How sweet were those six, seven, and eight-hour love marathons on the rickety bed near the window with its brown, stained shade drawn almost to the floor, the heat banging extravagantly through the naked pipes; joint butts, a mountain of apple cores and gum wrappers overflowing an ashtray perched on top of Ira’s coffee-logged copy of Gray’s Anatomy. Now that they were married it was hard to believe they were the same couple who’d bundled up in ski jackets after all that glorious lovemaking to brave a blizzard, tracking through un-ploughed streets to the East River promenade just to throw snowballs over the rail at passing tugs, Ira screaming, “You’re crazy, Fay Watkins! I love you!”
Developers had long since demolished the seafood house on Third Avenue where, after these winter forays, Ira and Fay had stuffed themselves with clam chowder and steamed lobster tails dripping with butter. And a fifty-storey, all-glass condominium now stood where the little art movie theatre used to be. Sitting in the last row watching re-runs of Jacques Tati films and fondling each other until they got so aroused they’d have to hurry back to their overheated flat, where, arms and legs aching with love weariness, they’d fall into the rickety Salvation Army bed, still smelling of early morning sex, and start making love all over again.
Lately, Ira had taken to chiding Fay for “romanticizing” their poverty. Fay said she wasn’t romanticizing their poverty; it was the unbridled animal pleasure, the tenuous lie of innocence that she missed so much.
Their passion had already begun to ebb by the time Ira’s internship ended; but the relationship had yet to enter its currently full-blown contentious phase, when, two months before his neurology board exams—without informing Fay—Ira offered space in their already overstuffed hall closet to his supposedly “psychic” friend Sam Rubin. When Fay found the old coffee pot, rusty toaster, stained sleeping bag, and shoe-stuffed knapsack and demanded they be thrown out, Ira ordered her to leave Sam’s things where they were, he was returning a favor.
“He’s giving me a reading on the questions I can expect on the neurology boards.”
“Tell me you don’t really think Sam knows the questions the examiners haven’t even seen yet!” Fay screamed.
“I sure do.”
“I don’t believe what I’m hearing!” Fay screamed louder.
Ira, who hadn’t raised his voice at all, turned his back on her. Fay ran out of the apartment, tore down the stairs and wandered aimlessly through the streets until midnight, cursing herself for getting hysterical. On the corner of Second Avenue and Eighty Sixth Street, she found a telephone booth and called Ira to apologize “for being a harridan.” Ira sleepily advised her to come back home, being in bed was awful without her. To make it up to him when he passed the neurology exams, Fay said nothing about Sam and threw a party.
Having no friends of her own to invite, she crammed their railroad flat from end to end with Ira’s hospital acquaintances. The first to arrive was a Filipino doctor she recognized only vaguely, who greeted her waving a bottle of Johnny Walker Red in one hand and a stack of paper pill cups—“courtesy of the supply room staff”—in the other. Fay took the bottle and cups to the kitchen, then hung a sign on the wall designating a windowless cubicle she’d painted cerulean blue and pasted over with silver stars as “Pot Luck.” People started streaming in. Two surgery residents, claiming they were no longer smoking pot because of the latest rumor from the pharmacology department that it left significant brain damage, had removed the bottle of Johnny Walker Red from the kitchen and were pouring generous shots into the pill cups. Ira took her aside and asked why she’d invited the surgeons. Fay said she found surgeons more sociable than other doctors. Giving her a dubious look, Ira walked toward the food tables.
Passing through the cerulean blue room on her way to the kitchen, Fay clambered over a mountain of coats and a nude couple. At least someone was having fun.
As she was removing a tray of half-charred cheese puffs from the oven, a stoned intern approached her waving a joint. “Partake, dear hostess?”
“Not now, Pete. I’m trying to salvage my canapés.”
“Do I detect a note of hostility?”
“No, fury!” Fay grabbed the joint from his hand, taking three deep puffs before returning it. Over his shoulder, she could see Ira engaged in deep conversation with Gail Breyer, the psychiatry department “hottie,” with her melon-shaped breasts, thick black Dutch boy bangs, and pouty red lips. After sorting out the least burnt cheese puffs Fay retrieved the joint and, dismissing Pete, smoked it down to a glimmering ash. Whereupon, Pete fell down on his knees pretending to be a begging dog. As Fay circled him trying to get out of the kitchen, a nurse entered with the information that her date had drunk four boilermakers and was puking his guts out in the toilet and that she needed to call for a taxi. Fay motioned her lazily toward the telephone on the wall. “It may not work. We haven’t had a chance to pay the bill.” Fay wasn’t sure if she’d spoken or thought that. The nurse made her call, pleading with the dispatcher in Haitian Creole. Pete had stopped being a begging dog and was sitting at the kitchen table describing in detail how he and three Pittsburgh prostitutes had holed up for a week in a motel room enacting the entire pocket version of the Marquis de Sade’s Justine. Fay was studying Pete’s big red hunter’s hands and hairy knuckles when Sam-the-so-called-psychic appeared in the doorway with an African princess wrapped in a tie-dyed dashiki. Fay looked again. She was hallucinating. It wasn’t Sam, but the Filipino doctor, talking to the Haitian nurse on her way out of the kitchen.
“Where’ve you been all this time? Don’t you want to socialize?” Ira charged past her toward the refrigerator and began digging for cubes in an ice tray with a fork.
“I am having psychic experiences—like your friend Sam,” Fay said, grinning beatifically.
“You’d better lay off the pot.”
“Here we go, ladies and gents!” Pete pulled himself up from the table, slapping Ira on the back before weaving toward “Pot Luck.”
“Was that lug trying to put the make on you?”
“Vicariously. . .”
“You shouldn’t be leading him on.”
“Didn’t your mother warn you that I was oversexed?”
“Isn’t it time you learned to exercise a little self control? Oh, never mind.” Ira flung his arm forward, then immediately withdrew it. Forgetting that he had just filled the ice tray with water, he lost his balance, sloshing himself and the cheese puffs. “Damn it!” he muttered as he left the kitchen.
Fay remained at the table coping with a new round of hallucinations: a barefoot Japanese night watchman in leggings and a short blue kimono with a huge bunch of keys dangling from his rope belt, banging on a drum and crying, “The Hour of the Rat!”; a party of noisy revelers, also wearing kimonos, sitting on the floor of a windowless cubicle and passing around a long pipe, a jug of rice wine heating on a nearby hearth . . . She looked up from the table to see two policemen, one stepping forward to tell her that the neighbors were complaining about the noise. She opened her mouth to say something to them, but Pete stepped in front of her and handed each of the policemen a cigar. Taking the cigars and grinning, the policemen disappeared. Fay got up and herded out her guests.
The next day, while Ira was asleep in the bedroom and she was sitting spread-legged in a chair in the kitchen, searching the windows of the tenements across the street for signs of a life in better order than her own, Fay saw a man in painter’s coveralls spreading a tarpaulin on the floor of an empty apartment. He was young and wore his black shiny hair long over his ears. As he moved around the room, she saw that he had a black moustache and a cigarette dangling from the left corner of his mouth. The bare arms sticking out of his coveralls were long and white and hairless, almost womanly. Suddenly he looked up and saw her watching him. Then, circling around, prancing a little, he continued laying the tarpaulin. Fay wanted to stop looking at him but couldn’t. She went to the telephone on the wall closer to the window, pretended to dial, and mouthed a conversation. The painter dropped the tarpaulin and came up to the window. Now she saw that he was indeed young, and quite handsome, with thick, glossy black hair, a high Olympian nose and a smooth face—except for the ink brush of black over his lips, which were wide and pendulous. The painter stared back at her through hooded, cobra eyes. Arching his head, he took a step back into the room and bent forward from the waist as if to pick up his brush from the floor. Then, thrusting the cigarette away, he stood facing her again, holding something up for her to look at. He appeared to be taming a snake, making passes over it, cajoling it between his fingers, rocking on his heels, swaying forward and even perhaps—though she couldn’t hear him—crooning. Fay shivered. The painter’s glutted penis stood erect, aimed right at her, coaxing her to join him. Shocked, but unable to stop looking, Fay turned her profile to him; from the corner of her eye, she could see him massaging his penis, taking his time, caressing it lovingly. Soon he was brushing it briskly, then faster, until he was mauling, bruising, slapping it, with his eyes closed, his head thrust toward the ceiling, his tongue snaking out of his mouth. For too long, he stood luring her to his pleasure. Fay pressed the telephone receiver against her stomach until it hurt. With his lips parted in a triumphant sneer, the painter shot a great white stream in an arc across the room. Then, matter-of-factly wiping his hands on the front of his coveralls, he buttoned his fly and gave her a courtly bow.
Fay placed the receiver back in its cradle, went to the refrigerator and took a long drink of cranberry juice right out of the bottle. She wondered whether she’d just been unfaithful to Ira. She thought about her inertia, about using her five missing education credits as an excuse not to get her master’s degree. All the people she knew were productive, scrambling around making important telephone calls and flying to conferences, “accomplishing things.” Why wasn’t Fay doing the same, her mother had admonished in her recent letter. What had happened to all that energy since she’d gotten married? Was it transformed into lust by her latest inordinate craving for kinky sex? Or had she always gotten her kicks from watching and being watched?
On the Sierra Club weekend in Maine where they’d first met, Ira had watched her every morning from the entrance of his tent. Given her predilection for shy men in glasses, seeing him hunched up and staring at her, not daring to say good morning, Fay had approached him, appropriately dressed for the July weather in her lime green halter top and white shorts, to ask why he was wearing a long-sleeved shirt and jeans when it was so hot. Ira had endeared himself to her immediately by taking off his glasses, squinting up at her and replying that he had a tendency to fry in the sun. She fell in love with him later that night over a pepperoni and onion pizza, listening to him describe himself as “basically pugnacious” when he was so obviously not.
Together they’d experimented with meditation, pot, and New Age holistic healing, in that order. During Ira’s short-lived Buddhist phase, Fay had even gone so far as to take vows with a Tibetan lama in Colorado. The lama had given her a Buddhist rosary and the name “Ocean of Dharma.” Ira had dropped Buddhism two months later. Attracted by its atheism, Fay had joined a group of students who sat on black cushions and meditated in a Lower East Side loft. She was certainly no mocker of quests; it was just that Ira’s, driven as they were by his reputedly telepathic best friend Sam Dubin, so often turned out to be occult rather than spiritual. Witnessing the ten-year course of that uneven friendship, Ira’s loyalty to Sam continued to amaze her. At first she’d found him charmingly boyish for trying to convince her that Sam was psychic, “gifted from birth.” She’d smiled at the idea of a bevy of invisible guardians Sam supposedly called up to instruct Ira on everything from “important movies” to “malevolent influences” on his dating life. Ira referred to Sam’s psychic power as “looking up.” Fay had joked about it, saying she hoped Sam wouldn’t look her up and put her in the category of malevolent influences. When Ira didn’t smile, she dropped the subject.
Though he was already twenty when she met him, Ira claimed that Fay was the first woman he had slept with. Oh, he’d fallen in love often enough, but always with the impossible-to-reach big sisters of older neighborhood athletes, staring with mute yearning into their kitchen windows, hoping for a glimpse of them in their curlers as they shuffled from sink to stove in terrycloth slippers on hot summer nights, his heart wrenching at their fragility. Was it the voyeurism that had appealed to her even then? Or was it Ira’s confiding in her that he’d grown up not so much desiring as feeling sorry for women, pained by their secret torments, their monthly bleedings, their soft bare arms and frail fists, their high-pitched cries for independence, life insurance, furniture, separate bank accounts. . . all the things his mother had been refused. Ira squinted, looking like a fourteen-year-old boy when he told her these things; and Fay took him for an ally who would accept her as she was—not like her own devoutly Catholic mother who chastised her for not being a saint. As if to prove her mother wrong, she’d jumped head first into the rescue mission that was to become her marriage. In announcing her engagement to her parents, she’d described Ira as a “fair-skinned introspective person who complements my hyperactivity.” Because she wasn’t aware of it herself at the time, she did not say that she loved him for being everything her father was not: gentle, shy, and deferential toward women.
Fay’s own letter responding to her mother’s latest litany of complaints against her was still lying on the kitchen table waiting to be signed off. In it, she’d written that she’d stopped going to Mass. That she was no longer a believer. That she was still “window shopping” (using her mother’s phrase) for a clue about what to do with her “God-given gifts.” Window shopping indeed! She wanted to tell her mother that a pervert of a house painter across the way had just flashed her in the window and, unable to tear herself away, she’d stood there watching. No way she’d do that, of course. But she did add the following postscript:
“Hey, Doreen, I think you ought to know that your daughter just committed adultery in her heart. And guess what, she wasn’t struck dead and sent straight to hell for it!”