I'll Stay, page 17
The back of the old station wagon Jimmy drove was filled with his boss’s tools and we weren’t supposed to move them. That left only a small space for Lee’s things. But the car had a roof rack and so we were able to tie Lee’s twin box springs and mattress on top. Aside from this and a small bureau, Lee didn’t own any furniture. No bed frame or headboard. No tables, chairs, or desk. She had several duffle bags filled with clothes, wood boxes that held her albums, a turntable and speakers, piles of blankets, sheets and pillows, and several boxes of books. Last night when we got back from dinner, it only took a half hour to pack.
“You still have this book?” I asked. Lee and I were in her room, deciding which things would make the first trip to her new apartment. Jimmy was waiting outside with the car. I lifted the textbook off the top of the stack. It was from our Abnormal Psychology class, junior year.
Lee zipped up a duffle bag. “I kept all my books. Didn’t you?”
“I think so.” But I didn’t remember seeing my Abnormal Psych book on the shelf in my room. Where had it gone? I put the book back in the box. My mother never got rid of books, either. They were stacked on the kitchen table, along the walls, in the bathrooms, two rows deep on the shelves in the den and her office. Your mother’s books are her best friends, my dad always said. I used to feel that way about my books, too, although not so much anymore.
“We should get going.” With her head, Lee motioned to the door. I picked up a box and followed.
Jimmy took Lee’s things from us and stuffed them into the car and then we made another trip up and down before squeezing into the front seat for the short drive to her new apartment. Jimmy drove with one hand on the wheel and the other stretched across the top of the seat behind us. He was big with dirty blond hair that was thinning on his forehead but fell long down his back in a ponytail. His eyes were glassy and red—he was either stoned or had been up all night, too—and after our experience with Markus, I wasn’t taking any chances. I watched Jimmy closely. I didn’t care that Lee said he was nice and a brilliant cameraman.
Jimmy turned off Houston and took a sharp right, then left. I was so turned around that I didn’t know where we were. East Side? West Side? It was close to nine thirty and people were hurrying down the sidewalks, dressed for work. I was sure that Ben, after running his usual four miles, had already been at his desk for an hour.
Finally, Jimmy slowed in front of a tall white stucco building. It was at least fifteen stories high with thin, long windows evenly placed across the facade. I didn’t see a doorman in the glass-door entrance but still it felt safe to me. And clean. The white stucco sparkled in the sunlight.
“So, this is it?” Jimmy turned to Lee, who nodded.
“It looks like a prison,” Lee said. Jimmy snickered. “Don’t you think, Clare?”
“I think it looks safe,” I said.
Rachel, one of Lee’s three new roommates, met us at the elevator when we got off on the tenth floor. She wore blue and white checkered pajama bottoms and a tank top the same shade of blue as her bottoms. Even her blue and white slippers matched. She had a long face and big blue eyes and her lips barely moved when she talked. I liked how neat and organized she was; she seemed like the kind of person who wouldn’t steal from you or expect you to do her dishes.
Rachel opened the door to the apartment and we followed her into the living room. Sunshine poured through the windows that lined the far wall and the furniture—lots of white wood and white wicker—looked new and barely used. Two lamps, blazing on either side of the couch, made the room bright, cheerful. Even the giant plant in the corner looked happy. I felt a wave of relief and turned to Lee.
She’d begun shifting her weight from one foot to the other while she opened and closed her hands. Her nose flared, as if she smelled something she didn’t like, and her eyes darted around the room. And then suddenly she rushed across the rug to the window, looked out, and said, “It’s so different from last time.”
Rachel glanced at me and then at Lee. “What?”
“It wasn’t as bright,” Lee said.
“Well, you were here at night, I guess?” Rachel scrunched her nose in concern, or maybe worry, and I knew I had to do something. I didn’t want her to think that something was wrong with Lee. I didn’t want her to change her mind about letting her move in.
“You know filmmakers, always in touch with their surroundings.” I laughed and turned to Rachel. “This is great. Can you show me the rest of the apartment?”
Rachel licked her bottom lip as she watched Lee and then shrugged and started down the hallway. To Lee I mouthed, stop it and motioned for her to follow.
In addition to the living room and galley kitchen, there were two bedrooms. Lee would share a room with Monica, who worked at Swiss Bank. Rachel, who was in graduate school at Columbia, shared the other room with Laura, who worked for an accounting firm. Rachel’s father owned the apartment and rented to the girls.
I glanced at the half-dozen framed pictures on the table in the hall. Graduation. Formal dances. Pool parties. The girls wore big smiles that matched their big eyes as they posed with handsome boys dressed in suits and ties. These were normal girls who worked normal jobs and had normal friends. They could have been people we knew in college.
I leaned into Lee and whispered, “This is good. Don’t you think?”
Lee ran her tongue across her scar as she glanced at the picture frames. She continued to open and close her hands until finally I grabbed her right hand, when Rachel turned to open a closet, and yanked it.
“Where did you go to undergrad?” I asked.
“Boston College.” Rachel shut the closet door and turned to us. She’d been carrying a magazine that she now hugged to her chest with both arms.
“I live in Boston,” I said.
“Really?” Rachel asked. “My grandparents live in Brookline. I love it there.”
“I live in Brookline.” I felt my voice raise an octave. “I grew up there.”
“Do you know my grandparents, the Feiths? They live on Dean Street.”
“No, but I grew up on Dean Street!”
We smiled at each other. To think that I’d be talking about Dean Street here in New York. This apartment was safe and clean and these were good girls. They’d take care of Lee. Watch out for her. Not that I didn’t want to do it anymore. But sometimes I felt, well, it was a challenge to help her keep her head above water. Yes, that was what it was like. It was as if she were treading water, and I had to keep yelling, kick your legs! Move your arms! And breathe!
Lee and I didn’t talk on our way to the elevator. We still had to bring up the bed and things from the car and then make another trip back to her old apartment.
“What the hell?” I said when the doors closed and the elevator started down. “Why did you do that in the living room? You freaked her out.”
“It was just so white everywhere. It wasn’t like that when I saw it a couple of weeks ago. I’d have remembered.”
“Well, maybe they painted. So what?”
“It’s so high up. What if something happens? Like a fire?”
“Well, at least you don’t have to worry about anyone breaking in through a fire escape,” I said. “It’s nice and bright and clean, Lee. You should be happy.”
“I know. But—”
“But, what?” I asked.
“The karma’s off. And there are hardly any outlets in the bedrooms. And the place smelled funny and there were no screens on the windows and the plant in the corner was fake and there were five lamps in the living room. Why so many?”
I glanced at her. How had she had time to notice all that? I watched a thin line of sweat start from her temple and trickle down her pale cheek. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw her so worked up like this.
“And did you see what she was reading?” she asked. “People magazine.”
“What’s wrong with that? Every time I go to the dentist I read People.”
“Yeah, but it’s one thing to read it in the dentist’s office and another to buy it.”
“You don’t know that she bought it,” I said. “Maybe she found it. Or maybe she took it from the dentist’s office. Who cares?”
The elevator doors opened and through the window we saw Jimmy, idling at the curb. These girls were welcoming Lee into their home, trusting her when they didn’t know her. Maybe Rachel had been up all night working on a paper and needed downtime. Maybe she’d just taken an exam. Maybe she had to read “Lycidas,” for God’s sake.
“Not everyone has time to read The New York Times.” I didn’t care that my voice sounded angry. How could she be so critical? How could I read the paper every day when I had to read D. H. Lawrence?
“It’s safe, Lee.”
“You don’t have to be so protective all of the time, you know,” she said.
“And you don’t have to be so reckless. I’m just trying to be a good friend.”
“I know. Thank you.”
On our next trip, Lee wasn’t as fidgety or critical and even smiled when I pointed to the dishwasher. Jimmy thought the apartment was great, too. After we dropped the box spring and mattress in the corner of the bedroom, he took the back of his hand across his forehead and said, “Lucky. You got air-conditioning.”
On the way back to her old apartment, I rolled up the window and watched the city through tinted glass. People—a homeless man with his shopping cart, a woman walking a dog—flashed before me and disappeared. A cab raced by. A black limo turned sharply and nearly cut us off. Jimmy slammed on the brakes, yelled, “Dick!” and then sped up. I tightened my seatbelt. Maybe Lee’s new roommates weren’t as interesting or creative as her old ones. Maybe the neighborhood was less “cutting edge.” But you needed to make compromises to live here safely.
Lee stared out the window, too, but her dark eyes had that distant, faraway look that always made me nervous. I nudged her. “You okay?” She twitched—I’d startled her—and nodded.
Jimmy turned the car and we wound around Washington Square and then he turned right, and left and right again, and we were on Lee’s street. He pulled up to her apartment and double-parked.
“You wanna stay with the car and I’ll go up with Lee?” he asked.
“Thanks,” I said. “But I’ll go. We only have a few boxes left.” I followed Lee out of the car and up to the door. Once inside, we climbed the stairs. Someone on the second floor was cooking with onions and garlic. A baby cried behind one of the doors on the third floor. On the fourth floor, we let ourselves into her apartment. Tina and Markus’s door was still closed and I didn’t hear voices. Lee told me that they usually slept until late in the afternoon.
We carried the last of Lee’s boxes from the bedroom into the living room.
“Want to take one last look around?” I whispered. Lee nodded and went back into her bedroom, then into the bathroom, and finally returned to the living room area. Which took all of twenty seconds, that was how small the apartment was.
We both jumped when the phone rang. Lee glanced at Tina’s door, picked up the receiver before the second ring, and said hello. I watched her eyes widen and her lips part. Then she straightened, her whole body rigid. “Hello! It’s so nice to talk to you again. How did you find me?”
“Who is it?” I leaned against the counter. The room still smelled like pot. The soapy water had turned to dull gray and I saw knives and plates at the bottom of the sink. From somewhere down the street I heard a siren.
Lee kept nodding and finally mouthed, Patricia Graceson.
How long had it been since Lee talked to her? Patricia had been her mentor, the subject of her documentary, and the one who helped get her the internship. But when that went bad, Lee had been too embarrassed to tell her. Finally, a year after she was let go, Lee wrote Patricia to explain but Patricia never wrote back.
“So, are you looking to compare with what you found in Africa?” Lee began twirling the phone cord around her finger.
Patricia was one of the most successful documentary filmmakers in the country and yet she wanted something from Lee. I saw it all over her face. Lee began to pace, the phone pressed to her ear, her forehead furrowed as she concentrated.
My God. Patricia Graceson. We were sophomores when she arrived on campus for a two-year stint as a guest lecturer. One night a group of students gathered in Lee’s theater to watch Patricia’s new documentary and Lee asked me to go with her. It was an uncomfortable night for me. I remembered that clearly.
“There’s Dr. Hannigan,” Lee said as we found seats among the thirty or so students who were there. She pointed to a man on the stage and then nodded at a boy with red hair who was sitting in the front row. “That’s Rodney. Just, I don’t know, see what you can see.”
Rodney was Dr. Hannigan’s assistant and Lee didn’t understand why he’d been giving her a hard time. Part of the reason she wanted me to come with her was to see if I could figure him out. As I settled in my seat and watched Lee start down the aisle, I noticed how people turned to look at her. She had a presence here, too.
When Lee approached Dr. Hannigan, Rodney jumped on the stage and worked his way between them. It was obvious what he was doing, yet Lee seemed oblivious. She just kept talking and smiling.
A few moments later when she sat next to me, I whispered, “He’s threatened by you. Can you not see that?”
“Maybe I’ll sleep with him and really fuck with his head,” she said. I must have looked horrified because she laughed. “I’m kidding! God, Clare, you’re so spooked by sex.”
“No, I’m not—”
The crowd began to clap and Lee said, “There she is! That’s Patricia!”
Patricia Graceson climbed the stairs to the stage. She didn’t wear a sleek pantsuit or black dress or patent leather pumps. Nor did she have long red-painted nails or perfect hair. She reminded me of the women who came to my mother’s writing classes, not someone famous. She had big, round glasses, short gray hair, and she wore a yellow cardigan that was too long in the sleeves and covered her hands. She wore no lipstick, no eye shadow. I’m not even sure she combed her hair. She grinned and waved as she scanned the group. When her eyes reached us, Lee sat forward and waved back.
Once she started to talk, I thought she had a warm voice and a nice smile. Did she have children? She seemed so open and friendly, and I imagined she was a mom who gave bone-squeezing hugs and listened when her children talked. But if she was so successful, wasn’t she married to her work?
Then the lights dimmed and the film began. As I watched the opening, a landscape pockmarked with dried riverbeds and tumble brush, blistering blue skies, and dead cattle carcasses, I started to think about the sorority house. I imagined everyone was still sitting at the table in the dining room, talking and laughing. I stifled a yawn and felt my eyelids droop. The film was very dry, very academic.
Everyone but me seemed mesmerized. And I remembered thinking, as I sat there, that I was a pretend intellectual. I could spit back what the professor wanted to hear and make lame, generic connections. But my mother was a true intellectual. Maybe Lee, too. They were talented and passionate and believed in what they were doing. They thought about things, pondered them, wrestled with them.
I glanced at Lee, who was watching the screen, her lips slightly parted, her dark eyes barely blinking, her hands gripping the arms of her chair. She was passionate not just about filmmaking but about many things—the way bare tree branches crisscrossed the sky on a bright winter day or the first cup of coffee in the morning. I didn’t feel things in the same way and I suddenly wished so much that I did. I’d settle for one passion, just one thing that got me excited.
Patricia Graceson’s voice boomed through the room. Drought, starvation, epidemic. On screen there were poor, starving children with distended stomachs, fly-infested wounds, and runny eyes. Where were the parents? Why couldn’t they keep their children safe? Were they not pa
Crude farming techniques. Vicious circles of malnutrition and lack of education and opportunities. Years of oppression and war. Many parents died before their children. Many died trying to feed their children before themselves.
I sat back in my seat. From listening to my parents talk so much about war, I knew that no one really anticipated how horrible it would be. What was wrong with me? My mind was turning to silly putty. I needed to have something important in my life. A passion. Maybe a career counselor could help me find this.
An hour later, the documentary ended and Patricia took the stage again.
“I think your work is inspiring,” a girl said from the back row. “Your use of lighting is both symbolic yet functional, utilitarian and yet transformative.”
Oh, God, she sounded like the pretentious women who went to my mother’s book signings. I sighed loudly. The girl in front of me turned and frowned.
“I appreciate your insights but we were filming in the desert,” Patricia said. “I wasn’t thinking about symbolism or transformation. I was trying to get the shot.”
Ha! The questions went on, about style, lighting, government restrictions, securing visas and making sure that you aren’t liable for filming subjects without written permission. When Lee’s hand shot up, Patricia smiled and pointed to her.
“What advice can you give someone who’s starting out?” Lee asked.
Patricia nodded. “Excellent question. So, here it is. We simply can’t judge others—and let’s face it, that’s what we do regardless of how much we insist that we’re objective—until we have judged ourselves. As Socrates said, and this is something I firmly believe, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’ For your life and sanity and especially for your art, you must learn about yourself.”
No one said anything. From the surprise on everyone’s faces, I imagined that this wasn’t something taught in Film 101. I sat up. Learn about yourself for art’s sake? Had my mother done that?