kitchen and in the bathroom. In the elevator and in the cab and on Broadway at Steve's bookstand. Immune to the cold, oblivious to the snow whirling about, we stand in front of the tables full of books and talk. “Have you read Margaret Atwood?” “I'm not as fond of her as you seem to be. Now, Updike, look, here's his new one.” “Updike should win the Nobel Prize.” “So should Philip Roth.” “What's your favorite Roth novel?”
I gasp. “The Id run amok!” Sometimes, we buy some of Steve's books and add them to the piles that climb the walls of Robert's apartment. (That's what walls are for: to hold up books.) At home we talk about books some more and music and politics and movies and about men and women: “Is there something particular to women,” says Robert, “that causes them to make the bed?” I am doing this. I am making the bed. I have clambered across Robert's enormous mattress and stand, wedged against the window, which looks out onto Central Park. I tug at the sheet, look down at the floor, and wish for a Dustbuster.
“Yes,” I answer. “It's an example of evolutionary adaptive behavior. It's called feathering your nest.”
At his desk, Robert laughs.
“Does the female in all species do the feathering?” I ask. I love this part; I love looking into his mind, which is cool and clear as glass.
“I'm sure there are species in which both male and female prepare the nests. The males of our species, apparently, have discarded the making of beds, knowing the task will be done by the females.” He moves his long fingers slowly along his chin and gazes at the computer screen, where the most recent chapter of his novel awaits his full attention.
“Does that mean the male no longer cares about preparing a place for the young?”
Robert rises from his chair and walks over to where I am smoothing the comforter. “In our case,” he says, “yes. In our case we no longer have to prepare for anyone but ourselves. Stop doing that.” He pulls me onto the bed. “Why are you wearing so many clothes?”
Afterward, I kneel on the mattress and watch the snow fall on New York. It is a fairyland.
When Robert's back hurts him too much, when the pain worsens with walking, I leave him to rest and go out alone. I find my library, the New York Society Library, around the corner from the Metropolitan. My card from my San Francisco library, the Mechanics' Institute, is honored at once, and I am to this day forever grateful for the respite both libraries have given me. In January, the New York library is warm, the librarians welcoming, the card catalog on-line, okay, but also in drawers that slide silently out and in, those beautiful small oak drawers with gold handles. Upstairs, where I spend most of my time, every journal I have ever admiredâ
The Paris Review,
Partisan Review, The American Scholar
âlies on tabletops waiting for me. I devour them and fall sound asleep in the big chair with a slipcover right out of my grandmother's living room. I am home.
IN BETWEEN TIMES came Walter and Sidney and a little bit of Graham, though of Graham there is no such thing as “a little bit.” John, who lives in rural New England, would have to wait. Robert enjoys my peregrinations immensely. He has not a jealous bone in his body, and while I sort of wish he did, I am also fully aware of how fortunate I am. “Robert,” I say after a brief conversation with Walter, “I feel kind of like a hooker working out of my pimp's apartment.” He laughs and reminds me once again that he flourished in the openness of his second marriage. Okay, if you say so. This is something I will never understand, but Robert has not a drop of duplicityâoh, no, not a one, okay oneâin him. He tells the truth as he sees it, hard as it may be for some to hear. So Walter, here I come.
Walter is a professor of sociology at the New School. He had sent a photograph of himself teaching a class. In it he leans against a stool and gestures with his right hand. He has a beard. He is tall. Best of all, it is clear he likes what he is doing, that is, teaching. “When you get to town,” he wrote, “call me.” So I did. “Come to my office at one,” he says.
“Okay,” I say, and I think, Hot dog, I've never been to the New School. This will be fun. I hop on the bus and off I go.
It is cold in New York in January. I am wearing the red knit cap with “NY” stitched on it in white that I bought from a street vendor, Robert's down jacket, which comes to my knees, underneath it my warmest, baggiest sweaterâyes, that oneâ wool pants, and my hiking boots. These are my magic boots. They are scuffed at the toes and run-down at the heels, but in them I can walk the world. Together with my boots and my sweater, which covers me from chin to knee, I am without question a vision of loveliness.
The School of Social Research looks exactly the way it shouldâlike a great big old house that would have fallen down if smart people hadn't saved it with paint and nails and cement in the foundation to hold it up for the next generation. Walter's office is on the main floor of the school.
the main floor. Walter, I am suspecting, is an important guy. My mouth is lined with chalk.
He sits behind his desk, gestures at the chair in front of it where I am to sit. He eyes me with that skim-and-scan sociology people do so fast. I am beginning to get warm. “Tell me about your work in prison,” he says. This is my favorite subject, one I have no trouble talking about, so I tell him. He smiles sort of an approving smileâI say “sort of ” because New Yorkers don't actually smileâand he says, “My field is the rehabilitation of chronic offenders. I often do consulting in Berkeley.”
“Uh-huh,” I say.
He says, “Take off your coat. It's warm in here.”
I do. He calls to his secretary to close the door. His voice is really loud. If I were a chronic offender I would be rehabilitated right away.
From behind his desk, he skims and scans me, though slower this time, and stops right where my sweater, whipped against my chest by this damn New York static electricity, clings like an Ace bandage.
Walter says, “You have lovely breasts, more than ample, I would guess.”
Right then and there I decide not to throw my hands over my whole entire torso. This is an interesting man, I remind myself, a smart one. I say, “I have become interested lately in male sexuality, especially as the male grows older. What must it be like to lose one's potency, especially when one may have defined oneself in terms of sexual prowess?” I can't believe it's me. “How is it with you?” Wow.
Walter leans forward in his chair and says, “The urge has not lessened. The decline of potency does not spell the end of pleasure.” Oh, Robert, did you hear that? Pay attention! Seeing me mop my brow, Walter says, “It's warm in here for you, isn't it? Take off your sweater.”
Walter says, “I'm a voyeur.”
I could never take this sweater off even if I wanted to, which I don't. My entire torso is drenched; rivulets of sweat course along the streambed of my body, dampening the elastic waistband of my cotton Fruit of the Looms, running down the cleft between my buttocks; he might drown if he came too close. Suddenly, I have a little vision of what might happen if I did take off my sweater. Keep going, Walter might say, and if I did, like, remove my bra, well, if he's a voyeur, maybe just the stripping would be enough; maybe, well, I could maybe be like the strippers who so fascinated my father, only then what? What would Walter be doing while I was taking off my clothes? Would he do it behind his desk, or would he come out to where . . . and . . . like, do me right in the chair? Pop goes the vision. I pull my sweater down over my knees.
Walter sighs. “Next time I'm in Berkeley, I'll call you.”
The interview at an end, Walter rises from his chair and, reaching for something next to his desk, pulls out a crutch, like Tiny Tim's in
A Christmas Carol,
and, with it under his arm, swings himself out into the room next to where I sit, face-to-face with his empty pant leg. I say, “Wow! What happened to your leg!” The sensitivity of my exclamation overwhelms us both. He never called. Apparently, rehabilitation of me was hopeless.
Back home, with Robert, we laughed together. But it was not idle curiosity that had caused me to question Walter about aging and sexuality. It was that Robert was flagging. His back hurt, pain radiating down his leg. And, a member of AA, he was drinking. It was the end of Week One. If I had not given up clarity of mind in favor of romantic ooze, if I had let in the light of reason just for a bit, I could have prepared myself for what surely would come. I would have known that Robert's affections for me were diminishing. But no, no, I did not want this to end. I wanted to be in love and with him, with this man who paid every kind of attention to me, who touched me as no man ever had. I could not bear, would not bear, his falling out of love with me or, what eventually I came to understand, his loving me on e-mail but never, not from the first sight of me at the airport, in real person. I couldn't bear to be ugly again, oh, Robert, don't make me ugly. So I pretended I wasn't. And I made myself believe that Robert's back pain prohibited his lovemaking. And that his drinking was just, was . . . was . . . his problem, nothing to do with me. I was stupid with need. And so I stayed and crept ever closer to my side, the far side, the window side, the cold side, of the bed.
In Robert's apartment is a huge walk-in closet. It is in there I become acquainted with Sidney. Sidney,
“a senior member of a well-regarded investment firm,”
is sick. He has a terrible coldâ“I seem to get this every January”âand so cannot meet me in person. “But perhaps we can get to know each other a bit by telephone.” He does indeed sound sick, but being sick does not prevent him from talking for what seems like hours on the telephone to me.
Our letters have confirmed a mutual love for musical comedy. Sidney, in his youth, performed in musical comedy. We have a horror of Lloyd Webber and the tuneless monstrosities that sully the stages of Broadway.
we loathe. We love
Wonderful Town, Kiss Me, Kate, Bloomer Girl,
all of Rodgers and Hart, and anything by Sondheim.
It is hot in Robert's closet. I tell this to Sidney. “It's time to come out of the closet,” he says, laughing himself into a raspy cough.
And I get tired of standing. “Wait,” I say, “I'm going to pull a chair in.” Robert chuckles softly from the couch, where he is finishing the crossword puzzle he promised we would do together.
I pull a chair from the kitchen into the closet and seat myself. “Come out of the closet,” Sidney says again.
I can't. It is the only place in the apartment that affords any kind of privacy, and I don't want Robert to hear me burbling over Nanette Fabray and Ethel Merman and Jerome Kern and all the music I ever loved. Besides, I was having fun with this clogged-up man who started liking me when I told him I came from Ohio. Sidney had never been to Ohio. Sidney had never been west of Pennsylvania. Sidney did not fly, had no interest in doing so, had lived his whole life in New York City. He thought I was the cat's meow. “Are you Ruth or Eileen in
?” he wanted to know. Ruth and Eileen were sisters who came to New York from Ohio and sang to us the very wonderful “Why oh why oh why oh, why did I ever leave Ohio.”
“Sidney,” I ask somewhere near the end of the first hour, “why are you talking to me? Why aren't you talking to all these sophisticated, beautiful women I see on the streets of New York?”
“In my experience, New York women carry a lot of baggage,” he answers. “The edges are sharp.”
“I'm Eileen,” I say, referring to the younger of the sistersâ sweet, unsophisticated, and beautifulâand figuring I would never meet this man Sidney in person.
“I can tell from your voice you probably are. Tell me, my dear, have you plans to visit our fair city again?”
He talked like that and got away with it. He had this sexy New York accent that did not include the letter
In months to come, he would say “darling” just right. Now, I whisper into the phone, “I don't know. It will depend on my host.”
“I understand,” he says. “If you do return, give me a call either here or at my office.”
Well, my goodness, another reason to come back.
In the week ahead, Robert's interest in sex continued to be replaced by the pain in his back and leg. Tylenol with codeine and an occasional scotch helped a bit, but not enough for him to satisfy what in me had not abated: my need to be wanted and my desire to be touched. I had never had sex like what Robert did for me. I wanted more. In the movies, at the opera, the ballet, sitting next to him, I wanted to slide to the floor. Touch me; I will him to touch me. I wear a skirt, a long skirt with a long slit up the side. Put your hand through the slit, I beg silently, it goes all the way up, all the way down. Touch me, Robert, and sometimes, in the dark of the theater, he does. Back home he says, Spread your legs, sweetie, and he stays forever at what has become the very center of me. You are a lovely pink, he says. Did you know that? I am all cunt, I tell him. Yes, you are, and he strokes me until I am wild and finally calm.