...she's tired, and scared, and she's also / mad as hell, /not at my dad, but me--yelling / that she doesn't want to be in this poem / for one more minute...
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Suzanne McConnell’s fiction has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, won First Prize in the 2014 Prime Number Magazine Awards for Flash Fiction, and an excerpt from her unpublished novel was awarded Second Prize in So to Speak’s Fiction Contest. She leads seminars at hospitals, is writing a book on Vonnegut’s advice to writers, and recently completed a short story collection. She is fiction editor at Bellevue Literary Review.
I wake to the phone ringing like an alarm. It’s the middle of the night. I clamber out of bed, hard-won sleep, into the living room, grope for the receiver. “Isabella,” my neighbor Viv says in her throaty, demanding voice. “Lost my keys. I’m at the booth two blocks away. Come downstairs and let me in.” The phone clicks off.
I light a cigarette, and now I hear her raving like a maniac coming down the street. I move to the kitchen window and stand in the dark in my nightgown, trembling with rage, waiting for her figure to catch up with her voice shattering the night, and now I see her at the edge of the streetlight. Viv and I live across the hall from one another. We’re on the top floor of a five-floor walk-up. It is 1976, downtown, New York. The building is owned by Mafiosi who run the garbage business. On the next block, there’s an empty lot. Then the river. We’re on the edge of the city.
The stairway stinks. The floors slant. Everyone in the building is poor. Except for a musician on the first floor who, like me and Viv, is in his twenties, everyone is ancient. All the old residents worked in the Washington Market, when this neighborhood was the produce center of the city, until it moved to Hunt’s Point.
I’m a painter. I moved to the Big Apple with my fiancé. We both graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute. When we split up after three years here, I moved to this apartment. He kept the loft in Soho. I waitress at Mick Rue’s, the neighborhood hangout, three blocks away. The bartender graduated from KC Art Institute too. He got me the job.
Viv moved in last fall, two months after me. I recognized her. I’d met her at a party, when we first came to New York. She doesn’t remember. She was with David Marks, the famous abstract artist. Friends of mine are friends of his. They told me he and Viv lived together, that he was twenty years older, that she was a photographer and worked as an assistant editor at Vogue.
Soon afterwards, she had her first breakdown. My friends told me that too. She was twenty-three.
That’s what I knew, when she moved in. Now she’s twenty-six. Viv is beautiful. Her eyes are dark blue, shaded with thick brown lashes. Her hair is a rich chestnut. Her mouth is expressive, her voice low and sexy. I often say “roommate” referring to her, instead of “neighbor.” She’s shaky, I mean her hands usually shake from her meds, her mouth is dry from them and she has a habit of licking her lips. It took me a while to get used to something not quite present about her, or maybe just self-absorbed. I am trying to remember how we became friends.
We exchanged keys for security. Our apartments mirror each other. The hall between is tiny. We hear every time the other’s door opens or slams shut, the climbing up or down the stairs.
I was wary of her at first. I had never known anyone schizophrenic.
Then I began to realize her intelligence, her great eye.
I paint fog. I am not interested in fog per se. What interests me is shape, shade, the distinct line between things and the lack of it. One day, a month after Viv moved in, I am in a twit. I can’t tell if the painting I’m working on is doing what I want. I’ve covered the one small window and used the entire wall to stretch the canvas as far as I can, in this small space. Viv pounds on the door. She knows I don’t answer when I’m painting. I told her that when she moved in. But this time, exasperated, I do, paintbrush in hand. “What do you want?” I snap.
“Milk. For coffee. What’s the matter, Isabella?”
“I can’t get a take on whether this painting is working.”
“Let me look.”
Why the hell not, I think. Her take on it is the reverse of what I intend. She sees foreground where I intend background. She points out the precise edge that is the source of confusion. She tells me how I can solve it. The next day I invite Keith, my painter and bartender friend, to check it out. He sees the foreground/background the way Viv saw it. He doesn’t offer a solution.
The painting is of Vapors rising on a pond. It’s my grandmother’s pond near Traverse City. Or at least, that was the basis. Dawn, September. The water, warmer than the air, evaporates languidly, hovers like low fog. I’ve closed in on a part, abstracted it.
In the next weeks, I’ll make the contrast greater in that spot where Viv mistook the water for foreground instead of the vapors, as I intend. I’ll add detail, lighten the fog-wisps to bring them forward.
So after that, Viv begins to stop by in the late afternoons when she comes home from the children’s clothing store where she works three days a week, after I quit painting for the day and before I go to waitress. We have a smoke, a quick chat. This is how I find out, little by little, all the things I begin to know about her.
Soon I know a lot, more than she knows about me. She’s from a rich Boston family. Her father’s an entrepreneur. They pay her rent. She has an older brother and sister. She graduated from Vassar. Her full name is Vivian Walling Jones Prescott. She won’t answer to ‘=”Vivian.” She hates being a schizophrenic.
I hate that she is too.
This is what she knows about me: I’m from Saginaw, Michigan. I’m from a working class family. The oldest of six. Painting has been my salvation and ticket out of there.
One day she tells me about the egg white facial. Cheap, effective. “My mother did this,” she says. “And she’s still beautiful, in her fifties. And the girls at my school.”
“Boarding school. In Zurich.”
We go to her apartment. We separate the eggs, whip the whites to a fizz, dab it on our faces. They stiffen, tighten the pores. “Don’t giggle, Isabella,” she commands. “Don’t chit-chat.” We wait five minutes, ten. Then we rinse.
“Definitely more gorgeous,” I say, gazing at us both in the mirror.
On Thanksgiving, I tell her about the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes. She comes to my place, I retrieve my ancient Chinese coins bought in Chinatown, show her how to toss them. We read aloud the hexagrams we throw. She gets #3, “Difficulty at the Beginning,” dwells on a phrase about losing your way without “the forester” whom she interprets as David Marks. I point out the words “perseverance” and “It furthers one to appoint helpers.” I get #18, “Work on what has been spoiled” with one changing line. In it “Setting right what has been spoiled by the father” leaps out at me. I tell her about my father, a Polish immigrant, a machinist at the GM plants, pissed off most of the time, sexist, racist, and how I can’t stand up to him. I confide that I bloodied my tongue once instead of raging back.
Viv asks why. He addressed me as “Stupid,” I tell her, mimicking his sarcasm. This time just after I’d graduated with my B.A. “But why didn’t you rage back?” I can’t answer. I don’t know. I was afraid I’d die. Or kill him.
Viv’s a great shopper. She combs the thrift stores. Persuades an old friend to transport a yellow couch and chair she’s found, vintage Forties, with arcing steel armrests. Her sensibility is spare, fine. She has a small claw-foot oak dining table. Lovely pillowcases and fine linen on her bed. I think she took them from her parents, the last time she visited.
She insists I go with her to the Upper East Side, after I complain I’ve no money for clothes and it’s near the holidays. She knows all the thrift shops there, they’re the best in the city. We take the subway to Lex and 77th, spend all afternoon on Third Ave. I’m amazed at her discernment. She finds an antique brass lamp, bargains the low price down further even though the price is stamped, discovers a blue silk blouse that matches my eyes. She’s forceful, fast, bossy. I’m exhausted by the end, but have a great silk blouse for a song.
On her walls are two small paintings. One is by Marks, another is by an Italian friend of his, equally famous. A square of bright block letters. That’s Rossi’s. The other, blue wire wrapped around white canvas.
It was David Marks’s last present before she went to the sanitarium, she confides one afternoon.
He’s stayed in touch. Sends her postcards. Christmas and birthday presents. Gives her art. Sometimes she sells it. He knows that, she tells me when I ask.
“He’s good to you,” I say.
“But he didn’t want to live with me when I got out,” she says.
I tell her about my ex-fiancé. I tell her about the abortion.
“You wanted it,” she says.
I nod. “I mean…”
“…the baby,” she says.
It’s during this conversation that I notice she finishes my sentences.
Mick Rue’s lies on the V-shaped split of West Broadway where Church Street starts, across from a cement island planted with sycamore trees that routes the Holland Tunnel traffic either across town or up. In that three-cornered park, under those trees, the homeless crazy lady wears her man’s hat, her man’s clothes, and rants in a rasping, harsh, guttural man’s voice. She faces the telephone building so the word has spread that she used to work there, has a grudge against the company or someone in it. I don’t know about that but I know now the meaning of the word “possessed.” That voice inhabits her like an evil spirit.
Every time I pass her, which is daily, I wonder how Viv acted when she had a breakdown.
Most of the people I wait on in this no-name neighborhood are artists. Everyone’s struggling to pay the rent and do art. Sometimes established artists, like Artschwager and Serra, drop in. The talk at Mick Rue’s among the guys—because it’s mostly guys—is construction jobs, making art, making it in the art world, and real estate. My real estate is this cheap rental apartment. The small room in which I paint dictates the paintings’ size. These guys have built lofts, like my ex and me; most are illegal to live in, so the spaces are mainly huge studios with minimal living quarters and amenities. But anyway, if you’re serious it’s uncool to be swank.
I’m sick of waiting on these guys.
One December evening my ex- fiancé comes in with a woman when I am working and has the fucking gall to sit at what is obviously my station.
I can’t sleep that night.
“Who broke up with who,” Viv asks.
“Nothing’s mutual,” she says. “What did you do?”
“Asked Tommy, my boss, to seat him at another waitress’s station.”
“You should’ve told him off.” She shrugs. “You’ll find another boyfriend.”
“So will you,” I say.
But I don’t. And neither does she.
We both find sometime lovers.
Mine’s married. A dealer. We don’t go out. He comes into Mick Rue’s too. That’s where we met. He doesn’t come in with his wife. She’s a model. She’s often gone. She flies to Hong Kong, Rhodesia, Paris and so on, for shoots. She’s here, though, on holidays. Christmas, New Year’s.
Viv’s lover drinks. He’s sane, smart. He comes and goes. He won’t give her the satisfaction of stability in their relationship. He’s nice looking, seems to be writing a novel, but has no job. I think he’s on unemployment. They drink and I wonder what that does to her, combined with her meds.
It’s a cold winter. The wind whistles straight through the empty lot from the river. The building’s windows rattle. Gas heaters in our living rooms send heat up but not around. My bathtub is in the kitchen, like everyone else’s except for Viv’s, whose tub has been converted into a shower, and every time I bathe, I have to take off the white metal cover that serves as chopping block, shelf, etcetera, as well as all the things on top of it. I turn on the oven, and shiver getting in, and shiver getting out.
I am stalled on that painting. I am stalled painting.
I can’t sleep.
Viv and I buy plastic sheets from Canal Street and help each other cover our windows to keep out wind. I am sick with flu. She invites me to use her shower. She is sick with flu. I bring her soup.
I become obsessed with my lover. Viv’s lover Tom is intermittently constant. Her Italian friend Rossi visits. They hole up over there for three days. He’s just come from Turkey. They’re doing drugs. Hard drugs.
And so, we get through the winter. March roars in like the lion it’s supposed to be. Wind tears at the plastic. Bends pedestrians, hurls debris.
One such afternoon, James Taylor’s singing “Fire and Rain” on the stereo when Viv stops by, and she says, “He was there, where I was.” Everyone knows he had a stint in a sanitarium. I ask her what it was like. “Green lawns, you know, like a country club.”
I’ve never been to a country club, but I can well imagine. “I meant, what was it like for you.”
”I don’t want to talk about it, Isabella.”
But then she does. She was there just short of two years. One of her doctors still prescribes her meds. She sees him once in a while.
“Do you talk to him, when you see him?”
”No, he just gives me my meds. They just give meds, Isabella.” She picks up the album cover Sweet Baby James, turns it over. “James Taylor checked himself in. That was a long time before I was there. All the res’ still talked about him. He could get out whenever he wanted. My parents had me committed.” She lights a Winston. Her hair falls across her face. “I tried to kill myself when I first got there, Isabella.”
“How did you . . .”
”They pumped my stomach.”
“I’m glad you didn’t succeed.”
She inhales. Exhales. “It sucks.”
“Schizophrenia.” She looks at me with her worn dark blue eyes. “This isn’t the way it was supposed to turn out, Isabella.”
I picture the way her life was supposed to turn out. Then I picture how I thought mine would.
”I lived with maman and peré when I first got out. They were not too happy. David found me a sublet in the village.” She turns the cigarette between her shaking fingers. “After a few months, I stopped taking my meds. That time they took me to Bellevue. Don’t ask. You wouldn’t want to know, what that was like, Isabella.”
I imagine the stink of urine, ammonia, fear, helplessness. I imagine people doped-up to the max, wanderers, catatonics, head-bangers, screamers, mutes. Overworked, underpaid aides and nurses, ranging from kind to sadistic, mostly Latino and black. A way station of neglect and despair.
My ideas come from the nursing home where I worked one summer, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the crazy people on these streets.
March goes out like the lamb, and then comes rain, rain, rain. In late April, it clears up.
Down here, way over on the West Side, there are no blossoming apple or cherry or magnolia tree, no daffodils or tulips in bloom. The Hudson is bordered by wrecked piers, deserted warehouses, the abandoned West Side Highway.
That upper level of highway is becoming our park. Shoots of green grass, weeds and a few dandelions sprout up between broken cement. People have begun to take strolls there, to bike unthreatened by traffic, from the Chambers Street ramp north to Fourteenth Street, where the collapsed hole left from the truck and car falling through remains.
I take watercolors and bike to Central Park on my day off, and there, every growing thing is sprouting, budding, or blossoming. All afternoon I am able to see clearly. I make several small watercolors, exult in the fragrance and possibility of spring and the fact that I’m able to concentrate.
When I come home, the front door is ajar. The Irish lady on the second floor is coming down the steps. “It was that girl Viv just came in left it open,” she says. “I heard her go past. She’s got heavy steps. Tell her to mind the door.”
I haul my bike up, have just set my stuff down inside and am looking forward to a bath, when Viv barges in. “I need some company,” she says.
”Hey,” I say, “Give a knock first.”
She’s wrinkled, in sloppy clothes, has her pack of Winstons in hand, and one lit. She flops down on my couch. “What’ve you been doing, Isabella? Talk to me.”
I tell her about Central Park, the new chartreuse of a weeping willow. “I did some watercolors.” I take them out of my backpack to show her. She knows I haven’t been painting.
“Don’t talk to me. I can’t talk right now.” She is gone before I can mention the front door left unlocked.
Already everything seems foggy again.
That night, she knocks. “Could we listen to some music?”
I am washing dishes. She notices the order—my rotating between glasses, silverware, plates. It’s unconscious, a leftover, sometime habit, I tell her. When I was a child, I was compelled to be fair to all things. Couldn’t favor the glasses over the spoons, etc. She says when she was a child, she thought her real parents were their housekeeper and handyman, an African-American couple, Dolly and Herman.
I put some music on. She lies down, lights up, closes her eyes. Van Morrison sings, “Little Johnny’s gone, way down along the backstreets . . . never never never never wonder why . . .” Suddenly Viv says, “I can’t stay any longer, Isabella.” She tumbles out the door.
A few days go by. She doesn’t stop to chat. I don’t hear her door slam in the morning when she goes to work. She doesn’t come by afterwards. I wonder vaguely what’s going on with her. But I’m preoccupied.
I spend two nights with my lover. I come home in a downpour, umbrella-less, and discover I’m without my keys. I call Viv on the payphone two blocks away, ask if she’ll throw me down her set in about five minutes, and she says she will. I stand at our building, yelling up “Viv! Viv!” rain splattering into my mouth, but she doesn’t appear at her window. I walk to the booth, phone again. “Oh,” she says, “Sorry, Isabella, I fell back asleep.” Once more, soaking wet, I stare up, yell. At last she tosses out the keys, wrapped in a sock.
My lover’s wife returns. She’s home for three full weeks. He and I talk on the phone. He calls me “Hot Shot.” Phones at all hours. His voice is seductive, a cello. I don’t feel like painting. I stare at the receiver, will it to ring; one day I dial and hang up when I hear his wife’s voice. I want to talk about that, about him. I knock on Viv’s door.
She opens it, wearing a T-shirt but no underpants and a bowl and dishtowel on her head. “David has gone to Australia, Isabella.”
I tell her he’ll be home soon. It’s only for an exhibition. I tell her to go back to sleep, if she was napping, that I’m sorry to disturb her.
But it’s too late. She insists I come in, take a coffee. “I have new demitasse cups.” Her mouth is turned down. “I’m still in love with him. I think he loves me, but I don’t think he likes me. I wish he would marry me. But it will never happen. If David were here, everything would be all right. He would take care of everything.”
She forgets to make the coffee. She tells me about a new man she’s seeing. She lights a cigarette. Her pubic hair is bushy. “Alkies are worse than dopers,” she says. “This guy’s a doper, so I’ve come up in the world from the last one.” She shrieks with laughter, and I realize she’s not licking her lips from the dry mouth her meds give her. She rants about Tom, who hasn’t called in weeks. She suspects he’s still in love with his previous girlfriend, he won’t do this and he does do this, she’s growing louder. Her mouth contorts, suddenly she blasts “Men are shits! Why doesn’t he love me? All men are shits, Isabella! Men are shits! Men are shits!”
“Viv,” I say quietly. “Viv. Don’t. Don’t.” She shuts up.
I slip out. My face is pinched, my body tight. The very air seems assaulted and it takes immersion in a long warm bath for me to recover and the turbulent air to settle.
A week goes by. Another. Tom hasn’t called. Our landlord has discovered that Viv lives here. She paid the previous tenants $2000 in key money for the privilege of using their name and continuing to pay the old rent-controlled rent of $75. Now the landlord wants a new lease, and her rent will go up to $175, the same as mine and still dirt-cheap but a hundred more per month than she’s been paying. And she has lost her job. And David remains in Australia. Her wealthy parents have paid enough for her already, they tell her. They won’t give her another cent.
I know all these things because she’s told me. It’s on the stairs, pausing, when we run into each other coming and going, that she confides these, in quick lucid moments, before moving on up or down. I wonder if the crazy telephone-building lady has such lucid moments. I don’t think so. She has no neighbor.
Viv is losing weight. Her clothes are hanging on her, her face thin. I think of contacting her parents. I don’t know how to get their number. I can’t ask her directly. She would be suspicious. If David Marks were in town, maybe I could call him. But I am in a fog myself. I don’t sleep well. I haven’t painted in a long time. I can’t see clearly. I am having a hard time making decisions. I sometimes cannot decide when to get out of bed. I can’t figure out where to put dishes on the shelf, and the other day at Mick Rue’s I spilled catsup all over a customer for lack of seeing the table’s edge right in front of my eyes. The other waitresses complain of my rudeness, that I fail to greet them when arriving or say farewell when leaving. I tell them, “It’s not because I don’t care about you. I just don’t notice you then,” and one says, “Yes, that’s what we mean.”
My friend Keith’s girlfriend, who works for the government’s Small Disasters Office and has had episodes herself of fogginess and grand indecision, suggests that I go to the outpatient clinic at Bellevue and get some anti-depressants. It’s cheap, and they work, she says.
My bedroom opens onto a tiny entranceway, then kitchen. One night I awake, startled by the light in the foyer. I hear a sound. I am terrified.
A form moves in the kitchen. I am holding my breath.
Then I see Viv, naked, closing the refrigerator door.
I sit up. “What the hell are you doing? You scared me half to death.”
“Oh Isabella, I didn’t mean to scare you. We were hungry. We didn’t have any money.”
“Who is ‘we’”?
“My friend Seth and I. You’ve come into my place so I thought I could come into yours, but you don’t have any food.”
“I thought it was a robber. Who’s Seth? Why did you turn the light on?”
“It was dark. Oh I’m sorry, Isabella.”
Friends tell me to get my key back. They tell me to stop engaging with her.
I make an appointment at the Bellevue outpatient clinic. I’m sitting in a hallway waiting to speak to a therapist, when two cops burst in dragging a black guy. They’ve got him by the arms, face-up on his back, he bumps by me along the floor, shouting. He’s in a raggedy coat, I see the holes in the bottom of his shoes, he stinks. The cops are white, big, they’re shouting back, don’t give a shit whether he’s bruised or broken, drag him into a room far down the corridor. I want to leave, I can hardly see straight, hardly open my mouth, I manage to get up. They call my name. The therapist beckons me into his office. I follow. He looks nice enough, he tells me to sit down, asks what’s the problem. I can’t even speak about what I’ve just seen. I feel helpless, unable to move. I don’t know if he’s witnessed it or not. He inquires about my parents. I tell him about my father, a Polish immigrant, a machinist at the GM plants, my mother a seamstress, first generation Italian, Catholic, blah blah blah. Siblings? I’m the oldest of six, yes, I took care of them. The problem is I can’t make any decisions, I say, smiling. He asks my present circumstances. I’m a painter but I’m not painting. He probes about my father. He’s overworked, volatile, sarcastic. Yes he yelled, yes I was afraid of him. No, my mother could not or did not stand up to him. He asks, And do you always smile and give a little giggle when you talk about something painful?
Viv tells me on the stairway that she saw Tom. “He told me I was too schizy for him.” Her mouth contorts. “Fuck him! He’s a goddamned doper, Isabella! He’s too much of a doper for me! Fucking shithead! Dopehead! Dickhead!” She’s like a live socket, short-circuiting.
I remember a book I read once, You Are Not the Target. But she’s screaming bloody murder at the top of her lungs, and the screaming is at me.
I move by her, on downstairs.
Sunday morning I have five guests for brunch. That’s as many as my living room will hold. I am trying to focus, to distract myself, to conjure up a social life apart from art and my lover, to cling to normalcy. I use my grandmother’s waffle iron. Viv intrudes three times. I introduce her to those she doesn’t know. She has half a cup of coffee, retrieves a Vogue, bums cigarettes, jumps from one thing to another. “Tom, that bastard, hasn’t called. What do you think of this dress, huh? You didn’t make enough coffee, Isabella.”
I don’t know what to do, I tell my friends. She’s losing it. She doesn’t have anyone. She’s manipulative, they say. She’s throwing her craziness around.
The next Saturday night, Viv has a party. She borrows my big pot in the morning to make chili. In the afternoon she asks me to taste it. “Not as good as Tom’s,” she says. “Not quite as good as my friend Tom’s.” She invites me. I promise I’ll drop by when I get off work, if it’s still going.
It is. I know, soon as I’m in the building. It’s near midnight. I knock on her door. Someone lets me in. People crowd about the claw-footed table, squeeze together on the sofa. Viv’s in motion, and her laughter’s low, almost sinister, and then loud, high, hysterical. Everyone else is quiet. When she goes into the kitchen, someone says, “Let’s get out of this cuckoo’s nest.” People begin to depart. “But it’s early,” Viv protests. “Let’s smoke some more dope.” She mutters ferociously under her breath as they clatter down the stairs, slams the door shut behind them, dumps ashes on their plates, shrieks.
In the morning, she knocks loudly. “You haven’t cleaned out the hall yet, Isabella. You said you would do it. Tom and I put up with that for a long time. Why don’t you do what you say you’re going to do? Why are you looking at me like that? Quit looking at me like that! I’m sick of everyone looking at me like that!”
“Viv,” I murmur. “Calm down.”
The next afternoon she is rushing upstairs as I’m going out. She pauses, her mouth softens. “I’m sorry I yelled at you. I’m sorry. You’re the only one who doesn’t look at me like that. I’m sorry, Isabella.”
But I have. I have looked at her like that.
I remember the paranoid woman in the nursing home who looked at us all with horror, backing away if we approached, refusing to eat, believing we were poisoning her food. I wanted to shake her until her teeth rattled. She didn’t see me, or us. Eventually some of her fear came true. They pinned her to bed with restrainers, poked needles in her arms to feed her intravenously.
At my second visit, the therapist asks about my relationships. I tell him about my ex-fiancé, the abortion; I try not to smile. He points out my mouth has drawn down. I tell him about my lover. The relationship is restricted to sex? Yes. He asks how I felt when I had the abortion. Barren. And how do you feel when you have sex with your lover? Wanton.
Viv’s electricity goes out. It isn’t her fuse, she’s checked. She asks if she can plug into my apartment. “I’ll get someone to look at the main fuse box as soon as I can,” she says.
“Okay,” I say. There is not another soul who cares about her right now. I can’t leave her without refrigeration. I can’t leave her in the dark.
She promises she’ll call our landlord, Vinci.
“Or an electrician,” I say. “It could take Vinci’s guys a long time.”
Her new friend Seth, a lank-haired, wall-eyed guy who can’t stop talking, appears with two thick heavy-duty black extension cords, plugs one end into a socket in my kitchen and joins the other end to hers in the middle of the hallway between us. Beneath both our front doors are cracks they snake through.
Days go by. “The electrician said there’s nothing wrong,” Viv informs me. Her power returns. She removes the extension cords. So it wasn’t that she didn’t pay her utility bill, after all.
On the weekend, my lover picks me up after I get off work, and we go to a dive around the corner and drink and dance. He’s promising me an exhibition, I don’t want a show in his gallery, it’s not legit, he says it is, we argue, we don’t mention his wife, we’re drunk, we slobber over each other, touch each other under the table. I hunger for his mouth all over me, to go home with him and fuck, but his wife’s only out with friends, she’ll be there waiting for him. When I get home, I hear Seth talking away. The sound is menacing and nonsensical. Viv’s hit the bottom of the barrel with him. She and I are plugged in once more. It’s two in the morning. I step across, unlock my door.
The next day, she sticks her head in my kitchen. “It quit again, Isabella.” I tell her I saw that. I ask her if she’s paid the bill. She admits not, in a jumble of info I am able, barely, to decipher. Con Ed postponed it before . . . Seth promises . . . money . . . as soon as I can . . . oh please, Isabella.
Even in her disheveled state, her eyes are beautiful, her mouth evocative; I can’t bear thinking of her head being bumped along a hallway floor. Her struggle is agonizing and heroic.
The cord presses around my bathroom. Every time I go to the john, I have to disconnect it. Sometimes I forget to plug it back. Then Viv comes knocking at the door. Often she anticipates I might forget, and even before I am off the toilet, there’s her knock and anxious “Isabella?”
I begin to dread turning up the last set of stairs, as another week goes by, then another. I hate the thick black cords across the hallway. Each time I leave or return, I see them plugging us in together.
One late afternoon, Viv pounds on the door, urging me to have an espresso with her and Seth. “You haven’t come over to chat in a while,” she accuses. It’s the hour we used to gab together, after she got home from the children’s clothing store and I was going off to Mick Rue’s. So I go over, sit down with them, the espresso is waiting, he’s a really weird dude, the telephone has been yanked out of the wall, I’m uncomfortable and stiff, it’s dark in the apartment, her black extension cord dissects the living room floor and connects to an electrical strip which services the table with the hotplate and lamp at the moment. The espresso is mud. I ask for milk. “You don’t take milk with espresso, Isabella,” Viv says. “Everyone knows that.” Seth starts in on the goddamn phone company AT&T monopoly corporate fuckers, and he’s off in a low-toned, menacing, vitriolic spiel. Viv asks what I’ve been doing. I tell her I picked up a paintbrush. She looks at me. Her mouth curls. “You’re not so different than me, Isabella. You’re not any different.”
I get up, I have to get to Mick Rue’s, I thank her for the espresso, depart.
After work it takes me even longer than usual to fall asleep.
I wake to the phone ringing like an alarm. It’s the middle of the night. I clamber out of bed, deep sleep, into the living room, grope for the receiver. “Isabella,” Viv says in her throaty voice. “I’ve lost my keys. I’m two blocks away. Come downstairs and let me in.” The phone clicks off.
I have been standing in my nightgown at the kitchen window with a lit cigarette, trembling with rage, waiting for her figure to catch up with her voice shattering the night, our relationship flashing through my mind. We’ve come to this moment: The landlord’s on her neck; she’s lost her job, Tom, and electricity; her friends are fading; her family’s deserted; David Marks is gone; she hates being schizophrenic so she’s quit her meds and now she can’t even trust her own mind. She is ranting and roaring all that onto the street, she is dumping it all onto me, she’s pushing it as far as it will go, she’s sure I’ll let her in, I’ve let her and let her.
Now I see her at the edge of the streetlight. I am not smiling. The therapist would applaud. I’ve never felt such rage. It’s clarifying, I discover. Everything is in focus. I’m clearer than I’ve been in months.
I open the kitchen window. I lean out the fire escape. “Viv!” I thunder.
She shuts up. She cranes her neck.
“I’m throwing down the keys!”
“I thought you were coming down,” she shouts back.
“It’s five flights. Middle of the night. I am not walking down!”
I toss the sock. It lands on the curb. She crouches, picks it up and moves out of view underneath the fire escape toward the doorway. I know she will not work the keys. She wants me to come down.
I wait for her to appear again on the sidewalk. She does. “Isabella! I can’t get these keys to work!”
“Yes you can, Viv! You can do it! I know you can do it! Remember, the one with two prongs is for the upper lock. Try it again!”
All the neighbors, to whom she has not endeared herself, must hear us yelling back and forth the five stories. We must have woken them by now. I do not care.
“Isabella! Let me in! I can’t work these keys. Come down and let me in!”
“I don’t want to walk down five flights. Try again. You can do it, Viv. I know you can do it!”
I wonder if she will. I light another cigarette. If she gets in, I’ll have time to smoke it and in triumph. But she reappears sooner than she did on the last try.
“You let me in! You let me in, Isabella! Come down here and let me in!”
“Quit screaming! Try it once more. They’re the same keys as yours. So you can make them work. Come on, Viv! I know you can do it!”
Oh try, Viv. Just this once. And you’ll see you can. I entertain hope, that possibility, as I stare down through the fire escape. After a longer while, she reappears.
“Isabella! I let you in once. Are you going to let me in or not? You come down here now and let me in!”
“You didn’t come down for me! You threw me the keys, Viv. The first time I phoned, you forgot. It was daytime, not the dead of night, and you let me get soaking wet!”
“Isa-bell-a!” She bellows like a cow.
“Okay. I’m coming.”
I clump down the stairs in my nightgown. I go outside. The door slams locked behind me. She is sitting on the fender of a car.
“Well, it’s about time you got here. It’s about time you let me in.”
Suddenly I am shaking all over. “Viv! Shut up! It’s four in the morning. I’ve had insomnia for weeks. I just got to sleep. You woke me up. You can use these goddamn keys as well as I can!”
“Isabella. I’m tired.”
“I don’t care if you’re tired! I’m tired!”
“Isabella, my hands tremble. I can’t get the keys in when my hands tremble.”
“If you stood here long enough and concentrated hard enough, you could! I can’t help it if your hands tremble! You get in every day and your hands tremble! If you have trembling hands, you still have to get in, with them or without them!”
“Isabella, I love you,” she says, and now the mouth is pleading, quiet, and she reaches an arm out and touches me.
“Yes, and I love you too, or I wouldn’t be bothering to do this! Why the fuck do you think I’m going through this shit?”
“Okay,” she says. “Okay. Give them to me.”
She takes the keys from my hand. She is calm and determined. Her hands shake. She puts in a key, but it doesn’t fit.
“Okay, so what do you do now?” I say.
“You move it over on the key ring,” she says, and her quaking fingers push it to the left next to the leather key case. “Then you try the next one.”
“That’s right,” I say.
She puts the second key in. It is the right key, but she turns it the wrong way. “You’ve only tried it one way,” I say. She turns it the other way. It jams. “Remember this lock requires finesse,” I say. She jiggles it and it moves, and turns, and she pushes the door.
“It’s open,” she says. She bounds inside.
She rushes up the stairs. “I didn’t think you were ever going to come down.” She resumes talking loudly, where she thinks she left her keys, hungry, she caught sight of David, the damn door, Tom, a dog, all-night diner . . .
“Viv! It’s four a.m. We’ve probably woken everyone already. Be quiet!”
When she reaches our landing, she turns. “Would you get my keys and unlock my door?”
“No. I’ll get your keys, and you can unlock your door.”
I open my door, get my set of her keys from the hook, and hand them to her. She steps over the cords across the hall. She puts the key in her door and begins turning it, muttering curses, this way and that.
I shut my door. I wait. Pretty soon, I hear hers open. Viv has gotten in her own door.
I lean back against my doorframe with relief, the way people do in movies.
I step into the kitchen. My cigarette has burned to the stub. It’s glowing.
There is a knock. Her insistent, strong knock. What more could she want? How far can she possibly push? ”Isabella. Isabella.”
Force of habit and incredulity and weariness cause in me a giving in, a physical collapsing, a surrender. I open the door.
”I’m out of cigarettes. You forgot these.” She hands me back my set of her keys. “Could I have one of your Marlboros?”
I exhale at length. I am so weary. I don’t have the energy to resist. I take the keys she hands me. “Hold the door while I get one.”
I step into the kitchen for the cigarette. I bring matches. “Do you have a light?”
I strike a match. She leans in for the flame. “Thanks, Isabella,” she says. She takes a long draw on her smoke. She exhales. She looks at me. “Well, what do you think?” she asks. “Is it worth it?”
I look back at her. Her eyes are dead serious. “You mean life?” She looks at me steadily. I consider. “Yeah,” I say. “Life’s worth it.”
She hugs me, and turns around with her shaky hands and crumpled shirt, her beautiful eyes and mouth, and goes back into her apartment. The next day, and the day after that, I don’t see her. Or hear her. She doesn’t answer when I knock.
The third day I’m frantic. I am afraid I have pushed her over the edge. I am afraid she changed her mind. I am afraid she is lying somewhere dead on the street.
I phone everyone in touch with her recently except Seth, whose last name I don’t know. No one has seen her.
I cross the hall to her apartment, careful, as usual, not to trip on the cords plugged in together. I unlock her door. A half-filled coffee cup sits in the sink. Her bed is made. I stand there looking around. I spot her Rolodex. I take it with me.
I dial her parents. Her mother tells me Viv is in Bellevue Hospital. They had nothing to do with it. They were notified. She put herself there. She went to the police precinct near her apartment two mornings ago and asked them to commit her.
I am horrified.
“Don’t ask,” she’d told me about her stay in Bellevue. “You don’t want to know what that was like.”
I call David Marks. I identify myself, explain what’s happened. I tell him about my altercation with Viv, the keys, how off-the-wall she’s been, how it got worse and
worse, I repeat her final question that night, tell him that she took herself to Bellevue the next morning, that I feel I drove her there.
He says, in a soft-spoken voice, that he understands. He says he and Viv lived together for three years when she began raging, all kinds of things came out of her mouth. Then one night after a dinner party she was scraping food from her plate and put the plate itself into the garbage. That’s when he realized she was having a breakdown. “She went there for her own safety,” he assures me. “She did it to save herself.”
I can’t believe my ears. “She told me being there was a nightmare.”
“Nevertheless,” he says. “She did the best thing she could do for herself. You didn’t shove her over the edge. You pushed her into facing the fact she’s out of control and needs help.”
The word “asylum” pops into my head.
Maybe there’s comfort in being surrounded by people as crazy or crazier than you are. In rules. In walls.
I thank him. I thank him on her behalf for being a good friend. I hang up the phone. I take the Rolodex back, wash the cup. I water her tulips.
I throw the I Ching for Viv and me together: #20, “Contemplation.”
Days go by.
I dismantle the plug, tenderly.
My lover calls. Not this week, I say.
I tell my therapist. I tell him about Viv and me. I tell him all of it. I tell him about bloodying my tongue instead of talking back to my father. I tell him that I went along with the abortion. I could not get my wanting up from my belly out my throat into words. Only afterwards, I confess, when I changed toward him –”In what ways?” the therapist interrupts; “I got withdrawn,” I reply – did my fiancé realize how much I had wanted our baby. I go to the Museum of Modern Art, visit Monet’s Water Lilies, Renault’s Christ, Picasso’s goat, Giacometti’s precarious Walking Men. I stroll through the Impressionists. I love this museum. It is so small, it seems womanly, delicate. You can see all you want to see in a long afternoon. I avoid the contemporary work. I don’t want to think about competition or view art by anyone I know.
I go to the Met, to the African wing with the masks and totems.
I happen upon a quote by Sam Francis. “Color is light on fire.”
At Mick Rue’s I wait on two women making waves in the art world, Elizabeth Murray and Judy Pfaff, whose paintings I admire.
I throw the I Ching. #46, “Pushing Upward.”
I phone Bellevue. Viv is allowed to call back. She is heavily sedated, her voice thick. “No, I don’t want you to see me here,” she says, when I say I’ll visit. She intends to come home.
I stand in front of the painting I did in the fall and stare at that fog/water line.
I stretch a new canvas.
A thundercloud looms over the far side of a pond, and is, at the same time, reflected in it. It’s my grandmother’s pond near Traverse City. Dawn, June. The light behind the viewer or painter, obstructed by trees and hill, makes the near water shadowed, the far side brilliant. No one would mistake the evaporating mist for foreground. The separation between blue water and chartreuse grass on the opposite shore is piercingly clear.
I transform this into distinct shapes.
I haven’t spoken to my ex-fiancé, my true love, for a year. I entertain the idea of phoning him. Forgive me, I would say.
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