Happiness is beneficial for the body, but it is grief
that develops the powers of the mind.—Marcel Proust
that develops the powers of the mind.—Marcel Proust
She listens to the young man standing before her. They are in the empty function room of Estonia House. The room is lined on either side with metal folding chairs. A paper tablecloth covers a long table holding electric coffee urns. Platters of miniature pastries lay untouched, and empty cups and plates wait to be filled.
“My father,” he says, “had always believed he had an astrological twin.” She’s known this young man since birth, since before his birth. There is the resemblance but the real proof is in his voice. She hears his words, but feels an undercurrent, some indefinable tension that birds must feel perched on power lines. This phantom’s manifestation, like an obstinate whisper in her ear, is his father’s presence. She knew this man, the person whose life will be the focal point for the next couple of hours. The son is interrupted from their conversation when other guests arrive.
Outside, the elegant Beaux Arts building fits like a storybook relic among the midtown neighborhood of massive, impersonal fabrication. Directly across East 34th street was where her father’s shop once stood in a 5-story tenement. He’d worked among a clutter of antiques awaiting rejuvenation. Gold leaf floated in the room like precious dust motes. The smell of varnish pressured the air of his second story loft forcing a sharp intake of breath until the lungs got used to it. The building was torn down to make way for a movie theater. For a long time the air space above remained clear. Now a suffocating wall of featureless architecture blocks the sun. She is unaccountably relieved to see the Clover Delicatessen still hugging a busy corner at Second Avenue.
Runners in the New York City marathon are somewhere all over the city. When she and her husband left their apartment on the Upper East Side the frontrunner for the men had already sprinted down Fifth Avenue, at the top of their street. She remembers her old friend. He had, for most of his life, abhorred exercise. He had never, as far as she knew, ever jogged. He was a writer, a journalist, and a poet. He was an astrologer, and a philosopher. He was a politician who never ran for office. He was a self-taught reader in Sanskrit. He provoked and informed. He argued relentlessly. He was sometimes high-handed with fatherhood. Mastering chess was an obsession. He devoured books until the end. He was a thinker, not a runner.
So, it was a dual surprise when, a few years after he’d left New York for a much sought after life near the Pacific Ocean, he informed her that he had been ill for a while and that he’d embraced Yoga. His body, he told her, had been under attack. The illness remained unspecified, her queries ignored.
He was happy. Southern California was sexier than New York, he said. He was where he wanted to be.
The room in the landmark mansion is too big for the gathering. An initial procession of guests tapers off and there are fewer than 30 in attendance.
Hers is among the low murmur of voices that must make inquiries among strangers, or recognize faces that time had for so long put out of sight. With a start she recognizes her old friend’s sister. She reminds her so much of her brother. When had they seen each other last, they cry? They embrace. A woman who is about her age is a stranger until she mentions her name. With a rush of memory catapulting towards her, she confronts the first time she met her old friend, over 35 years ago. It was at a community newspaper and the woman before her had been married to the founder. Her friend had been the editor-in-chief, a muckraker who strode through a basement warren overrun with cats, fully aware of and entitled to his personal significance. He cosseted the women in the office, carefully stoking their desire to be noticed, appreciated, and blithely fended off protestations of going too far. Yet he ignored her. She knew, even then, what that would lead to.
Footsteps echo off the wooden floor until a circle forms loosely around her friend’s son. He thanks everyone for coming to honor his father. He invites anyone who wishes to say something to please, feel free. After an initial hesitation one after another of the men present steps forward to recall a man who defied simple interpretation. As each takes a turn at raking memory into a personal reflection she whispers to her husband as to who she knew or had heard spoken of over the years. Most she does not know. Her husband quietly urges her to say something. What he knows of her friend comes from meeting him shortly after they’d married. The stories she’d told had little in common with what he is hearing. She demurs. This is the time to speak of a man’s accomplishments, his personal power and what he loved best in the world: Socratic dialogue, writing the kinds of essays of which she understood very little, his very great pride in his son’s accomplishments. One guest reminisces about an unflappable attention to detail, getting a story factually correct and still packing a wallop. They speak of his almost fanatic dedication to making a chess champion of his son. Another man expresses a joking disappointment at the absence of any of the young female beauties their friend had had in his life at any one time.
She thinks this man who is speaking would be shocked to learn that she—an unfashionably full-figured woman in her mid-sixties—was one of those women he idolized, put right up there on a pedestal and then lectured adoringly into cultural awareness, like Charles Swann’s obsession with Odette de Crécy.
She met him when she was divorcing her first husband. They worked together at the newspaper, she as a graphic artist supporting herself as a fine artist. She marveled at his flagrant self-possession. For a young woman with a background like hers, he was both fascinating and terrifying. Ignoring her was his way of stalking her. They danced around each other and sometimes with each other until, for a brief tumultuous time, they were a couple.
She was a painter. Her studio was a basement room on East 85th Street, across from the Dwight School. He knew her circle, her fellow artists, the journalists and all the rest of the crazies that made up her world post-divorce. He preferred to entertain rather than join them. She both resisted and embraced his Svengali-like attempts at educating her. He made her read Proust. He read philosophy and history for hours in her damp studio and they drank bourbon while she painted. He wrote sonnets for her that grew in grace and intensity. The ones she treasured most were about her cats. When she stopped sleeping with him he was both the jealous would be lover and the dispassionate observer. He urged her repeatedly. “You are a writer,” he proclaimed. “It is in your stars.”
Often he stopped by her studio, which was usually a buzz of heated discourse, dedicated drinking and the heady rush of oil paint and turpentine. When she wasn’t there he left hysterically funny notes taped to the studio door. His handwriting was an instantly recognizable swash. He signed the notes: “Ludwig Von Beetfield.”
He was as passionate as any man who is in constant spiritual and emotional pain can be. He charged at her, demanding, cajoling. He poured over her astrological chart and advised her. He told her what was meant to be. He, of course, was what was meant to be. She didn’t buy it. Artistic freedom was her reward for a difficult and stultifying marriage. He sometimes raged and she would send him away.
One night, when she’d sent him away, he’d lost his keys. In a drunken frenzy to escape her rejection he broke a window to get into his apartment. She shudders a little when one of the speakers, a roommate of his at the time, recounts his arrival home that same evening. Assessing the locked front door, the broken window, he laughs about calling the cops only to find his friend passed out in the apartment, snoring like a distempered bull.
Their commonality was their fathers. Defeated men, artists in a world that never understood them. He was both embarrassed and angered by his father. She knew that feeling very well. Never, he told her, had he ever felt anything but a freak, a stranger on the planet. Among his schoolmates he stood out for his Asian features. He committed a lifetime to exploiting that difference. He sharpened a rapier wit on their inadequacies. He was smarter than all of them. Of that, there was no doubt.
He married another when she finally, categorically refused his advances. Too much pain, she told him. Too much anger. They would drink each other dry.
He’d had a son, now her friend, who is wise beyond his years. She watches as he sits, silent and attentive to each speaker who reveals no secrets of his father’s life. The marriage foundered on the rocks of her friend’s despair at being misunderstood, of another hoped for protégée fleeing the force of his passion. When his son was still a little boy, his wife divorced him as acrimoniously as was humanly possible.
She leans closer to her husband. He takes her hand, squeezing it in recognition. The speeches fade in and out.
They reconnected when his son, still young, was tall enough to ride the Pirate Ship at Coney Island. She was completely taken with the boy. He knew she was set against a second marriage, as she was quite capable in her independence and her art. When she wasn’t looking he remapped the playing field and offered her a marriage of true minds. They would have an intellectual relationship based on vast amounts of freedom within the marriage, a kind of Bloomsbury marriage of the minds. He knew she didn’t want children of her own, and though he said he agreed, eventually he resorted to the poetic pressure at which he excelled.
He wanted to marry immediately and she insisted on a year. She wanted to go through four seasons with him. He told her he had stopped drinking. She needed more assurance. She spent time with his mother going to museums. His father roamed like a specter through his broken dreams. She looked forward to being a stepmother.
Within months of their announcement he bridled and threw off the constraints of sobriety. She broke the engagement.
“Are you alright?” her husband asks. The last speaker has retired to polite applause. The sister remains quiet and observant. Her physical appearance more proof of the family line. Her brow is creased with sorrow. A young woman with a softly rounded face and the features that guarantee her uncle will not be forgotten trembles at her mother’s side. She begins to speak. Her lower lip quivers as she stumbles over her gratitude to those assembled.
When, many years later, she’d told him she was going to marry again, her old friend went to great lengths to dissuade her. He told her finally that he had done everything he could to have the Universe inform him that the marriage was absolutely wrong. He’d read their astrological charts, consulted the Tarot and threw the I Ching. The answers never varied. Her marriage was destined to last. They were marrying in the most difficult of their respective phases and would be challenged on every level, but if they came through it, and he was sure they would, it would be a lasting marriage.
They remained friends. She felt he was distancing himself for the past few years but still he responded when she contacted him. When she saw him on his infrequent visits to New York and she accompanied him on a shopping mission, she found it difficult to witness his extravagance in courting some young woman or another with expensive gifts. It was a bittersweet recognition—knowing how financially strapped he was—of the same kinds of gifts he’d made to her a long time ago.
Coats and bags are retrieved. Guests slip away. His son’s wife keeps a wary eye on their little girl, trying to make sense of all these strangers.
His sister tells her before leaving that her brother’s ashes were scattered upon the Pacific Ocean.
“It’s funny, isn’t it, that the marathon is today,” she remarks to her husband. She looks over at her old friend's son who poses for photographs with his father’s friends. She waits for an opening to take her leave. “What about it?” her husband asks. “Oh, you know. The irony, if that makes sense. He wasn’t a runner. Really, the opposite.” She tells him he jogged her life on so many levels—art, culture, literature and politics. He jogged her way of seeing, of feeling and of learning. “It’s kind of fitting,” she adds, “that his memorial should be here in Manhattan on the day of the marathon.” Her husband touches her shoulder imperceptibly. “He walked and walked and walked these streets in search of stories,” she sighs.
“Come,” she says to her husband. “He’s free.” She starts for her friend’s son—her friend—and suddenly remembers an e-mail she received from his father. “Well, I am a grandfather,” he wrote. “She was born on my birthday. I am elated.” She steps carefully around the squirrely two-year-old bundle of blonde energy embracing her father’s legs who stares up at her with a familiar scrutiny. She holds the child’s gaze. He had found his astrological twin after all.
MARATHON MAN 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. © NOVEMBER 2011