She was the kind of woman who said now you can have everything and then took it back.
But wait a minute, his mind told him, who would believe a statement like that? Who has everything to give even if they want to give it? And of course we’re not only talking about money, that’s just a leaf on the tree.
And then his mind asked, Did she ever really say that to you, Ralphie? Because his mind could be condescending, calling him by his childhood nickname, it even imitated his mother’s voice now and then—a stitch in time saves nine, all that.
But he could answer it firmly, this time: Yes, she really did say that, Diane said that, when she asked me to live with her, and now he put quotation marks around it, to prove to his mind that she had actually used those words. “Now you can have everything,” she’d said and they were lying in bed and she was smoking, as she always did, after sex.
Well that was her generation: it was like the old forties movies, the women always smoked after sex and took off stockings before sex that were attached to garters. Thank God she didn’t do that, that would have been too much, because he was way too young even now ten years into the relationship as they both called it to put up with stockings and garters. Although how would you not put up with them, his mind asked, surly now, and it was not even a question, he wasn’t even given the opportunity to answer.
But it didn’t matter, now that he’d proved to his mind’s satisfaction that she did actually say that.
But when she’d promised him everything, what had she meant? Yes, let’s find that out first, his mind said, in a more positive tone, before we get to the fact that she reneged on the deal.
The deal. Was it a deal?
He didn’t like the word.
Because accepting her invitation to move into her big high-ceilinged apartment in the Brooklyn co-op had nothing to do with a deal, of that he was convinced, and for once his mind didn’t challenge him. Not that that meant acceptance but at least his mind was biding its time, willing to wait to be convinced.
No, they had been in love or as close to it as either of them had come in decades of relationships of every stripe and hue. They were ready to commit, at last, both of them, and the deal if it had to be called that came later, after everything else was decided.
Yes, but was it a deal? His mind asked gently as though to spare his feelings.
Well, it could be called that, he supposed, in that each of them needed something the other could supply, or at least so they thought. He was so tired of the merry-go-round—her word—of the New York art scene where he’d been spinning since he graduated from RISDE and was anointed as the coming thing or some part of it at least, a painter who could be compared to the ravenous wide-open abstractionists of the previous generation but with something a little gentler, a little more pastel, that appealed to a wider audience.
Yes, that was success, and he was grateful for it, but it was success that had to be constantly tended, pumped up, the right parties attended, the right people talked to, and he was just thoroughly sick of it after twenty years.
And the fact of it was he knew some people believed he hadn’t fulfilled his early promise, whatever they imagined that had been, and he was sick of the ground sliding out from under his feet. Diane co-owned one of the big midtown galleries and so she could put something solid under him, and maybe finally he could rest.
And rest meant time for his old friends who had stayed down in Chelsea even after the tourists invaded, and long evenings, and beer, and sleeping late, and turning down invitations he wouldn’t have dared to turn down, without Diane. She always said, “Life is short” when he asked her about some invitation, whether he should accept it or not, and to Ralph that meant he was free to turn the damned thing down, which he often did.
His mind was not satisfied with this explanation and wanted to know about the other part of the deal, Diane’s part, because she was not in it just to add an artist to her stable, she had plenty of those, and a lot of them had been bed partners, too.
She wanted sex, of course, regular sex, with her orgasm popping through the scrim exactly at the right moment, and she taught him how to do what she needed done and it wasn’t particularly hard. She was a woman of her generation and they had all studied themselves down there with mirrors (she’d insisted on telling him) and found out where everything was, and they accepted it as their responsibility to pass the information on to men. She believed, Ralph knew, that men had to be educated and she believed that without scorn or cynicism, and she had taught Ralph a lot.
But surely that wasn’t all, his mind insisted, and of course he knew it wasn’t all and was annoyed by the statement. There was fun and companionship and laughing at the same jokes in the New Yorker, and being bewildered by the same jokes in the New Yorker, and cooking together and going on trips all over the world.
Well, that was quite a lot and yet when he listed it all, it sounded dead and dull and he couldn’t understand why.
You’re not talking about money, his mind said. That’s the problem. You have to talk about money.
Who says? He demanded before he realized there was something ridiculous about arguing with his own mind.
He sighed. She gives me half of what she has but not really because she has money market accounts and a lot of other investments he knew nothing about, except that big white envelops arrived regularly and she threw them in the trash without opening them.
Occasionally he’d thought about fishing them out and going through them, but the thought shamed him and he decided he would rather just not know how much she had that she didn’t share with him.
So basically all you have is your joint checking account, his mind said, smugly, as though Ralph had been forced to admit to something.
Yes, and what’s wrong with that?
Diane kept a substantial balance and he was able to draw on it as much as he wanted, or nearly, and she never asked to see an account. He spent on things he’d never been able to spend on before, lithographs and first editions and some really fine British shirts and she admired what he showed her and never asked how much anything had cost.
Easy come, easy go, his mind said with that smugness he hated. After all she just lives off her investments, she’s never actually worked for money.
Oh come on, for God’s sake, he told it, and got up to refill his coffee cup. Diane always left the percolator full when she went to work and it was good till about eleven AM, after which he had to go out to Starbucks.
What difference does it make where her money comes from?
Of course it makes a difference, his mind said, as though there was nothing to debate. You think she’d be as generous with you if that money had come the usual way, through scrimping and saving for twenty years from a modest salary?
Oh who knows, he said, and now he was bored and resentful and wished he’d never started this conversation. Or had he started it? He couldn’t remember.
At least you must know what percentage of the gallery she owns, his mind said with quiet insistence. At least you must have asked her that.
Still annoyed, he said he’d never thought about asking, although that was a lie and of course his mind knew although it refrained from mentioning it. Her business partner in the gallery lived in Paris and came over once or twice a year in his strange double-breasted silk suits Ralph thought had to be typically French, and that was all he knew about him and all he wanted to know. Not what percentage of the gallery the Frenchman owned or how they split up the profits or even what the profits were or how they were used.
If there were any.
His mind was silent now, maybe worn out by fruitless asking.
As he poured his coffee, a slant of sun through the window over the big old-fashioned double sink caught the white porcelain and turned it as bright as a mirror. He studied that patch. At first he hadn’t understood why Diane only wanted white for everything in the apartment but gradually he’d begun to see the sense of it. The white cups and plates and the while sofa cushions and the filmy white curtains made it seem as though they were in some kind of bright but sunless glade where weather and time of day didn’t matter. It was consoling, although he couldn’t have said at the moment what pain or loss it consoled.
He walked down the long hall to the living room, passing the doors of the two bedrooms that had belonged to her children years ago. Those two didn’t show up much, which was just as well. Whatever the deal was, it hadn’t included putting up with adult children who weren’t anything compared to their mom, and in fact didn’t seem to have much to offer other than a diffuse sort of resentment. He’d thought of reminding them that if it wasn’t for him, Diane would be alone and eventually they’d have to take care of her. But he didn’t. It would seem mean and he was not a mean person.
His mind came pattering after him like one of those old-fashioned wooden toys on wheels little children used to pull behind them. He heard it coming and wished there was somewhere to hide but there was nowhere, so he listened to what it asked as patiently as he could.
And it was about money. Of course it was about money. For some reason his mind was actually more material-minded than he was.
What does she actually make off the gallery, do you even know? His mind asked in an insistent even combative way.
I don’t have any idea, he told it proudly. It’s not my concern—because of course if he admitted it was his concern, his idea of love would be polluted and his mind would make no bones about pointing that out.
Well, you must have some idea. You know what she makes off your paintings.
Just the usual fifty percent, he said wearily.
Add that up for all the artists she represents, a rough number, anyway, and subtract her costs.
I don’t know her costs, he said.
Not even her rent? His mind asked, sounding skeptical.
I think she owns the space on Fifty-Seventh Street with that Frenchman and of course she owns this co-op.
I know. He had to lie to it sometimes.
What about her will? His mind asked cagily, and when he didn’t answer, it went on, She’s older than you, she’s likely to die first, and then those kids will have you out on your ear.
He wasn’t going to give in so easily. Look, she watches her weight, she takes yoga five times a week, doesn’t drink.
But she smokes, his mind reminded him, as though he could have forgotten.
Only after sex.
He’d left a hole, and his mind leapt in. And you don’t have sex anymore.
Mercifully, his mind fell silent for a while then as though it felt remorse over pushing him up against that particular wall.
Knowing the silence wouldn’t last, Ralph took advantage of it to make a few calls and glance at the newspaper. Diane had suggested canceling their subscription and getting the news off the web, but Ralph paid for the subscription and that meant more to him than saving trees. Every morning when he went down to collect it from the front hall, he felt as his own father might have felt, bringing home the bacon or whatever it was called in those days.
You need every scrap of authority you can claim, his mind began again, sardonically, and Ralph was glad he’d taken advantage of its silence.
Never mind that and please shut up, he told it, and to his surprise, it did, at least for a while.
During that time he pulled on his jeans and hit the street, heading for the subway. It was already hot at eleven AM; the sidewalk held the glassy glare of late summer, and window air conditioners throbbed over his head and dripped on his shoulders. New York would be locked in the glaze of heat till late September and anyone who could possibly leave had already gone, catching shuttle buses to Long Island or driving up to Vermont and Maine.
Ralph would have left as well but Diane had a big show coming up—a young German painter she was trying to promote–and so it was out of at the question. Maybe after Labor Day, she’d told him. You ought to join the Y so you could swim.
The last thing he wanted to do. She’d refined his tastes, no question about that. After the beaches at the Hamptons the Y was not the place he wanted to be.
Is that a bad thing? His mind asked him, and he realized it was back on the job.
Only if I get to the point of not being willing to ride the subway. And that hasn’t happened yet.
Now they were rattling across the river. He’d been in the city long enough to remember when there were high smoke stacks on the Queens shore, striped red, white and blue, gushing plumes of something gray, when there had been big electrical signs advertising something like baskets (but could it have been baskets, even then?) facing the apartment buildings on the Drive. Once years ago he’d dated a woman who lived in one of those apartments with several other people (he’d never really known who they were), and he remembered standing at one of the big windows with the river flashing below and the rumble of traffic on the Drive, standing there imagining that it was all his, and always would be, and even always had been, and it was a good dream, even now, in a subway rattling in from Brooklyn.
He had his piece of it, after all. And he had complete freedom. He was on his way to visit someone Diane would never have tolerated, but since she didn’t ask him about “his day”—that terrible cliché—he did not have to feel in any way bothered. Often he would realize some weeks later that she’d heard where he’d been or whom he’d seen, but by then he would have the same information about her—it came to him willy-nilly from their mutual friends—and so the score was even and he could relax.
The friend he was going to see lived in a walk-up on Perry Street, near the river, one of the blocks that hadn’t been rehabbed yet, so there were no window boxes or neatly planted tree plots, and old-fashioned rusted iron fire escapes still snaked down the fronts of the buildings. There was a glimmer from the river at the end of the block but some pretty dismal warehouses in between and no one had yet done much about the park that was going to replace the old piers. Isabella didn’t want those improvements to come any time soon because her rent would immediately go up, the hall and stairs in her building would be repainted, and she would have to move to one of the boroughs.
He liked the cabbagy smell outside her apartment–a mystery since she never cooked, but it gave a pleasant aroma of old-world domesticity. When he came through her door, she was sitting in a sling chair by the window, looking at a magazine, and he noticed her pretty pink toenails, lined up on the windowsill, like candies.
“Honey!” she said in that voice of the south they both laughed about but found edifying. “I thought you said you couldn’t make it!”
“I thought I had a dentist appointment but it’s actually tomorrow,” he said, unbuttoning his shirt.
She jumped up, scattering the magazine and her manicure implements, and threw her arms around him. She smelled fresh and lemony. He was always surprised and delighted to find how prepared she was, as though she spent her life waiting for him.
Afterwards he lay on his back with his feet pressed against the ceiling of the capsule space that was her bed, enclosed on all sides with thin sheets of plywood. She called it her cabin in the woods and it did have a woodsy smell. He liked the fact that it was so small; it seemed to contain him comfortably, as though his limbs would fly off in all directions in a bigger space. She made love seem easy and uncomplicated, like cooking an omelet, so many eggs, seasoning, so much heat and stirring, and he knew it was the limits of her bed and their separate lives that kept it all simple and delightful. He told her that, and she laughed, accepting the compliment.
“You mean if there was any more space or time, I’d turn into a bitch.”
He equivocated. “You’re always delightful, but I think we both thrive in confinement.”
“Hot house plants!”
“Something like that.” He was not entirely comfortable with the comparison, and was relieved his mind had fallen dumb. Sex usually did that to it as though the neurons or whatever they were that fired the brain couldn’t compete with the firing of the body.
He was dressing when she said, “I’m behind on the rent. Could you loan me a couple of hundred?”
He leafed off three hundred in fifty-dollar bills (the ATM always gave him big bills, and he was glad to get rid of them, actually, since they were hard to change) and it was only when he was leaving them under the candle on her bureau that he felt a little weird.
Best to make light of the feeling, he thought. “What do I get for this?” he asked, thinking she’d enjoy the irony.
But she clouded up and he felt like a fool. Too late to apologize and besides he actually didn’t feel like apologizing (it was a joke, obviously) and so he kissed the turned-away side of her cheek and went home.
Back to the whiteness.
At noon, with the sun coming in, the apartment was too white; it had an eeriness he couldn’t enjoy. He wondered how it happened that he had a whole afternoon with no plans and reminded himself not to let that happen again, which of course sounded the bugle for his mind.
What counts for plans with you? his mind asked with that sardonic old-man tone that infuriated him. You mean someone to fuck or someone to have lunch with? Or maybe just coffee if you don’t have enough time? Or are you maybe thinking about going to your studio for the first time in what is it—weeks? Or months?
He was thinking of a satisfactory put-down when he heard the door open and Diane came in.
“You’re home early,” he said, trying not to sound startled. He’d never known her to return to the apartment in daylight, and already he was casting around for reasons. He noticed how strict she looked in her gallery black, her outline narrow as a ruler.
“I got a call,” she said, without looking at him.
“What call,” he said, dumb as an ox.
“She wants money.” She was still not looking at him. He knew better than to ask whom she was talking about, although he would have liked to play dumb. “What in the world,” he said dully.
“She saw you in the Times photo at my last opening,” she said. “She tracked me down.”
Now you’re in for it, his mind told him, and it had taken his mother’s self-righteous tone.
“I’m not paying,” she said, and now she moved toward the window as though she was going to look at the view. “And you can’t.”
“You know I haven’t seen her in more than a year.” He kept his voice reasonable, smooth.
“It happened afterwards,” Diane said.
He knew now this was going to ruin his life.
“I always took precautions,” he said into the dead space that was Diane’s silence.
And then she was pummeling him until, with a submerged laugh, he grasped both her hands. They were much smaller than he’d realized; he could enclose each one easily in a fist.
“You knew it was what I would have wanted more than anything in the world!” she screamed, and he did not need his mind to tell him that there was absolutely no use saying he’d never known that, they’d never discussed it, and besides she was too old. His mind told him all that, anyway.
Then she was crying, and her tears seemed to promise there might be a way to avoid ruin, and at the same time, his mind was telling him, You’ll have to go see it, you won’t be able to resist, and he quickly corrected his mind because it was not an it, it was a baby.