By Donald Antrim
December 22, 2008
They had lied to each other so many times, over so many years, that deceptions between them had become commonplace, practically repertoire. Everyone knew this about them—it wasn’t news among their friends. That night, they had dinner reservations with Elliot and Susan, who were accustomed to following the shifts in attitude and tone—Kate’s theatrical sighs, for instance, in reaction to Jim’s mournful looks across the table at her—brought on by the strain of living in an atmosphere of worry and betrayal. It was winter, and dark, and the air in their little apartment was dry and nauseatingly warm; and yet what they needed, it seemed to Jim, was not to flee their home for another night of exciting conversational pauses and sly four-way flirting. They needed to sit down together, no matter how stuffy it got in the living room, no matter how loudly the radiators hissed and banged, and take turns speaking their minds. They had to talk. But first he would stop at the florist’s on his way home from the outpatient clinic. If he walked through the door carrying a bouquet, there was a chance that Kate might smile.
There was a chance also that it wouldn’t look awkward or strange when, at the end of the evening—he didn’t really believe that he and Kate would be staying in—he paired with Susan for the walk through the cold, from the restaurant to Elliot’s car. It might look, in other words, as if he were not bothered by Kate’s whispering to another man. (She had a way, with Elliot, of bowing her head and mumbling furiously through the strands of hair that fell across the side of her face, so that, in order to make out her words, Elliot was forced to stoop and lean into the fog of her breath.) Jim’s own affair, his affair with Susan, had been over for almost five months, long enough, he thought, as he approached the florist’s on the corner by his and Kate’s building, for him to begin experimenting—later that same night, if the mood was right—with innocently putting his arm around Susan’s shoulder while she and he and Kate and Elliot walked in two sets of two toward the parking garage.
Of course, he wanted to be careful not to punish Kate, or, at least, not to seem to punish her, for her success in adultery. Elliot made her laugh—in a sweet way. Anyone meeting them for the first time would think they were a new couple.
It was wrong to hate her.
He’d arrived at the florist’s. Inside, he went straight over to the roses in their refrigerated case. Though it was a cold day, cold and very windy, and he’d come in chilled, the short walk across the heated space warmed him, and he could feel the frigid air hit him in the face when he yanked open the glass door. He leaned in and peered at the flowers. He asked the girl, “Do you have yellow roses that haven’t already bloomed and, you know, opened?”
Yellow roses, signifying friendship more than eros, seemed right, given the complex potentials of the evening.
“We only have these.”
“They’re pretty, but they’re not going to last.”
She was pretty as well, the girl showing him roses. Had he seen her in here before and somehow not noticed? How old was she? Should he risk looking into her eyes? Was she wearing a ring? What about her ass? And what had he said to her just now? Blooming and opening meant the same thing in relation to flowers. He’d become inarticulate in her presence.
Kate, in the meantime, was upstairs in the apartment, talking on the phone to Elliot. The call had gone on for more than five hours. Kate had had to use all available phones: her cell phone and, before the cell, the apartment’s two cheap cordless handsets, one in the kitchen and one in the bedroom. “Can you hear beeping? I’ve got to switch phones. Hang on,” she’d exclaimed when the kitchen phone’s battery began dying. Carrying that phone (her first of the call), she’d gone into the bedroom, picked up its brother from the night table, and said, into this new phone, “Are you there? Can you hear me? Hold on while I hang up the other phone,” after which she’d taken both phones to the kitchen and dropped the dead one into its cradle on the wall. A small cabinet door beside this phone opened onto a narrow and dark airshaft that had once housed a dumbwaiter. Kate opened and closed this empty cabinet several times while explaining, on the bedroom phone, why Elliot’s being married and her being married shouldn’t necessarily be considered something they had in common. That they were both childless could stand as an area of emotional parity, she felt, considering the fact that they both remained unsure as to whether to have children, while their spouses frequently made it clear that, in their opinions—Susan’s specifically regarding Elliot, Jim’s specifically regarding Kate, and neither Susan nor Jim meaning to suggest a marital reconfiguration—they’d make “a great dad” or “a great mom.”
Elliot interrupted: “Don’t you get tired of hearing that?”
“It’s beside the point,” Kate answered, and went on, “Oh, Elliot, why is talking to you so damn fucking difficult?”
“Do you need an answer?”
“You know me, always curious.” How stupid was that? She’d been trying, not for the first time, to lovingly make clear to Elliot why she could no longer sleep with him. During the first hours of the conversation she’d been able to control the impulse to bait and flirt. But the business of swapping phones, the walking from room to room in the stuffy apartment, had, as it were, weakened her. It was as if, in losing that first phone, she’d lost a line of defense, however symbolic, against Elliot’s desire. Or maybe, she thought as she stood in the kitchen, opening and closing the dumbwaiter door with one hand, the necessary act of sacrificing one phone for another could be read as a veiled enactment of the sort of ambivalence required for alternating between lovers in the first place. Or was that too absurd?
“Say that once more. I didn’t hear what you were saying,” she said to Elliot. The heating pipes banged; day was turning to dusk. She listened to the hiss of steam escaping from the radiator beneath the kitchen window. Elliot began again, “I was saying that I sometimes think that you think that because I’m a psychiatrist I can automatically see all the different sides of a situation. But I’m not that kind of psychiatrist.”
“Please don’t talk to me like I’m one of your postdocs,” she said, and he took a long breath.
He said, “Kate, we’re involved with each other, Kate.”
“Jim’s your friend.”
“And so are you my friend.”
“Your wife is my friend, too.” She continued, “Fuck, I hate this. Now thismotherfucking phone is beeping. Hold on. Elliot, can you hold on?” She swapped the bedroom phone for the insufficiently charged kitchen phone, went with that phone back into the bedroom, and sat on the edge of the bed.
“Kate, why are you bringing up Susan? I need to know what your point is. We agreed that we weren’t going to talk about Susan. So where are you going with this? Kate? Are you there?”
“Will you talk to me? Please, don’t do this. Don’t do this, Kate. All right, fuck this, fuck this, fuck—”
His phone was beeping. It wasn’t the battery. It was another call. He said, “Kate, hang on a minute. Hang on, Kate.”
He took the call. “Hello?”
“It’s me,” she said, and then informed him in a miserable voice that both her home phones were dead, and that she was on her cell phone and just wanted to say that she didn’t much enjoy dishonesty.
“You’ll have to speak up,” he said.
“Can you hear me? Tell me when the signal is clear.” She pressed the cell phone against her ear and walked from the bedroom to the living room, then into the kitchen, then straight down the hall, passing the tiny second bathroom, with the broken, unusable toilet, to the apartment’s miniature front foyer.
“Here?” she said. “Here?”
“I’m losing you,” he said. And so she retraced her route, winding up back in the living room, where she turned on a lamp. The sky was dark. Everywhere on the city’s horizon she saw other people’s lit windows. Once again, Elliot had bullied her—or she’d let him bully her—into leaving open the question of their affair. What was the use in arguing, anyway? Jim would come home any minute, and, a little later, the two of them would go out and meet Elliot and Susan for dinner. How crazy was that? She still had to shower and dress. She conceded to Elliot, “All right, I’ll think about it.”
“Tomorrow, then?” Elliot said, and added, “I knew you’d come to your senses.” He joked that if he didn’t get out of his office in the next few minutes he’d be forced to show up at the restaurant in his white coat. They said goodbye, and she put down the phone and wept for a quarter of an hour.
Downstairs at the florist’s, Jim’s bouquet for Kate was growing and growing. It featured not only yellow roses but red and pink solitaires, along with sprigs of heather, freesia, and alstroemeria; green and white calla lilies; blue irises; mums; and some other things the girl had plucked from buckets and waved in the air for him to see and approve. “What else? What does she like?” she’d asked him, as she leaned into the refrigerator and reached for more.
“That looks so nice. I think she’ll like just what you like,” he said, and wondered whether it was O.K. for him to have said it. Was it provocative? There were no other customers in the shop. Staying close but keeping his distance, he followed the girl from one display case to another. He might as well have been buying lingerie, he felt; and, in fact, it seemed to him that the bouquet was somehow intended for the girl, as much as for Kate, who would’ve been, well, not exactly mortified to know that her husband was downstairs using a shopgirl as a proxy to get himself worked up for sex later that night.
“Baby’s breath,” the girl said to him.
“I love baby’s breath.”
“In that case, we’ll have to have a bunch,” Jim said.
She turned away, laid the unfinished bouquet on its side on the countertop beside the cash register, and, with her back to him, said, “We have a lot to work with here.” She glanced back over her shoulder (did she want him to come closer?), then, quickly—what a great flirt, he thought—turned away again and set to work breaking down the bouquet and separating the flowers into groups, a variegated series of stacks that she arranged not by color or type (except in the case of the combined red, pink, and yellow roses) but, as became clear, by stem length. When she had her piles, she picked up clippers.
“This will take a minute,” she said.
He watched her snip the stems. He said, “Take your time.”
But there was a problem: what were these flowers going to cost? The bouquet as she assembled it—as it came to be, in her hands—was broader and taller by far than what he’d come into the florist’s wanting. It was less a bouquet than a proper arrangement, a centerpiece, thanks in part to the leafy green branches the girl stuffed between blossoms, and the pale-white baby’s breath, which she didn’t so much layer as clump into the globular mass.
“Can we take some out?” he asked, and wished he hadn’t. What kind of man courts a woman by letting her make an enormous bouquet for his wife, then asks her to pare back?
“What would you like me to take out?” the girl asked. Was she annoyed? She had her back to him. Did she think less of him? Did she think he was a cheap bastard who cheats on his wife?
“It’s just that I was hoping to use a particular Arts and Crafts vase on the mantel, which, in my opinion, these would look lovely in,” he elaborately lied. (Actually, there was a vase on the mantel—but so what?) He went on, “What I mean to say is that the vase I have in mind isn’t very big.”
Did he need excuses? Did he need to bring up his home life?
He went into reverse. “Come to think of it, never mind about that vase on the mantel. It would be a shame to wreck such a nice bouquet.”
“I’m not going to wreck anything.”
Was she scolding him? Were things heating up between them? He waited for her next move.
“I can give you a bigger vase,” she proposed, finally.
He held his breath. She had to be at least twenty years younger than he. But it wasn’t their age difference, nor the fact that he was married, that made him feel uncertain of himself. The problem was his thought process: the lithium he was taking in small doses brought a slower speed to reality. It was the lithium or the antidepressant cocktail or all of it in concert. At times, when he spoke, he felt as if a kind of mental wind were blowing his thoughts back at him, forcing him to self-consciously order his syntax as he pushed words out.
“I just got—I just got out of the hospital!” he blurted.
He watched her as she turned to face him; in her hands she held white lilies and a red satin bow, and her eyes looked left, right, left.
“I shouldn’t’ve said that! Forget I said that! I didn’t mean to say that! Give me the vase. I want a vase.”
“Oh!” she said, as if startled to realize that she was still clutching pieces of the bouquet. “Let me run in the back and get one.”
While Jim and the girl sorted themselves out downstairs, Kate was marching around the apartment in her red platform heels, shoving items into her purse and looking in the usual places for her keys. She had to flee before Jim walked in. She could phone him from the street and tell him that she’d meet him at the restaurant. Going from Elliot to Jim to Elliot and Jim and Susan without a break was bullshit. But, seriously, where was she going to go? It was too cold out to sit on a bench. The bar next door to the restaurant was bleak and depressing, an old men’s dive, and the bar inside the restaurant would be a mob scene of people pushing for tables. She could stand idly flipping through magazines at the newsstand across Broadway, but that would mean accommodating the line of men squeezing past her to look at porn at the rear of the store. She slammed the apartment door behind her and started down the five flights of stairs. Too often in winter she failed to leave the apartment before sunset. It worked hell on her mood.
Outside, the wind was blowing hard. She wasn’t wearing a hat. She tightened her scarf around her neck, tugged up her coat collar, lowered her head, and walked toward Broadway with her fists punched down into her pockets and her purse clinched under her arm. If only it would snow. But when did it ever snow anymore? Hat or no hat, she wouldn’t’ve minded a few snowflakes swirling down through the city light to settle on her head. When she’d been a girl, snow had lain on the ground all winter. That was what she remembered. Of course, she was thinking of the farm, of New England, not New York. So what was her point? These days, it rarely snowed the way it had back in the years before her parents died. The snowfalls she remembered from her childhood seemed lost to time and, she supposed, the changing climate.
She hurried along as quickly as she could in her high heels. At Broadway, she turned uptown and passed the florist’s, where the pretty shop assistant had just come out from the back with the flowers—flowers for her, for Kate—in their vase.
“Here we are,” the girl announced to Jim. She extended her arms and held the flowers out in front of her, presenting them. Before he could move to take them from her, however—it was the medication, warping his mind and delaying his reaction—she heaved the arrangement onto the counter and explained that she’d had to search high and low for an extra-heavy vase, one that was not only broad enough but also deep enough to properly anchor the bouquet.
Jim and the girl admired her creation. With its stalks vertical and free to fan out or droop down, the bouquet’s real immensity became apparent. Roses with their thorns stuck out everywhere, and the lilies, whose columnar stalks the girl had bunched at the center, shot up through the top of the bouquet like, like, like—like insane trees towering above some insane world, he thought. He was light-headed when he spoke. “I love the way you’ve used ribbons and bows to tie the blossoms into clusters. It looks like a bouquet made of little bouquets! There’s so much to see! I can smell the lilies. Don’t you want to inhale that scent? Do you know the painter Fragonard? Do you know Boucher? Look at Boucher’s flowers. They’re practically obscene. There might be a Boucher hanging at the Frick.”
He went for it. “Do you like museums?”
“When I have time.”
“I could show you the Frick!” He grinned widely and shrugged his shoulders and tipped his head, and she mirrored him, shrugging her own shoulders and making a funny face.
“You’re very good at what you do,” he added, and she said, “Thank you,” then asked him, “How would you like to pay?”
He tried to imagine what he’d be forced to spend. Whatever the amount, it would be too great. The bills from his recent hospitalizations were mainly covered by Kate’s insurance—the policy was hers; they’d gone ahead and got married in order for him to take advantage of it during this protracted (Kate’s word, sometimes used sarcastically) time of crisis in his life—but there were nevertheless many outstanding fees, brand-new bills arriving every other week, plus the only partly reimbursable expense of the aftercare program he attended across town, on the Upper East Side.
“Let’s charge it.” He handed the girl his debit card.
She swiped the card. “It’s not going through,” she said. After passing the card through the machine a second time, she apologized. “This doesn’t automatically mean that there’s a problem with the account,” she said. “You’ll have to contact your bank. Would you like to try another account?”
“I don’t have another. Tell me the total?”
“Three hundred and forty-one dollars and sixty cents.”
His anxiety spiked and he took a breath. How could a bouquet of flowers be that much?
He put his hand in his pocket and felt around for cash, but what was the point?
“Hold on a minute,” he said.
What to do, what to do? He was going to have to call his wife. Was he going to have to call her? He was going to have to call her. He took out his phone and dialled—in that moment he was glad that he had his meds on board—and right away Kate picked up and hollered, “Where are you? I’m at the restaurant with Susan! Elliot is out parking the car. Did you go to your therapy?”
“Could you not shout, Kate?”
“It’s goddam packed in here!”
“I need to talk to you, privately,” he said, and turned away from the shopgirl. But there was no way, in the small space, to keep the girl from overhearing, so he put his hand over the phone, leaned toward her, and whispered, “I’ll be right back,” then stepped out of the shop, stood on the sidewalk in the freezing wind, and slowly, deliberately humiliated himself, saying to Kate, “I stopped on my way home and bought you flowers, but the bank account isn’t coöperating with my card for some reason and now I’m stuck at the florist’s because I don’t have enough cash on me, and I think the problem is simply that—shit, I don’t know what the problem is, I must not have kept my eye on the balance, and it’s possible that we’re overdrawn. I know we’ve talked about this. But it’s not a serious problem, I promise.”
“Oh, Jim. Are you spending? How much have you spent?” Kate cried, and he winced.
He said, “Is Susan there?”
“Do you not hear a word I say? She’s right here! We’re drinking Manhattans. Are you coming? We’re waiting for you. Why do you want to talk to Susan? Jim, are you spending our money?”
“I don’t want to talk to Susan. I’d just prefer that this conversation be private between the two of us.”
“Please, Jim, as if everyone we know doesn’t already know everything there is to know?”
“I’m not—I am not spending our money.”
“Why are you diagnosing me? I’m not agitated. I wanted to surprise you with flowers. But clearly it was just another of my many mistakes. I’ll think twice next time. Everything I do is unwanted.”
“Stop it,” Kate said to him then.
Through the phone he could hear sounds from the restaurant bar, voices and other noises in the after-work crush. Then the wind came up, and the only sound he heard was the phone’s own static. The wind died, and Kate’s voice was saying, “Elliot is here now, and Lorenzo is clearing us a table. Let me talk to someone about the flowers.”
In this way he was forced to trudge back into the shop, hold the phone out, and say to the girl, “She wants to talk to you.”
The girl hesitated, then reached out and let him pass the phone into her hand.
“Hello?” she said into his phone.
He retreated to a corner of the store. Joking aside, he didn’t care to loiter about, smelling the flowers, while the girl wrote down his wife’s American Express number. He would never learn the girl’s name, not now, Kate would see to that, he told himself as he peered out from his hiding place behind a leafy potted tree. He saw the shop’s buckets of flowers and the refrigerators in a row, and the door leading to the back, but where was the girl? He heard her laugh in response to some remark Kate must’ve made, and realized that she was standing behind the bouquet. “Oh, don’t I just know that about men and their important purchases!” she exclaimed.
What was Kate saying to her? Was he being made fun of, as usual? Was she calling him bipolar?
He had a problem with anxiety and suicidality, and, as Kate had reminded him in their conversation a moment earlier, everyone knew about his previous autumn’s sojourns on the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge and his games of chicken—no, not games, not at all, really—on the fire escape outside their bedroom window.
He didn’t want to think about any of that. Yet it was the reason he was now crouched behind a ficus, eavesdropping while a girl he wanted to fuck got treated to an earful of Kate—on his phone! And what was the big problem, anyway, if, a handful of times on his way home from day care, as he sometimes called his ongoing treatment, he’d got excited about life and jumped off the crosstown bus at Fifth Avenue and run into Bergdorf Goodman and ridden the elevator to the second floor and tried on clothes until closing? Was that unhealthy? His doctors didn’t think he was manic-depressive; in fact, they’d ruled it out. Kate had been reading the clinical literature, though, and felt autodidactically certain that the Payne Whitney professionals were minimizing something in plain sight: his death-trip history, considered alongside the “conspicuous” spending on coats, ties, shirts, and shoes, represented, at the least, she thought, a mixed-state depression. “Why don’t they have you on Olanzapine?” she’d got in the habit of asking him. He begged her not to interfere with his treatment, and suggested—thinking of her father’s death and the forfeiture of the family farm in Massachusetts, when she was a teen-ager—that her consuming anxiety about bankruptcy, her emphasis on this as a potentially mortal trauma, might have less to do with his new handmade suits than with the ways in which his almost dying had reactivated an old mourning in her.
He peered from behind the ficus. He was wearing a ridiculous cashmere overcoat, and his suit today was a medium-gray flannel herringbone. It featured, on the jacket, minimal shoulder padding, dual vents, and a graceful, three-rolled-to-two-button stance (his current favorite lapel style), and, on the pants, singlereverse pleats and one-and-a-quarter-inch-cuffed trouser legs. Why would a man ever not cuff his trousers? He kept a single jacket-sleeve button open on the left, another open on the right. He didn’t look like blown credit. Did he?
Kate was going to kill him. She was mad enough to kill him. That was a fact. What was he doing, charging expensive flowers for no reason on an average night in the middle of the week when they were already committed to a crippling tab—it was sure to be a huge bar bill, by evening’s close—for dinner with Elliot and Susan? But, Kate thought, as she sat with their friends, waiting for him at a tiny table near the back of the restaurant, this was how it went with her husband: he made the gestures; she absorbed the costs. “How awful this all is,” she sighed. She was on the phone to the girl at the florist’s. Kate hadn’t meant to be audible, not to the girl, and certainly not to Elliot, who would take her vexation over Jim as a cue to call her up the next day and argue for more afternoons at the hotel.
She’d been going once or sometimes twice a week to the East Side to meet Elliot at the Lowell Hotel, on Sixty-third Street between Madison and Park. She rode the bus. Typically, she arrived first. She got the room key, went up, and showered; if Elliot was held up at the lab and the day was growing dark, she might unlock the minibar and concoct a Manhattan or an approximation of a Manhattan, then recline naked by the window and look north toward the East Nineties, Carnegie Hill, where her mother, an only child, like Kate, had lived before marrying her father and moving to the farm.
Manhattans had been her mother’s drink. Unlike her mother, Kate tried to keep herself to three an evening. At Lorenzo’s that night, she was ahead of pace, finishing her second before having eaten a bite. She held her glass in one hand and her phone in the other, listening hard through the restaurant noise as the girl at the florist’s recited back her AmEx number. Elliot sat quietly beside her. He had his arms crossed, and his chair pushed back at an angle to make room for his legs. Susan had got up from the table; she’d announced to Kate—sounding well on the way to being tight—“Kate, you’re my best friend, but I don’t know how you drink such a strong drink.” To Kate and Elliot together, she’d added, “Will you two do me a big giant favor? Will you snag Lorenzo and ask him to bring me a Cosmo?”
“Don’t utter a word to me about my husband,” Kate warned Elliot, once Susan had gone to the bathroom.
Into the phone, to the girl, she said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean you. I was talking to somebody else.”
Meanwhile, in the women’s room, Susan was on her own phone, calling Jim’s number from a stall.
It was the girl who answered, of course.
“Hello, can you hold?” the girl said. The line went briefly dead. After a pause, the girl came back and said, “May I ask who is calling?”
“May I ask who’s answering?”
“Sir?” the girl called out to Jim. She looked this way and that for him. Where had he gone? The shop closed at eight. It was nearly closing time. “A woman is calling you!”
“I’m here! I’m right here!” he answered from behind his tree.
“He’ll be with you in one second,” he heard her promise the caller. After that, there was a pause, before, in a businesslike tone, the girl resumed with Kate. “I’m sorry to have to ask you this again. Would you mind verifying the last five digits and the expiration date?”
Back when he was in the hospital—in the past six months, there had been three emergency-room visits and two locked-ward admissions—he had spent day after day lying on a mattress, crying. His doctors (along with the psychiatric nurses and the social workers who led the daily therapy groups) had encouraged him to uncurl himself from the fetal position and try, at least try, to watch television or play a board game with the other patients, but this had mostly proved too great a challenge. There had been times when, walking to or from the bathroom or the water fountain or the patients’ common room, or standing in line to receive his medications at the nurses’ station, or even simply sitting upright on the table in the examining room, he’d had the strong sensation that the air through which he moved was gathering around him and becoming—really, no word was sufficient to name it—substantive. Its weight pressed in on him. This hurt, it hurt terribly, yet when he tried to locate the source of the pain he could not: it came, as he knew, only from himself. On the mattress, shattered and sobbing over, say, Kate and their messedup love, he’d lain crushed, as if by atmospheres.
The girl’s voice seemed to echo through the shop. He peeked up. When had she come out from behind the bouquet? He could see her standing on the other side of the tree. She was looking at him through the leaves.
“Are you all right, sir?”
“I maybe—I need a minute.” His mouth was dry and his heart was beating fast. That could be his meds, of course.
“There’s someone who wants to talk to you. Do you think you can take the call? Would you like to try?” She held his phone out with one hand, reaching toward him through the branches.
He had to reach into the tree to meet her hand. He was sweating.
“Hello?” he said into the phone.
“What the hell, Jim?” Susan said to him from the women’s-room toilet at Lorenzo’s.
“Susan, how are you?” he said.
“I’ve been better.”
“We’re all here, Jim. We’re waiting and waiting for you.”
“I’m doing my best to get there. Have you ordered yet? What are the specials? What looks good?”
“Kate is beside herself. She says the two of you are bankrupt. She says you’ve spent all the money.”
“Don’t lie to me, Jim. Please, don’t lie to me.” She was sniffling, beginning to weep, lightly.
“Stop crying, stop crying, baby,” he whispered into the phone. Then he laid his hand over the receiver and said to the girl, who was still peering down at him through the leaves of the tree, “You’ll have to excuse me one more time.” With a powerful effort of will, he stood upright and came out from behind the ficus. He didn’t dare look at the girl, but he heard her telling him, as he pushed painfully past her toward the door, that it looked like his wife’s American Express card wasn’t working, either—and was there any way for him to pay for the flowers?
He waved his hand, motioning that he’d return. He stepped out into the cold on Broadway. He pulled up his overcoat’s shawl collar. The door to the florist’s closed behind him.
Back at their table for four, Kate and Elliot had hit a snag.
“Let me talk to him,” Elliot said. He had his elbows on the table. He’d drunk almost none of his Scotch.
“That’s not a good idea.”
“Give me your phone.” He held out his hand.
“I’m on hold.”
“Kate,” he said.
“Leave me alone.”
“As you wish,” he said, leaning back in his chair, and she burst out at him, “How can you act like this? You’re a doctor. How can you be so unfeeling?”
He said, “What does my being a doctor have to do with my feelings?” (She rolled her eyes at this, but he didn’t appear to notice.) He went on, “I may be a doctor, but I’m not your husband’s doctor.”
“His name is Jim, remember?”
“I think you’re drunk. That’s what I think.”
He got up from the table, patted his pockets—checking for his own phone—and said, “God damn it, I do research. I don’t treat patients. He has excellent doctors. I’ll call him myself.”
When he’d gone and Kate was alone, Lorenzo arrived with Susan’s Cosmopolitan.
“Everybody has gone away and left you,” Lorenzo said, and Kate chirped back, “Everybody’s gone!”
“Let me bring you another Manhattan.” Lorenzo placed Susan’s cocktail on the table and picked up Kate’s empty glass. Kate managed a little smile. She held her phone to her ear. “Jim? Jim, are you there?” she whispered.
Six blocks downtown, Jim was on the line to Susan. “I’m here, I’m here with you, baby,” he assured her. In fact, he wasn’t thinking of sleeping with her again. Oh, he’d loved sleeping with Susan—that wasn’t the problem. But that evening his body was compressing: the weight of the air was on him, flattening his libido and his trust in humankind.
“Susan,” he said. “Susan.”
“What is it?” she said. Her voice filled the stall. “What is happening? Is it happening? Is it happening to you now? I’m so scared. What do I do?”
“Susan,” he said. “Susan.”
He explained to her that in a few minutes he was going to calmly walk back inside the florist’s and steal a mysterious and beautiful bouquet that he and an angel had made for Kate. He’d helped the angel, he pointed out. He was feeling honest. He acknowledged to Susan that he was speaking metaphorically when it came to angels—in order to seem aboveboard and keep her trust. He needed her to be cool when he entered the restaurant, he told her. Then he ended the call and switched over to Kate.
“I’m coming,” he said.
“I’m glad,” she said.
“I love you,” he said.
“I love you, I love you,” she said. She was alone at their table.
She said, “Have you talked to Elliot?”
He said, “I haven’t heard from him.”
Elliot, in the meantime, had been unable to get through, Jim’s phone lines having been taken up by both their wives. He’d left two messages already, one saying, “Jim, call me, all right?,” the other, “Jim, will you call me?” His third attempt got through, but Jim didn’t answer. He heard the beeping, plucked the phone away from his ear, glanced at it, saw who was calling, and said, to Kate, “It’s him. There is no way that I want to speak to him right now.”
“I understand,” she said. Then she said, “Just get here, dear, and have dinner with us. We all need food. We need to eat.”
He said, “Has he taken care with you, since I’ve been gone?”
“Gone?” she said.
“I don’t know how else to put it.”
She asked, “Will you stay where you are, until people come?”
“Don’t send an ambulance,” he said to her.
He put his phone in his pocket. He turned and faced the door to the flower shop. A few people swept past him on the windy avenue—or so it seemed; his thoughts were with the pain that was coalescing beneath his temple. He wanted to put it out. He could imagine different ways to do this. This was how it was when his mind turned to high open windows or unlocked rooftop fire doors or breaks in the chain-link fences lining bridge walkways.
He took a step forward. The door was made partly of glass, and he could see into the shop. It occurred to him that it would be easy to break the window with his fist and deliberately cut up the veins in his arms. Instead, he put his hand on the doorframe and pushed. He stuck his head inside. He was acting guiltily, though he knew there was no reason to, not at the florist’s—he hadn’t done anything yet. Still, he snuck in, ashamed.
The girl was nowhere in sight. The bouquet looked bigger than it had the last time he’d sized it up. How would he manage to get it up Broadway in his trembling hands? Beside it on the table—careful, he had to be careful—were the girl’s pruning shears, as well as regular scissors and a small sharp knife.
He told himself to let those things lie.
Uptown at the restaurant, Lorenzo brought Kate her drink. She asked for bread, and apologized to him for taking so long to order dinner. “We’ll all be here together soon,” she sighed.
She was right about that. Elliot had given up trying to reach Jim, and the cold had driven him back inside. He was threading his way down the aisle to their table. Susan, too, would return, as soon as she had peed. Pride had made her unable to, while on the phone.
And that left Jim, who had no desire to become a thief. Might he, instead, offer something in barter for the flowers? His wristwatch wasn’t worth much. His overcoat was brand-new, and cost well more than the watch and the bouquet combined. He decided to leave an I.O.U., promising to come back another day with money, or, if not with actual money, then with a clear idea of when one or another of his or his wife’s credit cards might again be active and usable.
But when he tried to hold a pen in his hand, he could not; and when he tried to focus his eyes on the piece of paper lying beside the cash register—it was the scrap of a receipt on which the girl had pencilled Kate’s American Express information—he found that his mind was frantic. This was his disorder. This was the descent. He crumpled the receipt and shoved it into his pocket. He reached for the bouquet. The girl had put water in the vase.
Had you been walking downtown on Broadway that February night at a little past eight, you might have seen a man hurrying toward you with a great concrescence of blooms. You might have noticed that he did not even pause for traffic signals, but charged across streets against the lights; and so you might rightly have supposed that he could not see through the floral arrangement that he held (doing what he could to keep clear of thorns) at arm’s length before him. Whenever a siren sounded in the distance—and, once, beating helicopter blades in the night sky caused him to sprint up a side street—he dropped into a furtive, crouching gait. His balance was off; he was paranoid about police. Windblown flowers lashed at his head. Seen from a distance, he might have brought to mind an old, out-of-favor stereotype: the savage in a headdress. But as he came closer, you would have noticed his European clothes, his stylish haircut; and you might have asked yourself, “What’s wrong with that man?”
Had you stepped to the side as he hurtled past, tightened your scarf securely around your neck, and continued on your way, you might next have encountered a young woman on a street corner, distraught and coatless. “Did you happen to see a man carrying a bouquet of flowers?” she might have asked in a startled voice, and you would have looked away from her bare, pale legs, pointed upwind, and told her, “He went that way.” By then, the first snowflakes would have been swirling through the caverns between the apartment buildings, down onto the thoroughfare.
Jim looked up and saw the snow on his way into Lorenzo’s. For an instant, he took it as an omen—of what, though? He pulled hard on the restaurant door, forcing it open, and stumbled with his tattered flowers into the dark realm between the door and the velvet drapes that had been hung to keep the cold from sweeping in over diners at the front of the room.
He parted the curtains. “Pardon me,” he said to the people seated near the entrance. Long- and short-stemmed flowers alike had snagged on the drapes. Now a waiter approached—and here came Lorenzo, too, calling, in his soft, ristoratore’s voice, “Ciao, James. Ciao. I cannot call you Jim, you know.”
“Lorenzo, ciao,” Jim said. The waiter was busy tugging on the curtains. Lorenzo lent a hand. “This way, try this way,” Lorenzo instructed. Jim spun left then right, enshrouding himself—and the bouquet—within the folds of drapery fabric. There followed a flurry of petals. The rose thorns came loose; the bouquet’s topmost stems sprung free. He tumbled out into the room.
“I’m good, I’m fine,” he said, nodding reassuringly (he hoped) to Lorenzo, the waiter, the people who’d turned in their seats to stare.
“What has happened to you, James?” Lorenzo pulled his white silk pocket square from his breast pocket and reached around the yellow and pink and blue and white flowers to dab at Jim’s forehead.
“I ran all the way here,” Jim said.
“You’re bleeding,” Lorenzo told him. Jim saw the blood spotting Lorenzo’s handkerchief.
Lorenzo said, “You have a lot of scratches. You look like you’ve been in a fight with some squirrels or something.” He laughed, nicely.
“I’ve—I have been fighting, Lorenzo. Not with squirrels. Roses,” Jim specified, and Lorenzo said, “Ah, of course. Let me take them.”
He spoke to the waiter. “Paul, will you please take these from James?” To Jim, he added, “We will bring them to your table.”
“No, no,” Jim said. He explained to Lorenzo that the flowers were a gift for Kate, and that he needed to present them himself. This was crucial, he informed Lorenzo. He clutched the vase. His pants were wet from water that had sloshed over the rim. Water stained his shoes. He could see tiny snags marking the sleeves of his overcoat and the front of his suit. How frustrating, after having labored so hard to avoid the thorns. His clothes would have to go to a reweaver, he thought. Then his thinking disintegrated into bitter resignation. Everything he touched was ruined. The flowers were almost destroyed.
Nonetheless, he bore them down the aisle. Here and there, people ducked forward in their chairs, or to the side, letting him through. As he progressed toward the back, the room quieted. People put down their silverware, their wineglasses; Jim felt eyes watching him.
“Eat! Live while you can!” he wanted to proclaim to the crowd. But what did he have to teach anyone? He was a thief, a common criminal—worse. He’d stolen a bouquet to give to the love of his life.
When she saw him, she was filled with happiness. She’d had a lot to drink—but, well, it wasn’t that alone.
“Kate,” he said. She stood, and he lurched toward her. Elliot and Susan stood as well. They flanked Kate, who came out from between them—not unlike Jim, she was unsteady on her feet—saying, “I’m sorry, excuse me,” as she tacked her way through the sea of tables.
They met near the bathrooms. The bar was to their right. Kate raised her open hands to wipe the blood from his face. Blood had run down his neck, and stained the collar of his shirt. “These are for you,” he told her.
She was quietly crying, whispering, “They’re beautiful, beautiful.” Then her crying began in force, and she wailed, “You made it, oh, you made it, we were all so scared, and I felt so lost.”
“I’m here,” he said, and his own tears started. He wanted to tell her that everything would be better, that he would be better, that one day soon he would work again, and start paying some bills, and take the burden off her shoulders; that they would be able, at last, to leave the little apartment with the busted plumbing. He wanted to tell her how much he needed her.
But he could see, out of the corner of his eye, his horrid reflection in the mirror behind the bar. He looked down at Kate’s hands, the blood smeared across her palms. And he saw the restaurant-goers and the waiters and waitresses and busboys, who, not knowing what to make of the bleeding and the crying and the broken lilies arcing over Jim and Kate’s heads like some insane wedding canopy, had come from the kitchen or the bar to stand mutely around them. The pain in his body grew, and the words that spilled out of him were not words of love. Or they were. He spoke to his wife, as he spoke to the people gathered.
“Don’t you see, Kate? Don’t you see? It’s time for me to go. I can’t do this anymore. I have no place here. I don’t belong. I hurt so. You can live and be happy. That will never be for me.”
“No, no, baby,” she wept at him.
Someone touched his arm. It was Elliot, who’d come up behind him. He said to Jim, “Let’s get in the car.”
Lorenzo was there, too. Kate said to Jim, “Honey, let Lorenzo take the flowers. Just for now,” and he did.
A moment later, Lorenzo came back with a wet cloth. Kate used it to wipe her eyes and to clean Jim’s face and her hands. She tied the belt around his overcoat. She said, “There.”
They went out of the restaurant, the four of them. Susan let Jim lean on her, and Elliot steadied Kate. On the way out the door, they heard Lorenzo, behind them, telling his patrons, “Everything is all right. Our friend has had a bad time. Please, let me buy everyone a drink.”
On Broadway, the wind had died, and the air seemed to have warmed. They walked out into new snow. And, wouldn’t you know, Jim did wrap his arm around Susan’s shoulders, and Elliot ducked down close to Kate, listening to her mumble whatever it was she had to say to him.
At the garage, Jim and Kate got into the back seat of Elliot’s car. Susan sat beside Elliot. Elliot started the engine, turned on the headlights and the windshield wipers. Thump, thump, thump. He steered east. During the trip, Jim took his belt from around his waist. He gave Kate his scarf and his phone and his keys and all his money, which amounted to about thirty dollars.
Later, she would get on her knees on the emergency-room floor and extract the laces from his shoes. A nurse would come, then another, and a doctor promising sleeping pills.
By that time, after midnight, Elliot and Susan would have driven up the F.D.R. Drive and out of Manhattan, through the Bronx, and into Westchester County.
“You can go home now, if you’d like,” the doctor said to Kate. “We won’t let anything happen to him.”
He gave Kate a plastic garbage bag, into which she put Jim’s overcoat and his suit jacket. She would use the last of his money for her crosstown taxi, and for milk and cereal at the Korean market near the apartment.
In the deep of the night, they came for him. A male nurse helped him into a wheelchair, and then pushed him through the white labyrinth of hallways and waited for the elevator.
Margaret, one of the night nurses, met him on the ward. She said, “Hello, Mr. Davis. You’re back with us again, I see.” She asked, “Do you think you can walk?” She gave him Ativan and a paper cup of water, and watched while he swallowed. Then she showed him to a room of his own.
Donald Antrim / The Emerald Light in the Air
Donald Antrim / Ever Since
Donald Antrim / Another Manhattan
Jonathan Franzen / Rereading The Hundred Brothers by Donald Antrim
Donald Antrim / Ever Since
Donald Antrim / Another Manhattan
Jonathan Franzen / Rereading The Hundred Brothers by Donald Antrim