A SHORT STORY
Free love? As if love is anything but free!—Emma Goldman
LOVE AMONG THE ANARCHISTS
“I have been ill for the past three years. But I am better today.”
Kate Howard stares at the message on her laptop. Its screen sheds the only other light in the room, besides the soft glow from a brass lamp on the marble-topped desk. The green glass shade bathes the contemplative smile of a small silver Buddha in a wash of marine light. It is midnight in Manhattan on the Upper East Side. From her 9th floor apartment Kate hears the soothing undercurrent of end-of-summer traffic on blacktop just starting to glisten. For a full minute she scrutinizes those startling sentences, sifting recent memory for a clue to Paavo’s message. Ill for three years? When had they last been in touch? It had to have been e-mail because they had not spoken in a long time. A quick perusal of her ‘sent’ mail reveals no correspondence between them for at least a year. It is late and Kate is tempted to put off answering Paavo until morning. But her husband is still working in the back room. He is very nearly finished mixing a new song. She might as well stay up because Stephen, or Stee as she calls him, will want her to hear it. And her curiosity is piqued by Paavo’s message.
Paavo Kaasik, only son of Estonian artists, was born in Paris. His father, an emotionally pale sculptor, had escaped from a Nazi slave labor camp to France where he met his bride. She was a poet, an unflappable Estonian beauty with a hardy constitution. They grew up in neighboring cities along the border of Russia. Then living as refugees in Paris, Grigory and Ruta were momentarily overjoyed at Paavo’s birth. They immigrated to America, to New York and the reassuring proximity to other refugees near Oyster Bay on Long Island. They became citizens. She changed her name to Rita. Eventually their family grew, as did the despair of Paavo’s father who grieved for his homeland. Despondency not even a son and three daughters could relieve forced his retreat from worldly concerns and he sculpted fantastical topiary from the dense shrubbery surrounding their 3-bedroom, seagull-gray clapboard colonial. Those verdant monsters fascinated the neighbor kids and embarrassed his children.
His wife was their ballast, the one to put poetry behind her and get a teaching job. This led to a principal position at the high school in Locust Valley. She earned a comfortable if not particularly privileged life for her children, hoping to increase their choices by ministering to their needs. Her husband was left to his despair and the sculpture such as it was. The girls married strapping fair-haired Americans and all produced daughters who drifted from their oddly woeful grandfather when his wife died. They grew into healthy indulged teenagers who ran track, passed out at raves, played guitar and went to college. They had cell phones and then Blackberries; they posted on myspace and then facebook. They had no curiosity about the family history, the volumes of unpublished poetry their grandmother had left behind, or for their Uncle Paavo beyond what he gifted them—expensive trinkets offered in Tiffany’s signature robin’s-egg-blue boxes and elaborately patterned squares of silk he called fichus, which were received excitedly and then cast aside, too old-fashioned for the girls’ obsession with trends. They married professional men and had babies—more daughters as it turned out. Paavo’s sisters ignored the political quagmires he created for himself. He wrote passionately and extensively about the extremist right with an often barely masked vitriol. No one had given his sonnets anything more than a cursory glance. Paavo was left to carry on the family name and he had failed miserably.
Paavo’s seduction of Kate was facilitated by her willingness, her drive, to be enthralled. She read all of his sonnets. Kate had taken many lovers after her first marriage ended in divorce. Paavo was her intellectual conquest, the others before serving merely to pave the way. That he pursued her like a rutting buck, oblivious to his vulnerability in hunting season, was irrelevant. She knew she was incapable of having children and never revealed that to Paavo. It seemed cruel, at the time, to derail his purpose.
That was over thirty-five years ago. Perhaps it wasn’t so unusual, a communication from him out of the blue. After long absences reappeared and always in a different locale invariably determined by his personal astrology readings. An eclipse—lunar or solar—usually guaranteed a message from him, warning her about a crisis occurring right smack on top of her midheaven. Her nadir often did not escape its influence either. They were always interesting to Kate, his astrological predictions, but she never felt the transformative effects he had predicted. Or at least she wasn’t aware of them. The only time he’d been absolutely correct was informing her that despite his wish for a different outcome, everything he charted for Kate and Stephen twenty years ago signaled a strong union.
Paavo had once surfaced in Northern California and he expounded on the many pleasures to be found in the wine country of Sonoma. From Saigon, which he informed her was officially Ho Chi Minh City, he’d reported that he was delighted to be an object of curiosity to so many. He was on his way to Hanoi and then the beaches where he would be revitalized, astrologically speaking of course. The last time she heard from him he was in Chile, laying low in a little town called El Molle in the Elqui Valley. From there he wrote: “Extra terrestrials make the most landings on earth here.”
Kate taps the keys. “Where are you? Why no word until now? What do you mean, ill?” Hesitating, she deletes the questions and replaces them with another. “I hope you are really okay?” Paavo’s e-mail had arrived many hours before. She had been consciously avoiding the inbox while focusing on the short story she is writing. “Where are you?” she adds. “Still in the land of E.T.?” She hits send. The beauty of e-mail is that it never wakes anyone up, never is an audible, unavoidable bellow. Before she can pick up the glass of red wine on her desk he replies.
Paavo informs her that he’s on the West Coast again, this time at the opposite end of California, in the heel of the sock-shaped state. “I’m in Redondo Beach in southern California.” She types without hesitation. “I haven’t heard from you in so long. Why now?” Kate adds the smiley face to avoid misunderstanding. Instantly he replies, “I don’t know. I was thinking of you.”
Paavo only reveals that he is into yoga seriously, Viniyoga specifically, which is a type of Hatha yoga. Concentration on the breath sharpens and focuses the mind. “This brings spiritual advancement,” he continues. “Oh, and there are many, many difficult poses. I am quite advanced.” Without Kate asking, he describes at length the light in Southern California and how earthquakes and fires frightened him but were hardly talked about as if it was just as natural as can be. The personalities he comes in contact with are a hoot, all hippy dippy la-la—organic la-la, he stresses. It is sexier in the south. He is really quite happy to be there. A young woman he is ‘educating’, beautiful, exotic, is an aspiring actress. She is absolutely smitten with him. Oh, and he is teaching himself to read and write Sanskrit.
Perhaps he is drinking. Kate sips from her glass, studies the evidence of her lips on the rim. With e-mail it is not so obvious, especially from a man who is an alchemist with words. He has not asked how she is. “Okay, tell me about being ill? What was it? Are you really better now?” As if he has read her mind he responds: “I have quit drinking. Nearly three years now.” She waits this time and hopes he will answer her question. After a few minutes, maybe more like ten, a response appears.
Kate glances over the content, looking for her answer. He writes nothing about his health. Instead he tells her that he has been spending the past few days and nights Googling everyone they had worked with in Chelsea. “Like who?” Kate types, but deletes this question and asks instead: “What made you think of the newspaper? That was ages ago.”
Again, Paavo has ignored the question and after a few moments there is another wordy response. It reads like a cast of characters in a play by Arthur Miller. Some, he wrote, had not made it to their 60s as he and Kate had.
Rusty Trenchman was the original founder and owner of the weekly community newspaper where Kate and Paavo worked. Paavo was a take-no-prisoners, muckraking journalist. Kate earned her living as a typesetter. While she contributed captions and a clever headline or two, her creative writing remained outside the drafty walls of the dank, cavernous loft on West 24th Street where they labored practically around the clock to put out a weekly edition of the Chelsea Chatter. The hard working staff was a presence in the community. After each weekly edition was put to bed, they could be found in the neighborhood Blarney Stone—a low lit, stale-smelling, blue-collar rendezvous where salt-laden piles of corned beef and cabbage sweated on a steam table at the far end of the bar. They downed numerous pitchers of cheap beer between shot glasses of whiskey, their reward for striving to right the wrongs, beat the politically unbeatable, and throw fits when Trentman rejected an exposé if the target just happened to be running a full-page ad in the paper that week.
And where was Rusty Trenchman today? The man who loudly championed the underdog and left-wing social policies that failed to impress left-wingers, who was fond of repeating to his staff and anyone who would listen that truth was more important than being liked by everyone, was a millionaire many times over having sold the scrappy rag to a major media conglomerate.
Sonny Winter’s name appears next, someone Kate had not thought of in many years. He was the ‘Boy Wonder’, a fresh-faced journalist always with a smile as wide as his innocence. People were good. Politicians could be persuaded. Wrongs could be righted. He married his sweetheart when wedding announcements in the New York Times reported the bride’s name as Miss So-and-so. He walked her down the aisle into her wealthy, politically situated family of judges and community leaders. Sonny, Paavo reported, died of cancer just after 9/11.
Kate is surprised to see another name: Blossom. She was Paavo’s first and only wife. On the rebound from Kate, he married Blossom; a pretty and vacant young woman who aspired to be a photojournalist and Paavo was just the man to help her navigate the shutter. Already twice married she readily accepted another round with Paavo. He uncovered her name in an online column of the New York Times called “Vows.” Blossom Lovett Woodward Kaasik had added yet another surname. The ceremony took place in the spacious rent-controlled apartment where she still lived; the one she’d finagled from Paavo who, at the time they were divorced, was hopelessly debilitated by alcohol and debt.
Max Schovelt is dead. The only mention Paavo found of Max was a listing in Cypress Hills. It must have happened some time ago since the cemetery has been closed for many years. Max was one of Kate’s anarchic lovers, a radical leftist Jewish photographer whose idea of a romantic date was a jarring ride on a school bus to Washington D.C. to document a protest. Targeting Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal at the Impeachment Fair on the Mall proved an aphrodisiac. Foreplay was the long, sleepy, druggy bus ride back to Manhattan to a cramped tenement walkup on Ninth Avenue where they fell up into a loft bed littered with graphically bold pamphlets proclaiming various political, social and economic injustices.
Kate reads on. She knows where Dick Hardman landed. The most feared gossip columnist in Manhattan, he was difficult to avoid. His byline appears above his column in a major tabloid, which is driven by sensationalism. She wasn’t surprised though because she’d predicted some avenue of sleaze paved with money for the young, preppy editor-in-chief of the Chelsea Chatter when she’d inadvertently overheard him deliver a sniveling apology to their boss after the Chatter staff had revolted over a completely legitimate grievance. Years later when the right-leaning owner of the tabloid sought to break the unions, especially the Newspaper Guild, Dick strode right through the picket line, and for that he was richly rewarded. Paavo’s contribution is an exclamatory footnote: “Oh my god, Kate. You’ll love this. He’s married to a fucking von Richthoften! You were absolutely right.”
The Chatter’s angry, not so lean, Lesbian theater critic, Leah Franz, was now writing lean, angry Lesbian plays. Harold Maudlin had transformed his art directorial skills into Web Design at the Daily News. Ophelia Rosamund, Princeton graduate, was an anomaly among them in her relatively low-status job as a classified sales rep at the Chatter. Nicknamed Tippy, she was waspy rich and apolitical; more interested in the powder in Aspen than the thin white lines of it hidden in Dick Hardman’s desk drawer. Paavo found her long dormant facebook page and only one other online reference to a private school in Colorado where she was teaching art and French.
Kate purses her lips, amused. Why is he bothering with all this? Who cares? And she is tempted to ask that question: “Who cares?” Instead she types: “You need a hobby. Or better yet, get a pet.” She adds the smiley face.
“Ben Klein,” Paavo writes back. “Remember him? I think you had an affair with him. Married guy. They were a couple of anarchists. Wife wrote investigative stuff for the Chatter, quite the radical. Emma something?”
Kate remembers Emma. “Emma Gustafsson. Why?”
“Well, my dear, she’s writing trifling pieces on the Internet about pot growers in California, but he’s making an absolutely obscene salary.”
She grabs the slack, gray-streaked plait of red hair that drapes her shoulder and reads on. Ben Klein earned in the high six figures. His stock portfolio made him a multi-millionaire. He was still married to Emma and they had a daughter. He’d risen in the ranks of a major finance corporation, from management positions to a leader of leveraged buyouts.
“What’s leveraging?” Kate asks. “Doesn’t it have to do with downsizing?” Paavo responds, chastising her. “Downsizing is a terrible euphemism! But, yes, it means that often they do fire people, many people. Your friend is a buy-out specialist, my dear. The employees are not usually the pieces of the whole worth they are looking to gain.”
Kate rapidly shoots him a reply, like her finger’s on the trigger. “He’s not my friend!”
• • •
It was the spring of ’84 when Kate’s once translucent skin, white as porcelain and dappled with pink across the bridge of her nose when she blushed, was framed by thick red hair. She has long since put the brakes on excesses. But attention to the requirements necessary to maintaining physical beauty has lapsed. Hairline cracks have appeared on her face. An ice pack on her aching shoulder brings sweet relief. Her hands are coarse, and her feet often give her grief. Her feet? How odd to suddenly recall Ben’s infatuation with her feet. His wife Emma, who had largely remained aloof to their affair, could get steamed about that.
Kate met Ben at a rent party in Brooklyn and they shared the back seat in Max’s car on the ride home. Emma was in the front alongside Max flirting with him, Kate recalls. Earlier, among the rabble rousing drinkers of cheap wine accompanied by Mile Davis on the record player, Kate was dimly aware of Ben following her with his eyes; heavy-lidded, dark eyes that spoke silently of a kind of eloquent sadness. He finally introduced himself to her, out of earshot of Kate’s then lover Max. Never taking his gaze from her, he told her about his work, being an outspoken advocate for Shinnecock rights. Kate knew of the Eastern Long Island tribe because she had been out to Montauk a few times. Impressed, and a little drunk, she told him she was really a writer, or trying to be one. Under darkness in the back seat of the car his hand covered hers and she did not pull away.
He telephoned the next day and many times thereafter—often three or four calls in a day—and Kate did not think to ask how he had got her number. They were an incestuous bunch at the newspaper. Their affair started one night in his apartment. Ben and Emma lived in the Ansonia. The imposing Beaux Arts-style building, turreted and laced with ornate wrought iron balconies, commanded a full block on Broadway. Its grandeur suggested the broad boulevards of Paris. Sizeable too, were the hallways—the widest Kate had ever seen. The building’s past inhabitants were no less impressive. One of Kate’s literary heroes, Theodore Dreiser, had lived there.
Kate was the only dinner guest and, later that evening, Emma casually announced that she had a meeting somewhere and would not be back until late. Very late, she added, with nearly a wink as she left them to an empty apartment. Later Kate began to piece the puzzle, but that night she was effortlessly seduced. He put her in a cab. Emma called the next morning and informed Kate that she had left her glasses behind, adding: “What were you doing with my husband last night, you naughty girl?” Kate, stymied, mumbled something about too much wine and Emma assured her it was all right. Why didn’t she come for her glasses, stay for lunch?
Emboldened by the seemingly relaxed atmosphere between Emma and Ben, Kate also began to relax. She was an adventurer so why not see where it went? Afterwards, as he hailed a cab for her, Ben blurted that he thought he was falling in love. When could he see her again? She saw he was practically begging her and agreed to another meeting. Their affair grew like wildfire, roaring through them, engulfing and destroying their ability to resist.
He couldn’t get enough of her. Besides her apartment, they made love wherever they had a chance, even sneaking kisses in anonymous doorways near the Chatter, the thrill heightened by the possibility of Emma’s appearance at any time. Escapes to Montauk were possible when he had some business with the Shinnecocks. He adored her—the perfect skin of her and her luxuriant mass of red hair. Ben called her his lioness, Kate the Red. Sexually, Kate liked to do things and she liked things done to her. Ben confessed that his wife rejected those things, claiming it demeaned a woman. His sexual appetite was voracious.
Kate did not complain. Things only started to break down in little ways. Emma was determined to be Kate’s friend, to live openly in this strange dynamic. She dragged her around to shop for a birthday present for Ben or called her to ask what she thought Ben might like for dinner. She was cutting and sarcastic about Kate’s writing when Kate acquiesced to her demands to see it. Emma also took a lover but Kate learned later that it had only served to make Emma tearful and regretful. Emma began to talk about having children.
And Kate was beginning to be bored. Ben’s hot pursuit now had a cooling effect on her. A friend invited her to holiday in Mexico with them and a fellow student of her friend’s husband. Kate accepted. Ben cried the night before she flew out to Los Angeles.
Kate returned to New York ten days later. Tanned for the first time in her life, she looked rejuvenated. Her hair, lightened by the sun, was newly cropped in a fetching boyish cut. Ben saw her and cried. When she showed him photographs from the trip, which he insisted on seeing, she did not spare him the shots of her and the young man with the broad grin who had accompanied them to Mexico, happily sharing an over-sized margarita. Ben pored over those and cried some more.
• • •
It is nearly two in the morning. The street is quiet and a crisp chill comes through. A new season is in the wings. Ben, once a champion of the disenfranchised is now a Vice President of something he and Emma had condemned. Life is strange, Kate thinks. She lives a block from Central Park. A havoc-wreaking summer storm had ripped through the nearby north end of the park, uprooting hundreds of trees as if they were spindly saplings and not old giants. The pungent scent of fermenting mulch that hung over the neighborhood for months has finally dissipated. New trees had already been planted, an encouraging sign for Kate who had been dwelling too long on aging and its logical conclusion.
Yawning, Kate is about to close down her laptop and notices there is another message from Paavo. Stephen calls from the back room, urging her to come and listen to the song. “Just a sec, Stee and I’ll be right there.” Before turning out the desk lamp she opens the e-mail. “How are you?” Paavo writes. “Well and happy I hope?” She does not hesitate and types: “I am.”
LOVE AMONG THE ANARCHISTS is an original short story by Linda Danz.
STORIES ON THE AMERICAN FRIEND Writers Guild of America, East #R28299
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business organizations, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. The use of names of actual persons, places, and events is incidental to the plot, and is not intended to change the entirely fictional character of the work. ©October 2009.