Demands

[Originally published in a different form in Phoebe, Spring, 2003.]

Angel could not bear the mail that came for her. He could not bear the phone calls. He telephoned the banks and the insurance companies. He cancelled her library card and terminated her magazine subscriptions. He wrote to her alumni association, to the teacher’s union, the Sierra Club, the local public radio station and the Policeman’s Benevolent Society. In the end it was only the junk mail purveyors who refused to acknowledge his wife’s death. A month and a half after Liz had been cremated, Angel would come home to find that she had been pre-approved for a credit card and awarded a grand prize Caribbean cruise.

He moved out of their apartment. He could not afford the rent on his own and the landlord refused to adjust it, business was business. He might have stretched a month or two longer but the life insurance money hadn’t come through yet and he was reluctant to spend their modest savings, which were already depleted by the funeral, on such an extravagant act of nostalgia. He liked being there, among her things, in the rooms where they had shared their three years of married life, but he knew it would have to end. He would have to free himself from the demands of her belongings. Before moving out, Angel held a stoop sale and sold off almost everything—not only Liz’s possessions, but most of his own. Anything that didn’t sell was donated to the Salvation Army. He kept only things he thought he would need in the studio he had found for myself: the bed, a couch, a table and a dresser along with some items from the kitchen and the bathroom. Of his own possessions, he retained only his clothes and the radio. The television and the computer, he was glad to be rid of them. The stereo, books, music and bicycles: good riddance! From Liz’s belongings, he salvaged only two items, her engagement ring and a pair of shoes. For a while, he wore the ring on a chain around his neck. Now and then it caught in the hair on his chest, painful like a cut. The shoes were three-inch heels, black, with crisscrossing ankle straps. They were her favorites and the source of more than a few fantasies among her male student, Angel was sure. Looking at the shoes on the floor before he packed them, he could see the way Liz’s walk had misformed them, the heels worn down on the inside, the shallow craters left by the balls of her feet. Those impressions and the delicate, pigeon-toed stance in which they had been left were as evocative to as hearing her voice speak the outgoing message on the answering machine. “You’ve reached Angel and Liz. We’re not here. You know what to do.”

He knew what to do. He sold the answering machine, kept the cassette and left no forwarding address.

#

The new apartment was in a six-story building on Cabrini Boulevard in Washington Heights. It was a sublet from his friend Blake who had gotten married and moved out to New Jersey. The neighborhood was about twenty blocks north of where he’d grown up. He and Liz had moved to Brooklyn to get away from his family, and it was with some reluctance that he moved so close to them again. But the sublet was cheap and the neighborhood had the amenities he’d grown used having nearby in when they lived in Cobble Hill: an easy commute, good restaurants, and someplace comfortable to read the Times and drink coffee on the weekends. This could not be said of the other neighborhoods he’d looked at: Rego Park, Canarsie, and Marble Hill.

A week after moving in, he met a blind man in the lobby. The man, who was obese, and his harnessed black Labrador were returning from a walk. Angel held the elevator door open for them and then squeezed in.

“My coffin will be bigger than this fucking elevator,” said the blind man, whose bulk made the elevator seem even smaller.

Angel laughed and asked what floor. The dog looked up at him, twitching its nose.

“Four,” said the blind man.

“I just moved into 4C,” said Angel. He could smell the mud on the dog’s paws, see drops of water like jewels in its fine black coat.

“You’re Blake’s friend,” said the blind man. “He told us about you. I’m Otto. The dog’s name is Eskimo. We live in 4E.”

“Good to meet you,” said Angel as the elevator came to a stop. He stepped out held the door open for his new neighbors.

#

The following night, Otto came by for a visit, without the dog. “I brought this for you,” he said. In his hand was a bottle of port.

“Thank you,” said Angel. He examined the label. The port was twenty-five years old.

“Would you like to come in?”

“Oh sure,” said Otto.

Angel was still unpacking. He guided his guest past the piles of cardboard and newspaper to the couch. “Ah!” said Otto as he sank into the cushions. He was the size of man who eats pie-eating contests and his girth was emphasized by the loose-fitting sweats he wore. His face was jowly, with close-cropped blond hair and a trimmed three-day beard. Looking closer, Angel saw there was still some life in his uncovered blue eyes. They swam in his head, looking for light.

“Can I get you something to drink?” he asked. “Some of that port, maybe?”

“No thanks. You should save that for a special occasion. That’s a ’77. One of the best years of the century, or so Martin tells me.”

“Thanks,” he said. “Who’s Martin?”

“My partner. So how do you know Blake?”

“We were in college together.”

“I see. And what did you study?” The questions were asked in a tranquil, authoritative manner, as if he were being interviewed for a job.

“English.”

“So you’re a teacher or something?”

“A librarian,” I replied.

“Really? Where do you work?”

“New York Public,” he said. “Mid-Manhattan branch.”

“Oh man, I bet you get some crazy people in there.”

“Like you wouldn’t believe,” Angel said, smiling, then realizing that his smile meant nothing to Otto.

“So where’s you move from?”

“Brooklyn.” Angel suddenly considered the possibility that Otto did this to everyone who moved into the building—brought them a bottle and questioned them.

“Brooklyn.” Otto considered this, rubbing his stubble with his hand. “Everyone else is moving to Brooklyn. What brings you to the Heights?”

“My wife died and I wanted to be closer to my family.”

Otto nodded, his lips gently pursing. “I had a feeling it was something like that. I’m sorry to hear it. How are you settling in?”

“Still unpacking,” Angel said.

“Where does your family live?”

“163rd and Broadway,” said Angel.
“Still, it’s got to be tough for you. Martin and I were wondering if you wanted to come over for dinner.”

#

He welcomed the invitation. Once a week he went to eat in his mother’s kitchen, beneath the crucifix and the decorative plate bearing a map of the Dominican Republic. His father was a doorman at a building near Lincoln Square, and even after thirty years, he did not have enough seniority to get Sundays off. His mother spent the whole day cooking his favorites, but he now found that the food upset his stomach. “What’s the matter?” she asked. “Is that all you are going to eat? I’ve been up since six marinating that oxtail. She had never liked Liz. She didn’t like the fact that Angel cooked in their house; that Liz didn’t serve him like the other women did at the family gatherings; that Liz showed no interest in learning Spanish because she already spoke French. “I hope she pays you back in the bedroom,” his mother had said more than once. As far as his mother was concerned, the only good thing about her son marrying a white girl was the promise that her grandchildren would have light skin and “good” hair and now that Liz was dead, she blamed her for taking those grandchildren away from her. Angel sat in her kitchen on Sundays pushing the food around and not saying much beyond inquiries after his sister, who lived in Tampa and his aunts back in D.R.. “Miho,” his mother said, “Why don’t you talk to me?”

He didn’t talk to anyone. At work he’d requested a reassignment to the cataloguing department so that he could pass his days in the cool solitude of the basement processing MARC records into the computer and daydreaming about his wife. Since the sale and the move, she had been harder to conjure. He felt her receding now. He knew this had to happen, that it was healthy and inevitable, but still, he didn’t like it. Those first fetid summer evenings in the new apartment he lay on the couch listening to a ballgame on the radio, trying to hear Liz’s voice in the static between the play-by-play.

#

A few evenings later Angel walked down to 4E and was introduced to Otto’s boyfriend, Martin, an actor currently out of work. Martin was short and jittery, his head shaved and his body muscled. Their apartment was sparsely furnished to minimize the obstacles for Otto. It was decorated in bright, citrus colors. Angel imagined it as a slightly outdated hotel room in Miami.

Martin cooked for them, sautéed pork chops, garlic mashed potatoes and asparagus. A bottle of wine was opened and they spent the next few hours eating and talking. In truth, Angel did little of the talking, preferring to listen as Otto held forth on his childhood, which had been spent on Air Force bases in Germany. Later, before he had lost his sight to diabetes, he had worked as a shoe buyer for Saks. Now he was thinking of going to law school. From Martin, there were terse, seething descriptions of a privileged upbringing in Milwaukee followed by miserable years in architecture school before he dropped out to become an actor. They had lives, he thought, recognizing without envy what he was lacking.

By the time he left them, he had drunk far too much. Sleep came immediately, but it was hallucinatory. Two hours after getting into bed, he woke, bursting to pee, groggy and deranged, struggling to keep his balance as he shuffled to the toilet. Returning to bed he half expected Liz to be there waiting for him. He lay down, savoring the haze of time, uncertain what was real, remembering Liz getting up to pee, waiting for her to return so he could do something for her. Those nights when they were both awake were the rare occasions when she made demands of him. Normally, he was free to do as I pleased, to eat the same thing three days in a row, to wear his shirts un-ironed and to stay up late watching the end of a ballgame on the West Coast. It was part of the courtesy they had for each other, part of what made the marriage work. But in the small hours of the morning, if she knew Angel was awake, there was always something she wanted from him. “Tell me a story,” she’d say, or “Make love to me.” When she had her period it was always, “Rub my back, just here,” as she guided his hand. Other nights, it was “Get me a glass of water,” or “Close that window.” Always it was a request for some kind of comfort, which he fulfilled, gladly, gratefully. Other times, he had to perform for her. She’d turn on the light and he’d tell a joke or recite a poem. He’d even taught himself to juggle.

He lay there, waiting for her to come back to bed, trying to imagine what she would want, she who had never demanded anything from him in daylight, what she would want from him now that she was dead.

#

Autumn came, putting a drizzly end to the good weather and marking a half-turn of the year since Liz’s passing. Angel stood in front of the building with Otto and Eskimo. They’d invited him over for dinner several times during the summer, but not since Martin had started rehearsals for a new musical at the end of August.

“Do you know how to drive?” asked Otto?

“Yes,” he said. “But I haven’t driven in a while.”

“I have to visit my sister up in Larchmont. Normally Martin drives me, but he’s busy. I was wondering if you were free.”

The following Saturday Angel collected Otto’s car from a nearby garage. It was a silver convertible bought just before he lost his sight. “I thought I’d get the midlife crisis out of the way while I could still see it,” he said he got in.

They drove north along the Hudson with Otto riding shotgun and Eskimo in the perfunctory back seat licking his reflection in the window.

“God, I love this car,” said Otto. “Just listen to it!”

Angel hadn’t driven since Liz’s accident. He drove slowly, cautiously, eliciting horn-blasts from the cars behind them.

“Hey,” said Otto. “How fast are you going?”

“Sixty,” said Angel, adding ten miles per hour to their speed.

“Jesus, you’re killing me. Sixty? I this car? You better start doing seventy-five or I’ll come over there and drive it myself.”

Angel’s foot grew heavier on the accelerator and the speedometer needle swung to the right, hovering at a respectable sixty-five. The sound of the engine changed.

“Now you’ve got it,” said Otto, whooping as they drove through the Bronx. There was little traffic but by the time they exited the Parkway, Angel’s arms were trembling with the tension of driving. He had spent the entire journey remembering the details of Liz’s accident from the newspaper and police reports.

They proceeded along a series of avenues before entering a well-to-do residential neighborhood. The houses were large, some wood-frame, some brick. Otto directed him from memory into the driveway of a grand colonial where they parked behind a late model luxury car. They stepped out and Angel followed him and the dog along the driveway to the front steps.

“Ring the doorbell, would you?” said Otto.

The door, it seemed, was opened by a blast of sixties rock music. A woman appeared, kissing Otto and hugging him tightly.

“Hey Bro,” she said.

“Hi Sis,” said Otto above the din. “This is Angel. He was kind enough to drive me up here. Angel, this is my sister Marilyn.”

Something about her seemed familiar. Like her brother, she was blonde. She wore her hair in a bob, a kind of golden helmet. It looked to Angel like she had once been beautiful, though perhaps conventionally so. Her face was still lovely, but cast down and failing, uncared-for, interesting. There were blemishes on her skin from lack of sleep or tension or depression. Her body was fleshy in a voluptuous way, without being fat like her brother’s. She was dressed too casually, like someone who wasn’t expecting guests. Angel recognized it as the same way he had been dressing lately.

They went in. The music was so loud the picture frames rattled against the walls. Otto winced. “Christ, can you turn that down?”

Marilyn disappeared to comply.

On the drive up, Otto had told Angel that Marilyn’s husband had left her nearly a year before. He’d run off with a younger woman he’d met at work. The younger woman had since dumped him, but their divorce was proceeding. In the meantime, the house had been sacked by their three children. Adult order had been destroyed. Books and clothes and toys were defiantly placed where they did not belong. As Angel moved about the house, he found monuments and dioramas made from playthings and laundry, like some weird modern art installation. It pleased him in an occult way he suddenly wished he had done something like this with Liz’s possessions, made something of them, some totem of his loss.

After touring the ground floor of the house, Angel went back out to the car and retrieved the wine Martin had sent. He carried the case into the kitchen, which was a debacle of cutlery, food and dirty dishes. Opening the refrigerator, he found no room for the wine. The shelves were jammed with leaking plastic containers and limp vegetables.

“There’s a roast beef in there,” said Marilyn coming up behind him. “In the back. Take that out and there’ll be room for the wine.”

He pulled out a lopsided hunk of meat enmeshed in tin foil and plastic wrap.

“Don’t worry. A friend of mine cooked that for us a couple of nights ago. It’s still good.”

A few wedges of cheese and a carton of grape tomatoes were retrieved from the mess and carried to the dining room. Otto was seated at the table with Eskimo on the floor beside him. The dog’s nostrils twitched in he direction of the uncovered roast. Angel set it down and went back to the kitchen for a bottle of wine.

“None for me,” said Marilyn. “I’ll have water.”

“What?” said Otto, his eyes swiveling towards her. “You’re going to make Angel drink alone? You know I can’t have any.”

Marilyn appeared to consider the situation. “Maybe just one glass.”

Angel poured two glasses and fetched seltzer for Otto. Somehow he had become the waiter, but he didn’t mind. He was happy to be doing something. He brought out crackers, plates, a tray of butter. Mustard and chutney. Then he sat down and they ate and drank, not saying much. Once Angel had cleared the plates, Marilyn started talking. Angel refilled the glasses and slipped Eskimo a sliver of beef while she described for Otto the lives of the people they had known as teenagers, people who lived in Larchmont and White Plains, now married, divorced, rich and bankrupt. Conversation did not seem to be required of Angel so he went into the kitchen to get more wine. For the first time, he noticed a family portrait held to the refrigerator door by a magnet. Two boys, a girl, Marilyn and the departed husband. Something about the daughter made Angel double-take, but he wasn’t sure what. When he returned to the table, Marilyn was asking him a question.

“Otto tells me your wife died earlier this year.”

“That’s right,” he said. “In a car crash.”

“How old are you?” she asked and he could tell that she was already drunk.

“Thirty,” he said.

“God,” she said. “You look like you’re twenty-five. I’m forty-two and I hope you realize my brother is trying to set us up.”

“Marilyn!” said Otto. “The hell I am.”

She stood up from the table and approached Angel. She was wearing faded jeans and a loose cashmere V-neck with no bra. “Stand up,” she said.

Angel rose, almost colliding with her. She put her arms around him and squeezed. He squeezed her back, his chin in the crook of her neck, the tips of her short hair bristling against his nose. The embrace seemed to last a long time. It was the first real hug he had received since the funeral and it ate him up. It felt as good as anything he could remember.

“Hey! What’s going on?” cried Otto.

Marilyn released him. “I’m sorry about your wife,” she said. Her face was very close to him, She leaned forward and kissed him once on the lips, her mouth closed.

“Marilyn,” said Otto. “Cut it out, whatever you’re doing to him.”

She squeezed his hand, scratching his palm with her index finger and then backed off, returning to her seat. “Now that we’ve taken care of that, we can get on with the drinking.”

Angel sat down and poured more wine, his head swimming, ashamed at the erection growing in his pants.

“I’m sorry, Angel,” said Otto. “I had no idea my sister would behave this way—whatever she’s done.”

“It’s OK,” said Angel. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” said Marilyn. She drank some more wine and looked at him. “You know what you should do?”

“What?” he asked.

“You should join the Peace Corps.”

“Oh God, not that,” said Otto.

“That’s what I did when my first husband died.”

Widowed and divorcing at the age of forty-two. No wonder she was reckless, thought Angel. “How did your first husband die?” he asked.

“He drowned in Long Island Sound.” She drank some more wine. “I was twenty-seven, still kind of figuring out what I wanted to be. I didn’t know what the hell to do with myself, so I joined the Peace Corps. I mean, don’t you feel like you want to run away from everything right about now?”

“Sometimes,” he said. “Where did you go?”

“Romania.”

“And you’re glad you went?”

“Oh yeah. I mean it was hard. But that’s where I met my second husband. The one I’m divorcing.” She became quiet.

“Tell him how you met Marc,” prompted Otto. “It’s a good story.”

“You want to hear it?” asked Marilyn. “All right. I’d been in Romania about six weeks when they sent me out to the boonies to stay with this second year volunteer. He was living in this little town in Transylvania teaching English to high school kids. His name was Marc, a sweet kind of hippie dude from Rye, of all places. We hit it off right away. That first night, he took me to a bar in town and we got to drinking and talking and already I had that feeling about him, you know, like maybe something would happen. Around midnight there was a power failure and all the lights in the town went out. Happened all the time there. The bar closed up and we had to walk home. The problem was that all the manhole covers in the town had been stolen for scrap iron. The streets were pitch black and full of open manholes.”

“Just like being blind,” said Otto.

“Marc said, ‘Follow me. I know where the manholes are.’ I grabbed his belt and we walked back to his apartment. Every time we passed a manhole, he would point it out. They looked like they went all the way to the center of the earth, like if you fell in you’d never be able to climb out again. We made it all the way home and I ended up sleeping with him. Little did I know that ten years later he’d drop me into one of those holes by having an affair.”

Marilyn emptied her glass.

“Man, I need a cigarette,” she said. “Do you smoke, Angel?”

“No.”

“Well then pour me some more wine.”

By midnight they had finished four bottles between them and it was clear that they would have to stay the night. Marilyn was drunkest. “You can sleep in the boys’ room,” she said. Angel cleared the table, while Otto and Marilyn went upstairs. He started to put things away, but lost track, in the mess, off what was fresh and what was rotten. He was feeling pleasantly drunk. He swallowed a glass of water and went upstairs.

He worked his way along the corridor, looking for Otto, walking into a girl’s bedroom and a study before opening the door on Marilyn, who was sitting on her bed in a surgeon’s smock, pulling an earring out of her ear.

“Hello,” she said.

“Oops,” said Angel. “I was looking for Otto.”

“Since you’re here,” said Marilyn. “Why don’t you come in.”

He could still feel her kiss. He went in and sat beside her on the bed. In the months since Liz’s death, he’d had eyes for no woman. His libido was dormant, stirring now and then when he would dream of sex with his wife. He’d wake up and finish what his unconscious had started, but even that seemed more devotional that sexual. Now he sat beside Marilyn, with a clear view of one of her breasts through the gaping opening of her smock and he felt a raw desire pulse from his groin. He leaned in and kissed her, reaching for her breast, touching it gently. She fell back on the bed, giggling a drunken laugh. Kissing, they rolled over and she unzipped him, reached for his penis, pulling and squeezing rather expertly, he thought. But despite her deft touch, it would not cooperate and remained lifeless in her grasp. Angel kept kissing her and fondling her, hoping that something would ignite, but he felt increasingly ridiculous.

“Too much wine,” Marilyn said, and let go of him. Immediately, he sat up and zipped his pants. Meanwhile, Marilyn had rolled onto her side, with her back to him.

“I’m sorry,” he said and there was no response. She had passed out.

Angel covered her with the blanket. Seeing her asleep, her features unguarded, the inebriated abandon of her prone figure, he felt relief and gratitude for his own failings. He turned off the light and walked back along the hall, opening a door he had thought was a closet on his first pass. It was the boys’ room, with two twin beds. The rotund horizon of Otto’s silhouette was just visible in the dark. Angel entered and got into bed, noticing that Eskimo was on the floor between them.

“My intentions were honorable, I promise you that,” said Otto. “I like you and Martin says you’re a good looking guy. My sister was a knockout the last time I could see her. It seemed like a good idea. Martin said I was crazy, but I thought you could help each other out.”

“Maybe we did,” said Angel.

He woke to daylight. Eskimo stirred and then he heard Otto peeing in the nearby bathroom. Amidst the flush, he said he was going to check on his sister.

Angel got out of bed. Heavy-lidded and unsteady, he went downstairs and assembled the materials needed to start the coffee. He wondered if Marilyn would even remember what had happened—or, more precisely, what had not happened. While the coffee brewed, he filled the dishwasher, soaked the encrusted pots in the sink and wiped down the counter, slowly bringing order to the kitchen. He was filled with the satisfaction of small accomplishments. Otto and Eskimo came in just as the coffee was ready.

“How bad is she?” Angel asked.

“Pretty bad,” said Otto. “She’s up there wailing on God right now. I think we better leave her alone for a while.”

“Will she want coffee?”

“Better not. I’ll have some, though.”

While Otto and Angel were eating breakfast, the doorbell rang. It was a friend of Marilyn’s returning the children. They came rambunctiously into the house, divesting themselves of their coats and bags, a girl and two boys screaming “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!”

Mommy’s sick,” came the hoarse response from the upper floor. “Play with Uncle Otto.”

“But he’s blind,” protested the younger of the sons.

“Who are you?” asked the older boy looking accusingly at Angel.

“That’s my friend,” said Otto.

“Is he your “boyfriend?”

“Uncle Martin is my boyfriend. This is Angel. He lives in my building. Angel, this is Scott.”

“Hey,” he said.

“Later,” said Scott, climbing the stairs.

“Scott is ten,” said Otto.

Meanwhile, the younger son, Norman, had joined them at the table.

“What’re you eating?”

“Toast,” he said. “Want some?”

“No thanks,” said Norman, not looking at Angel.

“Where’s Annabel?” asked Otto?

“She went upstairs,” said Norman. He was five, his face lost beneath a curtain of blonde curls. He wore overalls and a plastic fireman’s hat.

Annabel came down the stairs. “Mom is sick!” she exclaimed. “I think she threw up.”

Norman laughed. “Eww. That’s gross.”

“I know,” said Annabel.

Angel had stopped eating. He was watching her.

“How was the slumber party?” asked Otto.

“It wasn’t a party. We just watched movies and danced. You want to see me dance?”

“Yes!” Angel said, before Otto could answer.

Annabel stepped to the verge of the dining room and preformed a series of exaggerated ballet moves, hopping and kicking in a fluid crescendo of limbs. Angel watched her intently because she seemed to have leapt directly from a photograph of Liz he had once seen, a photograph of Liz at seven or eight in a tutu, regarding the camera with defiance as she stretched. It was her. He felt it. His wife had come back from the dead to dance before him in a dining room in Larchmont after a heavy night of drinking and a failed attempt at sex with only a blind man and a five year old boy there to witness it. Angel had no idea where that photograph was now, but it didn’t matter. Annabel had brought Liz back to life in a way the shoes and the ring and even the voice on the answering machine had not.

When she finished her routine, they all clapped. Even Otto clapped, though he had seen no more than flickering shadows—no more and no less than Angel had seen.

Annabel looked at Angel harshly and said, “Now it’s your turn. You have to entertain me!”

“What would you like me to do?” he asked.

“I don’t care,” she said. “But you have to do something.”

“Tell me what. I’ll do anything.”

“You know what to do!” said Annabel crossing her arms with impatience.

He scanned the room, looking for an idea. Wine bottles, chandelier, cowboys and Indians, fruit bowl, sideboard.

Fruit bowl.

He smiled at Annabel and walked across the room to the sideboard. From the bowl he took three clementines, hefting them in his hands, feeling the firm ripeness of the skin. Gently he tossed the first clementine, then the second. As he caught the first clementine, he tossed the third, catching the second as he tossed up the first again, juggling them in a low roll, smooth as a man turning a wheel.

“Yeeeeeeee!” shrieked Annabel in delight, clapping her hands.

He was afraid to look at her. He was watching the clementines, one at a time, watching them rise and fall. He wanted to look. More than anything, he wanted to look and see Liz there in front of him, smiling and clapping her hands, but he knew that if he looked, he would lose his concentration and the clementines would fall. He kept juggling, listening to the applause and waiting for the moment when he could bear it no longer, when he would drop everything and look for her and see that she was not there.