I said what I had to say and then sat down. “She’s not coming.”
“What? Not coming?”
“You mean she’s actually standing us up?”
“She phoned me an hour ago from the airport. Jason’s grandmother died unexpectedly over night and she’s flying to Cleveland with him.”
“She picked a funeral in Ohio over us?”
“I’d say she picked Jason.”
“Already the loyal wife, the dutiful daughter-in-law. Anyway, why’d she call you?”
The rudeness made me go stiff. “I’m sure she tried you first,” I said.
“God, this is so like her. Jodi, you remember that time in Ithaca when she disappeared with the hockey team and we--”
“It was only two players and it wasn’t in Ithaca. It was Providence.”
“Oh sure, with gorges? She said she went with them to look at the gorges.”
“There weren’t any gorges. You’re thinking of the time we--”
“Oh, skip it. For God’s sake, let’s not reminisce. I mean if Noemi were here we’d have to, but since the bride’s winging her way to Cleveland—well. None of these famous absent presences she goes on about, please.”
“You’re the one who brought it up, Ellie.”
“Then I can stick it back again, can’t I?”
“What’re you so pissed off about? Just Noemi? Oh no. It couldn’t be trouble in paradise, could it?” Jodi turned to me. “Paradise is called Brian.”
I sat quietly through this and was ignored until Jodi’s snide footnote which was really directed at Ellie anyway. I was not happy to be there, even though I’d leaped at Noemi’s invitation. A few days later I got a call from Ellie telling me we were all supposed to bring gag gifts. My little package rested in my lap like a pair of white Easter gloves.
Noemi Lockwood, Ellen Vananzi, and Jodi Loeb had shared an off-campus apartment during their last two years at college. I was there too, but two years behind, in a tiny double in the dorms. I had an asthmatic roommate and no bathroom, majored in Special Education, worried about the meter running on my loans, dated sparsely and unadventurously, grimly surrendering my virginity at nineteen. I got good grades not so much to gladden the hearts of my parents as because I was scared not to. So I observed the comings and goings of the chic and beautiful from a distance. I was too young and too timid even to envy the Weird Sisters, too insignificant to show up on their radar. It was Noemi who told me their private name for themselves, The Weird Sisters. “A sort of sorority of norns, gorgons, fates, and graces by turns,” she explained with the easy erudition of an English major.
Noemi and I had only become acquainted recently, after I graduated and took a job in the New York public school system. She was doing her Ph.D. at Columbia. We ran into each other one wet Saturday in a stationery store down in the Village. We both gravitated to a glass case where we ogled the fountain pens. A few words about the relative merits of Mont Blancs and Pelikans were exchanged before I told her I knew who she was. Maybe Noemi was touched, but I think it was mostly because of the fountain pens that she suggested we go for a bite. Noemi did most of the talking and it was good talk. I enjoyed listening to her. She spoke with as much enthusiasm about seventeenth-century religious poetry as she did about Jason’s many virtues or the eccentricities of her thesis advisor. She even addressed Life through several arresting and only slightly pompous obiter dicta. For example, “Whenever you feel secure it’s a sure sign you’ve bought a convincing illusion. And I’m engaged!” It wasn’t all about her though; she asked me a lot of questions too, starting with why I rated Pelikans above Mont Blancs. Then it was work. “I don’t know much of anything about autism but I really do want to know all about it, especially how you can be such an angel. For instance, why’s it always autistic children I hear about? What becomes of them when they grow up? And how can you find it rewarding if you can’t really talk to them?”
I concluded I had been invited to the cafe because I like fountain pens and because Noemi insisted on seeing me as a candidate for canonization. Maybe she was feeling a little guilty over her happiness and figured I was good for some cheap grace. She actually said she thought I should be having more fun, and there was the old school tie, of course.
Had Noemi been there I would never have revealed the anguish that had been oppressing me for the last week, a dread that completely outstripped my anxiety about this daunting luncheon. Had Noemi been there I would have held my tongue, watched the fun, and maybe tried clumsily to keep up.
Ellie had an sumptuous quantity of red hair plus an air of command. It was she who summoned the waiter, began the ordering, laid down the rules.
“I’ll tell you my trouble-in-paradise story and I’ll even show you my present, but then the two of you have to do the same; I mean, tell about what’s been going in your corner of paradise lately and then show your presents. So, settled, right?”
Before launching into her story Ellie tore open a sweet roll and said to me, “Now you may have heard from Noemi that I’m a complete slut. It’s true, I suppose. But the way I figure is I’ve got five, maybe six good years left in this body and then it’s Waterloo on the Stair Master and handfuls of uppers. So okay, I may be a tart but I’m not promiscuous. In fact I’m just an old-fashioned tart, raised Catholic, and more mono-amorous than most.”
“Including most Catholics,” Jodi chimed in with a giggle.
“All right. So I admit I’m not as exclusive as our Noemi’s been since the divine Jason swept her off her feet, but for twenty or thirty seconds there I thought Brian might be my Jason.”
“I knew it. Ninety-three bottles of beer on the wall, ninety-three bottles of beer,” Jodi sang.
It was some private joke. They both laughed.
“Okay,” said Ellie, spreading her hands over the table like a fortune teller. “It’s not exactly the kind of story that ravels up a girl’s tattered self-esteem but frankly it’s too funny not to share.”
Jodi clapped her hands like a cheerleader. “Goody.”
Ellie addressed herself to me. “I met Brian about six months ago. He had this two-bedroom on the top floor of my building. I had a single on the eighth. Started as one of those elevator things. You know, lots of eye contact and mystery until somebody finally says something and you either go up or down.”
“Ellie went down.”
“Stop interrupting, Jodi. We have a guest.”
“Can’t help it. Interrupting runs in my family.”
“I thought we agreed never to discuss your brother.” Evidently, this was yet another private allusion.
Ellie turned once again to me. “Brian works at Goldmans--you know, Goldman Sachs?—and I sell South American debt for Citibank, so we had plenty in common. He’s got good legs too, you understand, a nice butt, smooth golfer’s hair. Yep, Brian’s nice to look at. We went at it right off the bat, so to speak, and a month later I moved into the penthouse and idiotically started making plans. Like would I have Noemi as matron or Jodi as maid of honor? Shrimp or crabmeat cocktail? Lasagna or stuffed shells? Anyway, he was working these awful hours and I was too, so it was all the hotter when we actually got to see each other. Really. Sex like you wouldn’t believe. We drove up to Stockbridge for a weekend and fell in love with exactly the same antiques. He took me skiing at his family’s chalet. We played doubles and didn’t fight. I even started cooking for the bastard. Arranged a Saturday in Oyster Bay for him to meet the Mom and Dad. Everything’s going like gangbusters and then one day he tells me Goldmans wants him to go to Paris for a couple of weeks on this special job. I was really brave about it. I told him at least I’d have the bathroom to myself for a while. I threw him a bon voyage party. He phoned me almost every day at work and I griped to Jodi and Noemi every night and somehow I got through the fourteen days. Fine, right?”
“You whined like a lonesome cat.”
“Thanks for sharing that, Jodi. Okay, Brian gets back about ten days ago. Insane sex for a couple of nights and then on Wednesday I get home about nine and he’s still at work. The phone rings and it’s this French girl asking for Brian.”
“Uh-oh. So that’s why you haven’t called.”
“Uh-oh big time. When he finally got home at eleven I had his bag packed.”
“You threw him out? Out of his own place?”
“Like compacted garbage. Anyway, it was my place now. Them’s the rules.”
“He didn’t have an excuse?”
“Sure he did. He had about a dozen and he kept repeating them all the way down in the elevator and over to the Harvard Club, as far as I know. I was really ripshit. The girl Hell’s got no fury like. Pleading began the next morning promptly at eight. Phone call after phone call, text messages piling up like horse manure, a real onslaught of groveling.”
“Did you take him back? I mean, after all, it was his place.”
“His place? Ha. But wait. After three days of perpetual apologies and promises, begging and self-abasement, I dictated my conditions. He’d have to call up his little mademoiselle, with me on the other line, you understand, and tell her about me and how I meant tout to him while she meant rien.”
“In a blink! He even brought his little Lands End suitcase with him. And he did it too, called her up and dusted her off en français. ‘Merci beaucoup,’ I said when he hung up. And then I tossed the swine out again.”
“Threw him out, sweetie, and at the top of my lungs, too.”
“I don’t know. You’re one tough broad, Ellie.”
Ellie began to laugh. “Yeah, a four-buck steak. But there’s this hilarious coda I only just found out about yesterday.”
Barely able to control herself, Ellie finished the story. “God, it’s really just too good. Goldmans told him he’d done such a fabulous job in Paris that they’re sending him back for six months!”
Jodi roared, showing all her teeth and half her gums. She laughed inefficiently; in fact, all of Jodi’s movements were accompanied by superfluous, jerky motions. Ellie, I noticed, never wasted a gesture.
I giggled too, couldn’t help it. The story was a sort of comic haiku, what we used to call scrap irony; but it was typical of me to look for a subtext. Ellie yearned for stability, not a bedroom farce or a sit-com. I began to think that her aggressive joking was just the usual Manhattan defensiveness, her brashness veneer over a crumbling infrastructure.
“I was just wondering,” I asked, “is there a lot of money in Latin American debt?”
“Ninety grand last year, sweetie, counting bonuses, of which I saved exactly nada.” She examined me with a pensive smile. “Not much money in autism, I suppose?”
“Here comes the chow,” said Jodi quickly and, quite unnecessarily, began to issue directions to the waiter. “She had the salmon; the Caesar salad goes over there, and the turkey club, that’s it, right here.” Jodi was a born sidekick.
As soon as the food was distributed and the waiter dismissed, Jodi reminded Ellie that she hadn’t yet opened her gag gift. “What disgusting thing did you find this time? Last year,” she explained to me, “Ellie gave this girl we know who works at the French Consulate a bag of frogs’ legs. Raw!”
Ellie reached deep into her big bag and handed Jodi a flat little package wrapped in plain white paper.
“Looks like a quarter pound of pastrami.”
Ellie turned toward me, “You must know how much Noemi adores Georgie Herbert. Since she’s writing her dissertation on him she has to tell everybody. She’s already asked me to read her favorite Georgie poem at the big audience-participation wedding. Love the Third it’s called.”
“So?” Jodi tore open the paper. “Oh, it’s just a pair of pink panties.” She pouted, ostentatiously disappointed.
“Look a little closer.”
Jodi unfolded the panties and held them up to her chest. Three lines of poetry had been carefully sewn over the crotch, tiny letter by tiny letter.
“The last three lines,” Ellie explained.
Jodi read, “‘My dear, then I will serve.’/’You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’/So I did sit and eat.”
Such a peal of laughter broke from Jodi that everybody in the restaurant turned to look and, with a simultaneous blush, giggle, and grimace, she crumpled the panties up in her lap.
Ellie smiled angelically and winked at me. It occurred to me that she must be pleased with herself for having found a way to combine her foul-minded-irreverent-tart persona with Noemi’s loftiness, to mock her best friend’s deepest aesthetic and spiritual affinities. But then I wondered if Ellie really had besmirched Herbert or whether Herbert had instead hosed down her act. Did she really mean to degrade marriage to oral intercourse or was she reminding Noemi where all the mystic metaphors--Donne’s, St. Teresa’s--come from?
Was I overdoing it? That memorable afternoon in the Village when Noemi had talked so ardently about the English religious poets she told me how they had appropriated the profane love songs of the prior generation, Shakespeare’s, and, by a kind of serious parody, pressed them into theological service. No doubt Ellie had heard the same lecture and I could almost believe that her gift was subtly intended to restore the metaphors to their proper zone, to keep the soaring Noemi, even on the brink of holy wedlock, mindful of biological home truths, playing Sancho to her Quixote. Then again Ellie’s aim might simply have been what it appeared, desecration by crude double-entendre. But what about that sly wink? It made me feel that Ellie was a good deal more than just vulgar and for the first time I thought it might be possible to overcome whatever it was that made me feel about a dozen instead of two years younger than Ellen Vananzi, that it might even be possible to get to know her.
“Okay,” she said, “now one of you. Come on, Jodi. I’ve bared mine, let’s have yours.”
Jodi beetled her brows, tapped one finger against her cheek, patted the tablecloth, glanced at the ceiling. “Well there is something, I suppose. Only it’s not really a story and it’s not so much about me as my boss. But then I guess in a way it is about me because it shows you what my job’s all about.” She pointed a finger at me. “The most crucial thing is enthusiastic listening, something you can pick up in college. It pays better than autism,” she pointed at Ellie, “though nowhere near as well as the collapse of continental economies.” Jodi laughed to herself. “My major was Art History—a real original idea there, a rich girl majoring in Art History--so naturally Daddy got me a job working for this computer genius. Wide-Eyed Ego-Boosting Administrative Assistant Executive Girl Friday and Sometime Muse. Yeah, I know how it sounds, but actually I’m learning a ton. Don’t smirk, Ellie. Just wait until next decade. That’s when I come into my own. Black Widow Dominatrix of the World-Wide Web, wait and see.”
Ellie yawned. “Get on with it.”
“All right, if you insist on the Readers’ Digest version.” Jodi turned again toward me. “My boss is a legend in cyber-circles, so you’ve got to take everything the guy says seriously--I mean he certainly does. This week he got a new brainstorm. He calls it Virtual Learning. I mean, you can almost hear the little “TM” in the upper right-hand corner. What got him started was when some pal of his didn’t get tenure someplace. So Phil—I have to call him Phil, by the way. He’s a boomer so informality’s de rigueur. Anyhow, Phil starts thinking about higher education and Phil never just thinks; he focuses, he trains his sights, he bores right in. And what does Phil see? Phil sees a vast field for computer applications that’ll completely alter the whole college racket and bring the price down by a factor of a hundred. Then he sings out his favorite refrain.”
Jodi nudged Ellie’s arm with her elbow, and together they sang out, “The technology already exists!”
“Oh, sure. I can dig it,” added Ellie. “Ivy tendrils climbing up the VDT.”
“Don’t get ahead of me, okay? Right. So Phil calls me into his office. He’s wearing his usual relaxed-fit Levis with the Bean turtleneck and the white Reeboks and he’s puffing on some grass, which, in a well-established ritual, he offers me and I refuse. ‘Take a seat, Jode,’ he says. ‘I want your reaction to something.’ So I sit down on the edge of his leather wing chair and off he shoots like the space shuttle. Whoosh.”
“‘The way I see it,’ he says, ‘higher education as we know it suffers from a horribly antiquated delivery system. Why’s it cost so damned much? The professors. Bio-software’s always the most expensive commodity. Digitize that, and you always save a bundle.’ So I inform him that professors don’t usually make all that much—careful not to point out that he pays me more than what half the tenured faculty at Columbia make. ‘I don’t mean their salaries, kid. What I’m talking about is the centralization and the stasis they’re responsible for. All these profs are tied to their bodies and their bodies are tied to some place, and this place has to be cleaned and heated. You have to build quads and classrooms around the faculty, and then gymnasiums and student unions and administration buildings. It just doesn’t make sense any more. The answer’s back to the future. Time to get back to roots. I’ve looked into it. Do you know what the word university originally meant?’ This was a tough one. It wouldn’t go over well if I knew the answer, of course, but an asinine ‘Beats me’ wouldn’t be all that attractive either.”
Jodi made her voice squeaky, like a chorus girl’s. “‘I always thought it had to do with the idea of studying, you know, everything,’ I said. It was a great guess, exactly the kind of wrong answer he wanted. I mean, he actually bounced.”
Now Jodi made her voice go deep, like a radio announcer talking about Beethoven. “‘Our word university comes from the medieval Latin, universitas. It meant a guild, Jode, a kind of union. You know, tinkers and brewers and like that? My point is this old word universitas referred to people, not buildings. Originally a university wasn’t a place at all. The first one was just a bunch of students who got together to bargain with their Italian landladies and the second was a gang of teachers terrified of their students. So what’s my point? My point’s that originally universities weren’t tied down. It was all this fluid bio-software. Trouble with the city fathers in Paris? You pick up and zip over to Oxford. The Pope’s breathing down your neck in Bologna, you shuffle off to Prague. Everybody speaks the same language
--everybody educated anyway. I mean Latin was like Fortran or Basic.’
“I told him how tremendously interesting all this was. When he gets intense his eyes turn into these little brown marbles. It’s almost scary. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘the whole trick’s in freeing teachers from their bodies, which most of them don’t really like living in anyway. And it’d be easy because . . .”
Jodi paused, looked at Ellie, and made conducting motions with her fingers. “The technology already exists,” they sang out in unison.
They giggled, then Jodi cleared her throat and resumed her baritone. “‘Don’t you see, kid, once you do that you can get rid of the whole obsolete infrastructure. No more laboratories or dining halls or campus cops or dorm directors or assistant deans.’ Yeah, yeah, I know. It was obvious where he was going, but the knack of remaining a highly-paid executive-right-hand-Girl-Friday-administrative-assistant-and-sometime-muse is not catching on too fast. So I batted my lashes and waited.”
“Batted ‘em enthusiastically?”
“Con brio, sweetie. Just like this.” Jodi opened her face, emptying it of all intelliand hoisted her lashes up and down.
“‘It’s so easy,’ says Phil. ‘First you find the best lecturers. You video them and make all the lectures interactive; you put ‘em on line. You can program for questions, arguments—heckling if you want. It’d incredibly easy. And you replace the labs with virtual reality programs. With holograms. They can cut up fetal pigs over and over again and never get a whiff of formaldehyde. You can do it before breakfast or at three in the morning. Get the idea?’ Now this was another tricky moment. I could have squealed with admiration and that might’ve been okay, but I decided to go the other way. I raised an objection instead. This is what separates the Muses from the fluff.”
Jodi raised her voice to the level of a goosed soprano. ‘But Phil, what about the personal touch?’ Pretty good, right? He ate it up. ‘Just like a soft-headed humanist,’ he said. ‘Don’t you see that’s the whole beauty of it? Forget those primitive televised lectures and the crap they called programmed learning. Out of date shit; we can do a hell of a lot better. In fact, the real charm of the idea is the personal touch.’ This was the hint for me to sulk and look quizzical.”
She contorted her face into a dramatic pout. “So while I’m sulking he tells me this long story about how about twenty years ago some MIT professor wrote a program for laughs, a sort of Freudian thing, just as a joke. You know, somebody’d type in I’ve been having these awful dreams lately and it’d answer back, Tell me more about your dreams. Or, I’m really afraid of my father and the machine says, Hm. Tell me more about why you’re afraid of your father. Phil said the MIT prof was horrified because hundreds of neurotic nerds all over campus started spilling their deepest, darkest secrets to his machine. But, according to Phil, the prof missed the point. ‘We program this terribly caring professor along similar lines, but with much more sophistication. I mean, with CD ROM the possibilities are pretty much infinite. Different professors and different programs for different problems and different courses, and never a grad student with an accent unless you want one. And his door’s always open, too.’
“Then Phil gets all resentful. ‘When I was in school hardly any of my profs posted more than one office hour a week and they hardly ever showed up even for that. With Virtual Learning even the most annoying brown-noser or the dimmest bulb can see his advisor any time day or night, and always be met with inexhaustible patience.’”
Jodi fell back in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest. “So there you’ve got it. The wave of the future. No more tuition, just pop for the software, or steal it. Instantaneously graded exams, if you still want ‘em. No distractions you don’t ask for. No more big lectures, no lecture halls. No schedules, dorm rules, awful roommates you didn’t pick. With a keystroke Phil’s going to get rid of two centuries of ivy and elitism. Not one to waste his research, he says again it’ll take us back to the original idea of the whole game.”
Jodi fell back into her baritone. “‘It really started in Spain, you know. They had these things called disputatios. I mean it was just these guys talking to each other in Toledo. Christians and Jews and Moslems. And it spread fast. But then the authorities set up these places. More control for them, of course.’
“Finally he gets back to tenure. ‘We’d have virtual tenure. In fact, for the profs we digitize it’d be better than real tenure; it’d be fucking digital immortality, at least until whatever they had to say needed upgrading. And students’d get the very best profs no matter what their board scores might have been, whether they’d have gotten in to Harvard or East Mudtown State. Anywhere you’ve got an outlet—boom, you’ve got John Kenneth Galbraith.’”
Jodi leaned forward and looked ruefully at Ellie. “The end of the Weird Sisters. I mean, we’d never have met each other, would we?”
Ellie ignored this. “So, after all that he didn’t even make a pass at you?”
“I was getting to that.”
“About bloody time.”
“It’s not quite what you’re thinking, though. You see, after the lecture, I made a pass at him.”
Ellie, surprised, sat up straighter. “Really? That is original.”
Jodi shrugged. “Not really. I’m afraid that’s also part of the job. You see, you’ve got to pick up on the rituals. Phil doesn’t want to go to bed with me any more than I want to with him. Ech. Believe me, he even looks like a family man.”
“So it’s your job to make him feel noble?” I guessed.
“Well yeah, that’s one way of putting it, I suppose. He likes a reward when he has one of his big ideas, a little fawning, a little innuendo. It proves my enthusiasm—and it makes him want to mentor me like mad.”
“Sure. These successful guys love to mentor women who don’t threaten them. I mean it stands to reason. Who’s less of a threat than some sweet young thing you’ve just given the thumbs down to purely out of honor? Must make you feel like a million bucks—in Phil’s case, fifty or sixty million.”
“You do this often?” Ellie asked, brushing back her hair.
“Of course not. It wouldn’t work if it did it a lot. I’d be a nag, an embarrassment, and, before you can say Kelly Girl, he’d get rid of me. You’ve got to pick your moments. Luckily, stuff like Virtual Learning doesn’t come along more than once every three months.”
“That must be a relief,” I said.
Ellie shook her carroty locks. “Virtual prostitution,” she muttered in mock admonition.
“Ha!” said Jodi. She turned her present over to me and then told us what it was before I could open it.
“I got her a copy of The Bridges of Madison County, only I changed it to The Britches of Madison County. I mean she’s getting married, right? It’s a kind of handbook, Anna Karenina for the middle aged. Nobody gets hurt, no trains.”
“Did you say Bitches?”
“Stop being so goddamn feline, Ellie. I said Britches.”
Then they both looked at me.
“Okay. What’s going on in your life, kid?” Ellie asked breezily. “Any good stories from the romantic or work fronts?”
I could still have kept quiet and I nearly did. It was just that I’d felt so completely alone for the last week. Like a tennis player throwing up the ball, I took a deep breath before serving to the fates—two of them anyway.
“I’m responsible for six children,” I tried to start.
Ellie: “This is work, I hope, not romance.”
Jodi: “Only six?”
Ellie: “They’re all autistic, dope. Six is a lot.”
Jodi: “Oh, right.”
Ellie: “So stop kibitzing, will you.”
Jodi: “You started.”
Ellie: “Go on.”
“The oldest is Peter,” I resumed. “He’s nine but big for his age. When I was assigned to this school they warned me about Peter. I was told he had a tendency to hit himself, that he’s been known to crash into walls, that he could pound his thighs for hours. It’s not all that unusual, actually. Autistic children are what’s called perseverant. That means their behavior’s repetitive, ritualized. Peter had never hit any of the other children, but it was possible so I always kept an eye on him. Whenever my aide shows up, I usually assign her to look after just him, even though Camilla’s a little afraid of Peter.”
“Why? Is it because he’s big and violent? Is Camilla chicken as well as unreliable?”
“All of that, and also because he’s considered the most hopeless case of the six. Camilla says Peter’s a downer. Mrs. Rosenzweig—she’s my supervisor but she was also my predecessor. Anyway, according to Mrs. Rosenzweig Peter made hardly any progress with her in two years. She told me I should expect a lot of interaction with his mother who she said was a big advocate for her son but not exactly stable herself.”
Ellie: “A pain in the tush, eh?”
Jodi: “Is she autistic too?”
“She’s just a single mother of a nine-year-old she can’t talk to and who beats himself up. She doesn’t work, money’s tight. You can imagine the stress.”
Ellie, shrewdly: “Do you think she did any of the battering?”
It was not a possibility I had overlooked. “No, I honestly don’t.”
“Okay. Go on.”
“Well, I’ve made a little headway with Peter over the last three months—quite a lot, actually. He’s more responsive and a lot quieter. He even listens to stories now. And he hugs me.”
Ellie: “Hugs you?”
“Every morning when he’s dropped off and when he leaves at two. Anyway, Thursday a week ago Peter showed up with these big bruises on his thighs. I didn’t see them but Camilla did when she took him to the bathroom. Then, at about eleven, he started throwing himself against the wall. A sickening sound, a child hitting a wall. There’s this procedure for restraining autistic kids, a certain way you have to hold them. I tried to get my arms around him but he was thrashing and, as I said, Peter’s big. I caught an elbow in the chest. It actually knocked me down. Camilla helped and we did finally get him quiet. He fell asleep before lunch and I just let him nap. When his mother came for him at two I told her everything that happened. I was surprised when she didn’t say anything. In fact, she’s been sort of cold to me lately, even though two weeks ago she wrote a letter to Mrs. Rosenzweig pleading that Peter be allowed to move with me when I’m transferred next year.”
Jodi: “This transfer was your idea?”
“No. Mrs. Rosenzweig wants to start up a new program at this other school and she wants me to do it. She also wants me working with smaller children. I’m not exactly a linebacker.”
Ellie: “Did Mrs. Peter see him hug you?”
“Well, last Friday Peter didn’t show up for school, and neither did two of the other kids. That morning Peter’s mother phoned my principal and accused me of beating her son. She said she’d already called a lawyer, that she had photos of the bruises, and that she was planning to sue.”
Ellie: “What did the principal say?”
“She called me into her office Friday afternoon and told me about the phone call . . . also about the others.”
“The two other mothers. Apparently Peter’s mother called them Thursday night. They all wanted their children out of my class immediately.”
Jodi: “God! That’s incredibly unfair.”
Ellie: “You ought to get your own lawyer, document everything. You should get a statement from what’s her name. Camilla.”
“Mrs. Rosenzweig said not to worry. She has the woman’s letter. The boy’s history’s well known. It’s a ridiculous case and the woman’s probably just acting out.”
Jodi: “Acting out what? Medea?”
“Mrs. Rosenzweig’s theory is Peter’s mother’s jealous or maybe worked up somehow about the transfer.”
Ellie, sucking on an ice cube: “Did it occur to Mrs. Rosenzweig that this woman resents you for choosing to work with kids like hers? I mean, she can’t cope with the boy and here comes this whippersnapper and in only a few months the kid’s hugging her.”
Jodi: “So what are you going to do?”
“To be honest, I’m not sure. I have this other job offer. I’m working on a Master’s at night at NYU and one of my professors asked me to do research with him. He’s got a two-year grant. It’s a real opportunity but it’d mean leaving the classroom.”
Ellie, mumbling around the ice cube: “Maybe she just hates saintliness.” She spit out the ice cube and spoke more firmly: “A lot of people do. I mean, picture it. She’s been railing at the universe for laying this albatross on her, this damaged, unloving, impossible kid. Her husband bails out and there’s you--choosing to spend your life with them, and getting two hugs a day no less. You mean you can’t see it?”
All week my stomach had been doing loops; I had felt like a forlorn astronaut, spinning outside of any orbit. Somehow this sudden offer of consolation, absurd and uninformed as it was, comforted me more than Mrs. Rosenzweig’s predictably reassuring words. And why? Because Ellie played the tart I respected her opinion? Because the world of high finance and live-in boyfriends was so different from my own? Because she dressed so well and was one of the wonderful Weird Sisters and, though I still saw myself as a colorless, mousy creature, unfashionably earnest and terrified of life, I was already imagining her taking me under her wing just as her darling, her high-minded Noemi, was on the point of deserting her for Marriageland? There was an opening. The surmise ran through me like a chill: hadn’t Noemi herself recruited me, vetted me over the Mont Blancs and coffee and small talk, and wasn’t that the reason she had invited me to this luncheon?
In her own fashion Jodi too was welcoming. She squirmed in sympathy. “God, it’s awful. I can’t even watch frame-up movies,” she said. “Remember, Ellie, I had to walk out of The Fugitive, even if it was Harrison Ford.”
There was more of this and I admit I lapped it up. I relaxed as they worked themselves up on my behalf, made suggestions, took my case to heart. Then they wanted to see my gag gift. My emotions were all mixed up now. I was grateful to them but also embarrassed by what I had chosen to give Noemi. I was afraid they’d disapprove or misunderstand. It mattered now.
“Oh, it’s not worth looking at,” I said.
“Come on,” Jodi cajoled with a little shiver of condescending friendliness, as if I were Orphan Annie. “Let’s see.”
I handed over my package and Jodi practically tore it open.
“Ah! A CD. Hank Williams?”
They looked at me for an explanation. “Noemi told me Jason was a country music fan, from Ohio and all, so I thought she might as well get used to it.”
“And what’s that?” asked Ellie, pointing to the paper I had folded four times and taped to the bottom of the disk.
I had been hoping they wouldn’t notice it. “Just a poem I like.”
Jodi giggled. “Like Ellie’s?”
Ellie threw me an endearing smile. “Go ahead and read it, sweetie.”
Jodi carefully detached the tape and handed the paper over.
“It’s by Philip Larkin. He died a few years ago, I think. By all accounts a very strange man.”
“I wish more of men were strange.”
“I know it’s not really appropriate for a newlywed, but there was something Noemi told me that made me think of . . . But look, I really don’t want to read it.” On an impulse I pushed the paper toward Ellie. “You do it. Please.”
Ellie unfolded the paper and read the poem with feeling, as if she had known it all her life, as though she had taken tea with Mr. Larkin:
Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.
Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds about the sky,
And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation
It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.
After Ellie finished nobody said anything for a while. Then Jodi surprised me; she brushed my hand.
“Maybe better for us than for Noemi,” Ellie sighed. “What was it she said that made you think of it?”
That’s just what I was recalling at that moment, what Noemi had said in the flush of a happiness so unconditional it seemed to me terribly fragile. She sat right there in front of me, a virtual stranger, conjuring up her future over a cafe table in the Village that rainy Saturday afternoon. What she said had stuck with me the way the poem had, a kernel of non-biodegradable imagery.
“Noemi told me about this beach house she wanted to share with Jason and fill up with kids.”
“Noemi adores the beach,” said Jodi. “I keep telling her it’s awful for the skin.”
“What did she say exactly?” asked Ellie gravely, as if eager to hear a thing she dreaded and envied, yearned for but resented.
“Noemi said she wanted this big Victorian house on the Cape, in Wellfleet or Sandwich; she said she’d have this huge skylight put in the bedroom, so that at night, when they lay down, she and Jason would be able to look up and see the stars and be together and put everything into perspective.”
“Yep. That’s Noemi for you,” said Jodi. “Cosmic perspective.”
Not much was said after that. But Ellie wound the luncheon up in high style. Sucking on her last ice cube and smashing the empty glass down on the table, she astonished us with a recitation:
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.
“Jeez. What was that?” asked Jodi.
Ellie was already on her feet. “Sweetie, you don’t recognize it? The first stanza of Noemi’s very most favorite poem?” As she pulled her bag over her shoulder Ellie turned away. “Same time next week, right? You call Noemi.” I saw only red hair. She didn’t even need to wink at me.