If We Only Lived in Manhattan
Her name is Ellen. She tells me that her friends call her Elle and that she would like me to do the same, but I don’t; I don’t call her Ellen either. She is sitting in a red chair across from me smoking a cigarette with two hands, one right next to the other, like she is playing an instrument, the flute, perhaps, with perfect form. She says sometimes her arthritis flares up so badly that she has to smoke with two hands or else she’ll end up dropping ash all over the carpet, and yes, she tells me, she knows full well how ridiculous she looks smoking with two hands, but she says she guesses that’s just part of getting old—learning to be ridiculous on a day-to-day basis. She is 52, although she looks older, I tell myself, probably from smoking, Pall Malls, her brand, counting her years like rings inside a tree.
I know she is 52 because there is a stale chocolate cake sitting on her bedside table; crumbs are everywhere. The cake says PPY 52ND BIRTHDAY in bright-green frosting letters; the H and A are missing, eaten sometime ago. She says she likes the smell of aging chocolate, which is why she leaves the cake sit out all year, and that she looks to it as a reminder—she’s not exactly sure what she hopes to be reminded of, but she tells me she likes that the cake makes her contemplate death, and she enjoys watching how with each year more and more cake is left over, how her appetite for sweets slowly decreases cake by cake, year by year.
She offers me a drink. Bourbon. Scotch. She says she has it all. She is wearing a white robe
that cuts off at the knees and black stilettos; the robe is barely closed and I can see her tiny blue undershirt inside.
I say no thank you, maybe later, and that I just came to talk to her, that I’ve brought something for her as well,
something that my father wanted her to have. She fixes herself a drink and asks me if I think her lips are too
dry, to which I tell her honestly, "I don’t know."
“I can’t believe it took you all these years to find me,” she says.
“I didn’t find out that long ago, I say. “Besides, there wasn’t a whole lot of information to go on. You know how Dad was about saving things.” She smiles. She lowers her head coyly like she is remembering something, some illicit memory between the two of them.
“Your father,” she says, beaming. “How is he?” Her words hang over our heads for many moments now, unanswered questions like unattended children crying and pleading for attention. I want to speak but can’t, my tongue finding itself wrapped around my brain, which is wrapped around my heart. I sigh. She nods once likes she’s knows what’s happened and takes a slow sip of her drink, and I guess my silence is all too telling.
“When did it happen?” she asks. She looks upset, rightfully so. She rattles the cubes of ice against the
sides of the glass. I tell her it happened about two weeks ago, cancer, and that this was the first chance
I have had to come out here, which, for the most part, is true. My father did die of cancer and it was about two
weeks ago, but I probably could’ve made it out here sooner. Her eyes cloud up some and her lips stiffen.
She reaches out and takes my hand and tells me how sorry she is. She doesn’t cry; I expect her to,
but she doesn’t, and I find that to be a very nice surprise, very polite, like hiding some kind of physical
deformation so as to make everyone uncomfortable. I say "thank you" to her for not crying and she nods understandingly.
“Sure you don’t want a drink?” she asks. “It makes things like this easier; you have something to fidget with.” I tell her no thank you once again, and begin to tell her about the funeral and the wake and all, when she stops me, saying she doesn’t want to dwell on my father because there really isn’t anything we can do about it.
“You’re here,” she says. “I want to know about you.” She taps me on the leg excitedly, her blondish-white ponytail swaying back and forth. “Tell me about yourself.”
“I live in the Midwest,” I say.
“Chicago?” she asks.
“Good guess,” I tell her.
“It wasn’t a guess,” she says, telling me that she is partially clairvoyant and that when she was a
teenager she used to work on the boardwalk in Santa Monica in a little booth telling fortunes, and how once she
was even in the paper for her telepathic skills, and that somehow, on some level, she knew my father had died
before I even showed up this morning. She then briefly goes into some small memory about spending time in
Chicago many years ago, about some old friend she had there, and this little restaurant they went to that was so
good, and oh, god, what was the name of that place and is it still there? I just let my eyes wander around her tiny apartment: her small, grubby bathroom and the cracked linoleum floor; the lack of windows; the brightly colored bottles of lotions and scented candles on the radiator; and these old black and white photos on top of her TV of men I have never seen before. They all look sharp, suits, ties, and nice watches. They are all standing up straight and not smiling and look horribly uncomfortable, and I feel sorry for them for some reason without knowing anything about them.
She tells me to go on, so I tell her about my work—advertising for a radio station—when she stops me again. She holds her hand up like a traffic cop. Her palms are smooth and white, the one visible part of her body that looks soft and fresh.
“Really tell me about yourself,” she says. “You came all the way to L.A. to talk about sales? Fuck sales. Don’t tell me about things like that.” She looks at me in a motherly way, eyes narrowed, chin hoisted in the air, like she is scolding me, and I actually feel sweaty and panicked, like I have disappointed her. “Tell me something interesting,” she says. “Do you have a girlfriend?”
“I do,” I say. “We live together. Her name is Vicky.” This is not entirely true. We did live together, but Vicky moved out a few weeks ago because I told her I loved her. We were having sex up
against our refrigerator like I had always wanted because it was right after my father’s funeral and I think she felt
sorry for me and wanted to do something nice. Just as I finished, her fingernails wrapped tightly in strands of my hair,
I told her I loved her, which, after seeing each other for over year, shouldn’t have been that big of a deal. She didn’t
say it back though, and I thought it was just because of the situation (her back pressed up against the freezer
and her legs feeling numb from being propped up for so long), but then after a few days it occurred to me
that maybe she didn’t love me, at least not in the way that I thought. So I started saying it to her more and more
often. I couldn’t stop. I was on autopilot. I hid in her closet during the morning and jumped out and screamed
I love you! while she was getting dressed, scaring her half to death. I left her little notes taped
to the steering wheel of her car that read I LUV U written out all cute like that, like we were in
second grade or something. I wrote poems in shampoo on the shower tile about love
and whispered things to her at night while she tried to sleep. She didn’t respond to my shower notes;
she never hid in my closet and jumped out at me.
She just left, in the middle of the day, leaving a half-eaten apple on the kitchen counter. Her stuff is still there though, in our apartment, her clothes and CDs and books and this small, heart-shaped pillow that has our names crocheted into it. It still feels like she lives there though, which is part of the reason I’ve come out to L.A. in the first place. But I don’t tell Ellen any of this. She’s right: I didn’t come to all this way to talk about sales. I ask about her, if she is seeing anyone or if she is married, or perhaps in some kind of domestic-partnership.
“I’m not a lesbian,” she says. “But sometimes I think that’s just because no one has ever asked me.” She pauses and scratches her forehead like she is thinking about what it would be like to be a lesbian. “If someone offered, like if some attractive woman said she wanted to kiss me or cuddle with me, I would do it.” We both laugh at this, her a little longer than me. “I don’t have a boyfriend either,” she says. “Things would get too complicated like that. Your father always wanted to get more serious with me, but I told him it would never work out.”
“Few men can survive that kind of jealously,” she says. “It weighs on them too much.” Then she says that it’s too dark in here and gets up to let some light in. Her robe falls open some as she pulls the curtains apart, and I can see her plump thighs, how her skin curves and rounds off at her kneecaps. She has long legs that account for most of her height, and I stare at them for a moment in the blazing sun before I realize I am staring and turn my head away.
“How long were you two together?” I ask.
“For a looong time,” she says, elongating syllables with no regard. “On again and off again though. Since you were about eight or nine, I suppose.” She sits down on the couch next to me. She smells like fresh fruit and thick cigarette smoke. “We’d see each other when he flew out on business or something,” she says. “We could never just get it together though. I’ve always been sorry about that.”
“Don’t be,” I say. “Things were pretty well taken care of.” She smiles and pats my arm.
“So, you said you brought something for me?” she asks. I tell her I have, and I reach down and unzip my suitcase and pull out a black and white photo of my father and hand it to her. He is finely dressed, his best suit, tie, and a nice watch. She catches her breath mid-air and gasps like women used to do in old movies, exaggerated and pronounced, and gets up and holds the photo under a lamp to examine it more carefully.
“That was taken on the stoop of our house,” I say. “He wanted you to have it.” She shakes a little bit, like she is crying, saying how handsome he looks, don’t I agree? and then sets the picture on the TV. It looks comfortable there, at home, almost, amongst the others. I wonder if all those pictures are of men who she has had, if the top of her TV where knickknacks usually go is some kind of trophy case, a memorial to her femininity and the man men who have experienced it, but then I see that one or two of them somewhat resemble her, relatives perhaps, and I don’t know what to think about those TV men.
“He always told me you didn’t know,” she says, her hands clasped together now like she is going to fall to her knees and pray. “Please tell me that’s true. That your mother and you didn’t know.”
“Sort of,” I whisper. I try and place my words carefully. I stare at the black and white photos and briefly, intensely, hate my old man: not so much for what he did to me back then (flying away and rarely calling), but for what he has done to me now, putting me in front of this women without anything of use to say, with nothing to do to make this whole situation easier and less awkward. “I always knew that he was up to something,” I say. “I don’t know how, but I just did. My mother didn’t know anything though, I don’t think…”
“No, she didn’t,” she says. “I’m certain.” She sits back down next to me. Our hands touch for a second while she gently lowers herself down onto the bed, and I can’t help but look at her legs, at how milky and deep they are, at how they would look wrapped around me, at how they would taste. I think of Vicky and her legs, and how during sex they would just lay there, spread out, like mannequin legs, waiting for me to finish, unexcited and dull. She tells me she’s sorry that I knew about what was going on and that she really wishes I didn’t. “Although,” she says, “if you didn’t know we would never have met, and I am glad that that happened.” Her eyes beam. I stare at them. Things between us feel tingly.
It’s quiet for a while now. I can hear dump trucks on the interstate outside and doors slamming down the hall, and off in the distance, an police siren. Soon she puts on the TV and makes tea and we watch a romantic comedy on Lifetime about two Manhattan careerists who are too wrapped up in their own lives to realize that they love each other. The woman is a sales rep and the man is a writer of some kind and they have been friends since they went to school together at Syracuse, which, ironically, is where Vicky went. In the movie, they go to bars with their friends and talk about their relationship troubles. They begrudgely, at the request of their friends, go out on dates with other people and talk about their relationship troubles. They finally, after months of dancing around it, go out on a date with each other and talk about their relationship troubles and how they are tired of trying to find love. They hit it off, each character having a small soliloquy in the bathroom about how they feared they would never find that special someone, but now, after all this time of being friends, they think that maybe it was right in front of them the whole time, and how completely wonderful that is. They kiss on the sidewalk after dinner and go back to the writer’s apartment. I think about how wonderful that is, about wonderful it could be, if real life in fact actually worked like that; if you could go out on dates and complain about how lonely you are to the other person, and they could do the same, and you could help each other out, doling out little bits of advice that are somewhat observational and funny. Then you could order the chop suey or chicken marsala and drink any fucking color wine you wanted, and suddenly, somewhere between desert and the walk home, where invariably both of you would make some quip about how bad your last date was at an attempt at levity, and even though you don’t remotely feel any kind of romantic feeling for this person, you wouldn’t feel so lonely. This would be fucking lovely.
Toward the end of the movie, there is a sex scene. The sales rep is on top and the writer holds her close afterwards. Ellen tells me that she likes this movie very much because the actress who plays the sales rep is very good at portraying an orgasm, and how many Hollywood stars cannot fake it very well; she says you can tell by how she tips her head back when she comes and how her breathing slowly builds and is paced throughout. She says she doesn’t like the actor playing the writer because A) his nose is crooked B) his eyes are too far apart, which makes him look like a bug, and C) he doesn’t portray an orgasm very well even for a man.
During the next commercial I shut off the TV. I look at her while she sips tea. She adds a little bit of honey into her small, china cup, and she says: “I know what you’re going to say.”
“Did my father ever pay you?” I ask. She doesn’t move an inch. I don’t know if that’s what she thought I was going to say or not, but she doesn’t blink or breathe; she looks as still as a painting.
“Why do you want to know that?” she asks. “You’ve come all this way…”
“Because I need to know,” I say. “It’s something I’ve always wondered about.”
“You really want to know?’
“Why?” she asks.
“I just do,” I say. “Was he having an affair or was he just fucking someone.”
“Same thing,” she snaps quickly. “Can’t have one without the other.”
“Not quite,” I say. “Was he sleeping with you the woman or you the hooker?” She looks at me angrily now, her face flat and eyes coming to a rolling boil, not like a mother, like Vicky when I would scare her in the morning, like a woman, like any woman. She quickly gulps the last bit of her drink. I ask again if my father ever paid her and she says “sometimes.”
“Yes, sometimes,” she says. “Sometimes he did and sometime he didn’t.” She tries to light a cigarette with one hand, but it keeps falling to the carpet. She looks haggard right now, quite pathetic, and I wonder if she is doing this on purpose—really playing up the 52 year-old woman angle in hopes that I will feel sorry for her and stop asking.
“I think he paid me more often than not when he was feeling guilty,” she says, dropping her third cigarette to the floor. She looks sad now, like a widow, her face long and cheekbones sullen. “I tried not taking the money though. It felt wrong.”
“I don’t know,” she says. “There were times when I just couldn’t”
“Because you loved him?” I ask. She looks at me funny, forehead wrinkled. I ask her again. “Did you love him?” I wait for an answer. Everything in her apartment stops dead but I can still hear the world going on outside. Like turning off your TV while a movie is still on. You know the movie is still playing, just not for you, your screen black and reflective, just like her apartment now. She sighs and looks up toward the ceiling where chipping paint and water damage meet her gaze. She takes too long to answer, a lifetime, it seems. I’m tired of waiting. She should know by now. Vicky should’ve known too. I pick up my suitcase and head for the door because by now, after all this time, if she doesn’t know than she probably never did.
“Don’t go,” she says. “Stay. Please?”
“Please do. I can make more tea. You can have that drink and we’ll talk. We can watch more movies. I’ll tell you everything you want to know.”
“I only want to know one thing,” I say. “And you can’t answer it. No one can. Did you love him?” She turns back and picks up her pack of Pall Malls, but quickly drops them to the floor. She says ‘fuck’ as she tries to bend down and pick them up. Her backbone looks like any second it will splice right through her skin into the air. She groans like an old door as she slowly bends back up, letting gravity win.
“This…isn’t…fair!” she says, out of breath. “This isn’t fair!” I think of Vicky now because she said that same phrase a few weeks ago: this isn’t fair. She had come by my office to drop off her spare apartment key and we ended up comparing the things that we did to make the other person happy. It had become quite childish and petty, the two of us on the twenty-third floor, arguing about who did more for the other person. Then I said something like ‘well at least I go down on you, which is more than I can say about some people,’ and she said that wasn’t fair. She said it twice, back to back, the second time more slowly than the first. But right now Ellen’s not being fair, Vicky either, both of them, and I don’t think I should have to be fair anymore. I don’t want to be fair anymore because people who are fair just end up watching romantic comedies alone.
A thick quiet fills the room now as we have momentarily run out of things to say to each other. I stand with her apartment door open and one foot in the hallway. We stare at each other. My heart is thumping under my shirt; I can almost feel the skin stretch with each beat. She takes a deep breath and I can’t help but watch her still firm-looking breasts go up and down. There are tears behind my eyes now, for some unknown reason (breasts have never made me cry before), I know there are, but I don’t let them reach the air because then they will fall and I will be crying and I don’t want to cry in front of her. She reaches out and cups my cheek, her soft, youthful hands feeling electric against my days-old stubble. They’re warm and I feel like a teenager again, precarious and strange. She tells me that she did love my father, that after having some time to think about it, after I forced her to, that she really did love him and she wants me to know that. Things seem lighter, airier. She thanks me for this, for making her consider her feelings. Then she says she’s sorry about Vicky, but that she knows someone like me will find someone else.
“How’d you know?” I ask. I replay the whole afternoon in my mind: the cake, the cigarettes, the movie with the actress who fake-orgasms well, to see if I had dropped any hints along the way. Nothing comes up.
“I’m psychic,” she says. “Remember? Plus, a man’s eyes always give it all away, especially lonely ones.” This sounds like the most beautiful thing in the world to me, so soft and meaningful, so loaded and sexy. It almost makes me weep right there, all over her soft legs and inviting breasts. She asks me how long we have been apart and if I have heard from her at all, and then out of nowhere, with no explanation, science be damned, I am kissing her. I can’t help myself. She doesn’t feel 52 now; she is a teenager too, young and awkward, shy and beautiful. She kisses me back. I feel lightheaded and confused. I stop kissing her briefly and ask ‘what’s going on’ and ‘how did we let this happen?’ She doesn’t say anything. She undoes her robe and pulls off her undershirt. Her skin sags in all the right places. She winks at me and cocks her arms at her side and walks toward me.
We move to the bed, kissing as we go.
We fuck with the door open, and it’s good, sort of how it use to be with Vicky, but completely different at the same time. In bed, Ellen isn’t arthritic. She is spry and willing and lovely. She sings after she comes, on top, her body slowly slumping down onto the bed next to me; it’s a little song, sung gently and under her breath.
Afterwards we’re lying in bed beneath the sheets. The curtains have been open all this time. Light blasts through tiny pinprick like holes in the sheets, the apartment looking like a diorama of the universe. She asks me if I would like that drink now, and, when I get back home, if I would send her a black and white photo of myself all dressed up that she can put on top of her TV. I tell her I will. I ask her about those photos now, about who those men are and what they mean, and she tells me they are men she likes to remember, men she likes to contemplate, and I feel flattered.
“I’ll have rum,” I say, sitting up, inexplicably smiling. “It makes me feel all warm inside like drinking a lava lamp or something.” She giggles at this. She hands me a glass. I light a cigarette for her. I take a sip of the rum and realize that when I get home I am going to box up all of Vicky’s stuff and send it to her—I feel proud that I have come to such a decision, that I am going to take action. I think about including a little note too, something like IF ONLY WE LIVED IN MANHATTAN or YOU CAN ALWAYS TALK TO ME ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIP TROUBLES. Those things seem fitting, almost optimistic. I decide that, yes, I will do this, and maybe, just maybe, I will move away from Chicago for a little while too.
Ellen sits down next to me and rubs my knee, her eyes thin and sexy, smoking. I reach on the floor for my pants and pull out my wallet and try and give her some money. She doesn’t take it, shaking her head and telling me that this is special and that she could never take money for something like this. “Please,” I say. “I want you to have it. Fix up that bathroom floor. Maybe get a nice shelf for all your photos or buy some nicotine patches.” I hand her three or four bills of random denominations, and she takes them and smiles coyly, stuffing them into a knifed-out hole on the side of the mattress and chuckling in an all-too-knowing kind of way.
“You’re just like your daddy,” she says. “Do you know that?”
I tell her I didn’t.