He married his wife because she was rich. Eight years ago he had reconciled himself with her less desirable features—her enormous ass, her skinny shoulders and small breasts, her horsey, thick ankles, her grating voice that resembled the yapping of a shitzu dog—and focused on her charms. She had gleaming, long wheat-colored hair, thick and lustrous and horsey as well. When making love to her, he often bent over her long, white spine and pressed his face into the shockingly beautiful hair, inhaling the sweet shampoo smell of apricots. She had a lovely mouth. Her lips were perfectly pink, not grossly voluptuous and not thin, either. He had never once seen a pimple on her face. She didn't drink or smoke or sunbathe and her skin was like moist ivory, like a little girl's skin, even now, in her mid-thirties. In other words, she had some good features.
And, primarily, she was stinking, filthy rich. A Park Avenue girl to the core—Brearley, Andover, Barnard, summers in a ridiculously huge, seven bedroom house in Southampton—this was Cricket's life. The life that he and his divorced, former model of a mother watched happen around them with an envy that never once let them breathe a full breath of their Second Avenue, cat urine smelling, four story walk-up lives. If he thought about his meeting Cricket at a party, then their dating and socializing in New York, now so long ago—ten years ago! an entire decade ago!—he would still swell with pride. He'd bagged her. Nailed her. He'd gotten her under his thumb with the brute luck of his tall, underwear model handsomeness (he had a huge dick), combined with his evenness—he wasn't spoiled enough to have a drug problem and lose jobs constantly like many of her wealthy friends—and his dogged persistence. Her parents fussed over her older, prettier sister, who married well, and their favorite child, their son, who also married well, and so they didn't protest too much when Cricket announced that she was marrying him. George Severs married a Park Avenue girl. The joy and pride it brought his mother was worth anything. His soul, if he had one, his happiness, if he knew what that meant. It was as if all the terrible things that had happened to his mother—losing her looks as she got older, her husband leaving her for his secretary (when George was only two years old) and having four kids with his new wife, her subsequent degrading job and small, cheerless apartment—none of these things mattered anymore. His marriage erased her bitterness; he had redeemed her.
And so, when she died of breast cancer last year, George had almost not been sad. She had died so happy. He, he, George Severs, the average student, the son who hadn't gotten into any of his top choice colleges, not Columbia, not Berkeley, not Amherst, finally attending Connecticut College (which wasn't so bad), he had, finally, made his mother deeply and truly happy. She died quietly and rather quickly. Who knows if the doctors could have done more. She had been unreliable about getting check-ups and so was diagnosed pretty late in the game.
A year had passed now since her death. A year! And now George after work found himself going not straight home to their townhouse on Ninety-Fourth Street between Madison and Fifth, for which Cricket's dad had paid half as a wedding present, but rather to his old block. He got off the train two stops early and walked east of Lexington, to the corner of Second and Seventy-First, to the apartment building where she had lived until she died in the hospital, the apartment building where he grew up. A tall, respectable-looking building, pre-war, yes, but with an indisputable tenementy vibe to it. He could see apartment 4F's windows from where he sat in the Greek diner across the street. Cricket had helped him get rid of the worn, not really antique, just old, furniture. She called the pound, who collected the two cats. George kept one trunk, full of curling snapshots; it collected dust in the basement of their townhouse. His mother had rented the apartment and so Cricket called a broker and it was rented out to someone else immediately.
George sat by the window in the diner, trying not to be recognized, and watched people come home from work, watched them pull out their keys, their heads bowed as they let themselves into the building. After an hour or two of this, he walked home, quickly, his massive frame and large stride inadvertently forcing people off to the edges of the sidewalk. He didn't notice this happening. He walked up Second all the way to Ninety-Fourth. Years ago, he never would have walked up Second. Why do that? Why not cross over and look at the nice shops on Madison, or walk up the wide expanse of Park? But here he was, trudging up an undesirable avenue. And while he walked home, certain alarming, strange thoughts circled inside his brain—what's so wrong with Second Avenue? What was so awful about their lives, his and his mother's? The people letting themselves into his old building—they didn't seem any less happy or less important than the people on his new block. They didn't seem lesser at all.
When he arrived home, these crazy thoughts were gone. Thankfully. Cricket sat in the living room drinking a glass of Chardonnay, classical music playing, a thick, Italian fashion magazine in her lap. She did not look up as he noisily entered their house. Their three-year old son, Charlie, was already in bed. George was grateful Charlie was asleep. Charlie had his mother's thick, wheat-colored hair, but otherwise looked exactly like George and had since the day he was born. Big, blue eyes set wide in a rectangular face. A prominent forehead. Sometimes, while reading to him at night, or helping him out of his pajamas on Saturday morning, George felt like he was physically up against a tiny, pre-formed blossom of himself, and that every little thing he did mattered more than any one human could possibly withstand. His hands trembling, he felt that the slightest, awkward maneuver would destroy his little clone and possibly destroy himself as well. It was all very confusing. In an effort to pull up Charlie's pajamas, occasionally George's finger pressed against his miniature bottom. This filled George with disgust and fear and he'd pull his hand back from his son's flesh, forcing the elastic to snap against the poor boy. Even the acrid smell of his post-work, post subway ride armpits as they sat side by side on the couch, father and son, reading Goodnight Moon, seemed poisonous and ruinous. The pressure! George, on numerous occasions, broke into an icy sweat and called desperately, in a deep, curt voice, for Cricket's help. She would come in and relieve him of his duty, annoyed yet understanding, thinking George, like many husbands, didn't have the patience to deal with children.
Coming home late after his Second Avenue visits, dinner waited on the marble kitchen counter for George, in the form of a plate neatly displayed with some kind of meat, a vegetable and a starch. He put the plate in the microwave and pressed reheat. The food was often from a gourmet takeout, and just as often cooked by Cricket. She took cooking classes, and her dinners were indistinguishable from the takeout places she frequented. He used to say to her, "This is great! This tastes like it came from Antoine's!" thinking this was a nice thing to say. For a long time, Cricket said, "Thanks!" and smiled. Then, once, suddenly, she said in the most shitzu-yapping, high register she could achieve, "I find it insulting that the food I fucking slaved over to make for you, you think I picked up at the corner." His fork stopped midway to his mouth. She looked straight at him, holding his gaze with the glee of triumph. He thought, you lying, trap-setting, fake-as-shit cunt. And yet he said nothing and proceeded to finish shoveling the raspberry chicken into his mouth. She snapped herself up and went for the kitchen and he listened to her heels click-clacking smartly on the Mexican tiles as she started to clean up. Clack, clack went her shoes, and then the sound of water pouring forcefully into the sink. For a while then, he thought about how her smiles and thanks had not been genuine. They had seemed genuine to George. His appreciation, while perhaps overly earnest, had been real. He felt stupid, naive. He thought he was making her happy, in return for her making him happy. He had been wrong. And yet, life continued normally, of course. Cricket smiled often, slept well, rose early, and chatted eagerly to George about other families with whom they socialized. But George never believed her as he had before the incident. He stopped believing anything she said, really, unless it was a straightforward, nasty comment, of which, despite her generally upbeat nature, there were plenty. It dawned on him that she probably had no genuine feelings of the positive variety. From then on, he assumed that when she smiled, which she did quite often, that she didn't mean it. He knew that lurking behind her spunky appearance was an angry, calculating bitch.
And yet the thought of actually leaving Cricket filled him with despair. It reminded him of the drunks he met while tending bar in New London. While in college, he worked at a divey sort of place to make money for books and living expenses. It was populated by some Conn College students, but also by "townies," as the residents of New London were known to the students. One night, Chris, a townie, a cab driver who often drove visiting parents to their children's dorm rooms, a fifty-year-old alcoholic and cocaine addict, tried to wipe some sweat off of his face and his skin rubbed off and blood starting coming out and it didn't stop. George called an ambulance. During the next few weeks, the other townie regulars would come in and tell George what had happened. Chris had almost died. His liver had stopped working. But, after three months in detox, Chris returned to the bar, a different Chris in many ways, but the same Chris in a unique, astonishing aspect. He was thirty pounds thinner, he had lost his red pallor, and he drank club sodas, no lemon, very little ice, instead of vodka. He no longer was the biggest, loudest, most obnoxious man in the bar. In his place the new Chris sat, a meek, sad, bitter man, holding forth on the same subject matters as always—baseball, the best way to get somewhere in the town, the nature of the spoiled college kids and their snobby parents. He had been a horrible drunk. But a jolly horrible drunk. Boisterous, cheery, red-faced. Now, without alcohol, everything about him that had once seemed stupid and obnoxious now seemed terribly sad and fearful. He hadn't really changed, he would never really change. He just wasn't drunk anymore. George could barely look at him.
George knew if he left Cricket, he would probably be free of something awful, but he would still be George Severs, and he was pretty sure he didn't want to discover what that was.
There were nice things about Cricket that confused him. She overpaid her maid and nanny, because she truly felt they deserved to be paid well. Once, the nanny gave Cricket a bright pink T-shirt from the Gap for Christmas. It was sinfully cheap-looking but Cricket wore it all the time anyway, without complaining. She was polite to waiters. She loved her son and took wonderful care of him. (And yet she refused to have more children, which was fine with George.) She planned great vacations twice a year for the family. She never, ever complained about how much time he spent at work—he was an investment banker—nor how little money he made. His marriage was, by all means, a success. For their eight year anniversary, they flew to Venice for a long weekend without Charlie. It was nice. He read all of Smart Money, Fortune, Fast Company and part of a biography about David Geffen. She read the ever present thick fashion magazines and shopped. She shipped some furniture back to New York. They drank a lot of wine and, at night, finished their dinners with grappas.
That had been months ago. It was fall now. After their Venice trip, Cricket and Charlie summered in Southampton and so he had only seen them on the weekends then, when he went out to her family home. It was during the summer, after their Venice trip, that he had started to make his trips to Second Avenue. No one and no dinner waited at home for him, he had reasoned. And so he ate at the diner by himself, at the same booth, with great regularity, looking wistfully and with great confusion, at his former building. Summer was over now. He assumed he would stop going once Cricket and Charlie returned, but that had not happened. Now, instead of just feeling bizarre and overwhelmed by his compulsive after work detour, he also felt ashamed, as if he were hiding something, which, in fact, he was, when he returned to their house.
Of course, Cricket never asked him why he was always late, why every night he now came home at least an hour later than he used to come home. That would have been straightforward, and Cricket, as he had discovered, was not straightforward. And so, whereas once he would have come home amid the hectic nighttime ritual of putting Charlie to bed, and whereas once Cricket and he would have supped together after Charlie lay asleep, passing little bits of gossip and family planning back and forth across the table, now he returned late, and ate his microwaved plate of food standing up in the kitchen, while his wife sat in the living room with her wine and magazine and soothing Mozart. After he wolfed down his dinner, he'd come into the living room, maybe read the paper. They'd exchange some pleasantries, but because of his shame, or because of his lateness, or because something inexplicable had changed, a former intimacy inherent to their conversation was lost. George felt relief in this new, more distant interaction with his wife. He preferred sitting across the wide expanse of their living room from her, as opposed to the close proximity they once shared sitting at the corner of their mahogany dinner table, their elbows nearly grazing, her narrow brown eyes an arm's length away. Later, in bed, in the darkness, he had less troubles with Cricket. They fucked twice a month like clockwork, but in the dark like that, doing what they'd always done—no surprises for either of them—he didn't feel intimate. He didn't feel threatened or out of control. He didn't fear that he wanted to backhand his wife, because the violence he acted out on her with his dick sufficed.
It wasn't until the middle of November that Mrs. Ferguson approached George at the diner. He was at his booth drinking coffee, his briefcase lying on the table in front of him. "George, is that you?" She lurched toward his table, bags in hand, her mouth a smear of orangey lipstick. "I thought that might be you!"
"Mrs. Ferguson!" George stood and air-kissed her cheek. His mother had been good, neighborly friends with this old busybody. And when his mother became sick, it was true that Mrs. Ferguson had been helpful and kind and ran errands for her and even brought her homemade casseroles and lasagnas regularly. After she died, George had to return a number of baking pans to Mrs. Ferguson. And when they were overseeing the removal of the furniture, Mrs. Ferguson came out into the hallway, tears in her eyes, blabbering on about how wonderful George's mother had been. He remembered how he awkwardly asked her if there was anything she wanted from the apartment. He explained that he and Cricket didn't need any furniture, and beyond a few keepsakes, everything else was going to be given away. Would she like a chair, an end-table? Her tears quickly dried up as she picked through an assortment of furniture, choosing a rather newly-upholstered wingback chair. His mother had loved that chair. The movers took it to her apartment and he walked in with them momentarily. There really was not enough space for the chair, but they managed to shove it into her living room somehow.
"Why, I said to myself, could that be George Severs? I ran out to the CVS to get some toilet paper . . ."
"How are you?" George boomed at her, shaking her hands too aggressively. "How's the chair?"
"The chair?" Mrs. Ferguson seemed confused. Why did he say that? "Oh yes, the chair is fine."
"Well, I'm just finishing some coffee, just had a meeting here with a junior associate, it's a late night, and I better be on my way." He shook her hands again. "Great seeing you."
"You know, it's funny," Mrs. Ferguson said, hoisting a bag full of toilet paper on her hip, "but as I walked by on my way to CVS, I thought, who's that man, looking out the window? Why he looks so familiar. And the whole time I was in CVS I was thinking that maybe it was you. And, I have worried about you, George. I know how you loved your mother. I didn't see your associate, and I was thinking maybe . . ."
"Ah, yes, he left and I'm just trying to get the energy to get going! It's a little cold out there, you know!" George was nearly yelling. "Great seeing you!" He went for the door after he leaned in for another air-kiss, this time managing to make a loud smacking noise into the old woman's ear. He felt her startle, but he kept going, out the door, into the not so cold November night, and because he was disoriented from running into Mrs. Ferguson, he started walking down Second Avenue instead of up. After a block or so, when he regained his equilibrium, he decided to just keep walking downtown. He stopped into a bar and drank a quick shot of whiskey. Heat poured into his face. Uneasy, he walked out to Second again and thought, what the heck? Why not go all the way to the village? Why not take a cab? When was the last time he was downtown, unless, of course, he was on Wall Street? During college, he and some of his buddies over the holiday breaks would meet at clubs downtown and check out all the weird, arty chicks. And during boarding school, he and his buddies lived for downtown. Nobody carded them at the bars or delis, and often they'd buy a six pack of beer each and go "stooping." This involved sitting on other people's stoops near Washington Square Park, each drinking their six beers and smoking grass bought from some dealer in the Park. Drunk and high and excited to be alive, with great curiosity, they watched gay men and NYU students walk by, until a tenant or owner on whose steps they were stooping asked them to leave. But sometimes, rather than being asked to leave, a resident would sit and drink with them. This was always very exciting.
The cab dropped him off at the entrance to the Park. He walked through it and was amazed to see professional men and women taking their dogs out or holding the hands of their children. Where were the dealers? The club kids? Eventually, near the West entrance of the Park, he saw some Rastas selling weed. He bought a tiny little bag of what seemed to be a sticky bud of pot and realized he'd have to go and buy a pipe to smoke it in. He left the park and walked around, not really knowing where he was going, everything seeming familiar and yet he had no idea where he was. Waverly? McDougal? He found a brightly lit head shop, with vibrators, pipes and bongs gleaming vulgarly in the window. He purchased a tiny brown pipe and some screens.
George returned to the Park. The night was very mild, not cold at all, not moist or dry, but perfectly balanced, only the smallest breeze dropping leaves lazily to the ground. To sit on a park bench, the air sweet and good, and a real bud of pot in hand! Nostalgia coursed through him, leaving him soft and weak. He smoked. One Thanksgiving break, eagerly fleeing Kent for the week, he'd brought home with him a boy from Utah, who couldn't afford to fly home for the holiday. His name was Lance Summa, a scholarship boy, who, although he was very smart, was somewhat of a troublemaker and barely made it through Kent without getting booted out. He had asked George if he could come home with him and George had said yes because George wasn't very good at saying no. George's mother didn't mind so much. She had felt sorry for Lance when George had explained his situation.
Although Lance was clearly an outsider at Kent, he was cool too, in a dark, mysterious way. He listened to Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin instead of The Talking Heads and The Grateful Dead. Skinny and high strung, but often generous, Lance was known to share his homework, albeit only after insulting the intelligence of the borrower. He could do a barrel of drugs and still talk his way eloquently through Vespers and dinner. No one could figure him out, but he undoubtedly impressed his classmates. When the boys, carrying duffel bags full of laundry over their shoulders, walked up the stairs and into the apartment, George's mother was still at work. It was early evening, on a Friday night. The traffic could be heard loudly, even though they were four stories up. George realized Lance was the first Kent boy who'd been in his apartment. Lance looked around, but didn't reveal any feelings whatsoever. "Where do we crash?" he asked, and George saw that he didn't think badly of where George lived, because he didn't know well enough to think anything at all.
The first few nights they hung out with other Kent boys, in Park Avenue apartments, getting drunk on the booze of parents who'd left the kids in New York while they went to their homes in the Caribbean. That had been lots of fun. But on the night before Thanksgiving, with nothing to do, they took a cab downtown and bought pot and got stoned in the Park. Then they purchased six packs and found a nice stoop to sit on. It was a night like tonight, a perfect night for sitting on a stoop. The owner of the brownstone came out and sat with them. They shared their beer with him and he had more pot which he rolled expertly into joints and passed around. He was a gay man, in his early forties maybe, with delicately styled, blonde hair.
Lance went inside with the man. George was really fucked up—high, drunk and profoundly happy to be so. When Lance came back out, he was reeling. "Oh, man, Mr. Fagboy has some serious shit in there!" Snorting and breathing weirdly, Lance continued, "Coke, rush, the works! It's your turn, Big-Dick. Don't be superstitious, it doesn't mean anything and he's not gonna hurt you. He's gonna love you." George went inside. Superstitious? What did Lance mean? The walls were painted dark green. On the zebra-print couch sat the man, with a mirror full of pristine, cut lines of cocaine. "Your friend told me all about you," he said, smiling shyly.
It was George's first blow job in his life, and remained the best.
The next morning, George's mother, stepping over the sleeping Lance, sat next to her only son on his childhood, twin-size bed, a bed still covered with sheets printed with rockets and astronauts, and stroked his back with two fingers, just how he had liked it as a little boy. He woke slowly, foggy-headed, from a deep, dreamless sleep. "My boy," she said, "my boy," and everything, everything, was OK. He went back to school that Sunday. Lance and he continued to smoke bongs together on occasion. Nothing changed, as if nothing had happened.
George stuffed the remains of the weed in his little brown pipe. He inhaled deeply, luxuriating in the fragrant perfume as he exhaled. He stretched out on the bench, as much as he could, his knees bent and his arms behind his head. The sky was dark, but he saw no stars. Who would make things OK now? My boy, my boy, thought George. He could say that to his son. My boy, my boy. He could rub two fingers on his son's back. But it wouldn't be the same. No, it wouldn't be the same, but it might be all he could do.
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