My aunt was coming for a visit. We were about to be neighbors, in fact. It was the summer she’d been released from prison. Chloe’s parole officer had found her an apartment not far from us in Inwood and a job too, answering phones at a law firm. This must have been 2005. Martha Stewart had recently come back into the world after her own little incarceration and my boyfriend Ian was trying to draw some dumb parallels.
“Maybe she’ll be humbled, like Martha was,” he told me, “yet serene and more determined than ever, now that she’s out.”
“Maybe,” I said.
But what did he know about it? He’d never even met my aunt.
I’d been living in New York City for about three years, since college, around the same time Chloe was sentenced. A friend of a friend had hooked me up with a job here, right after graduation, as a development officer at an exclusive private school, planning events and fundraisers, smooth-talking the alumni. We organized movie screenings and gallery openings and various black tie affairs. I had to buy a tux for this job, which turned out not to be deductible. I liked the events and the schmoozing. There was a whiff of Manhattan glamour to all this that I thought I deserved. The office work, however ― the mailings, the strategy sessions, navigating the outdated fundraising software ― now, that was a real drag.
I’d met Ian at one of our events, where we showed a documentary about an orphanage in Tibet, directed by some pompous benefactor. Ian was one of the cater waiters working the dinner afterwards. He looked very fit in his red tunic. I let myself be mesmerized by his shaved head, his flirty grin, and the dragon tattoo at the base of his good-looking neck. After I had lingered a bit too long in the kitchen with him, when I should have been out with the donors, he flicked my bow tie and whispered, in a goofy, cowboy twang, “What are you still doin’ back here, son? Slummin’?” That’s when I leaned in and kissed him hard on the mouth, taking us both by surprise.
I thought I’d have a hot weekend affair with Ian and then that would be that, but he had other ideas. Despite his hardy appearance and sexy swagger, he was affable and sweet and not into casual hookups. He had told me this, rather gravely, as I started to unhook his belt that first night back at his tiny apartment. I said I felt exactly the same way. I mean, was I really going to get into some stupid sex debate at that point in the evening? Ian was a little older than I was and made it clear from the beginning he was looking for a real relationship. We’d met in May and by the end of that summer, his sunny assurance and accommodating ways had worn me down. It felt good to use some sweeter, more optimistic area of my brain. We found an apartment together way uptown, a large, grimy one-bedroom near Fort Tryon Park. It was a jumping, noisy neighborhood. The rents were still reasonable up there then. We had a dog we’d named Demi Tasse, as if he was some sassy drag queen and not just a moody beagle mix.
Ian was obsessed with the Unicorn Tapestries at The Cloisters and said he was happy they were so close by to where he lived now. He could get a little annoying about that. He’d been to art school in Nevada, not a very good one, he explained, ruefully, though bitterness from Ian was pretty rare. He’d grown up in California; his parents ran a dance school in Sausalito. He had a brother who’d studied with Dale Chihuly and actually made a living as a glassblower; there was a sister who created pottery out of dried gourds. He was from a family of artistes. I used to give him a hard time about that. Ian was a painter. He was working on a series of grim cityscapes, which he said reflected his angry response to the Bush administration. They were dark and smudgy things, these paintings, with harsh, jutting angles. They were mildly arresting in their offhand, political way. The first time he took me to his studio, at a warehouse in Long Island City, I was able to praise his work without having to lie too much.
We’d been living together for nearly two years when Chloe contacted me about her visit. I wasn’t sure what to expect when she showed up on a Saturday morning. My first thought after I buzzed her in and met her at the door was that she looked like a nun in street clothes, with her black slacks, faded paisley blouse and terrible Earth shoes. There was something almost demure about her now. She was getting older, of course, in her late forties, but her voice was still the same, booming and steady.
“I like it!” she said, brushing past me after a brief hug, pointing to our high ceilings and crown moldings, the nice inlaid woodwork around the fireplace. These were the only highlights of the apartment, actually.
“Lots of fun details in a pre-war building like this,” I said.
“We have mice too,” Ian laughed. “They also come with the building.”
He’d joined us from the kitchen.
“As long as they’ve had their shots, sweetie,” Chloe replied.
I introduced them. I knew they’d hit it off. Everybody liked Ian.
I’d told Chloe about him when she’d phoned.
“Little Gavin, happy at last,” she had said at the time. She’d always been a big one with the wisecracks.
“If you say so,” I’d told her.
Now, in the apartment, my jailbird aunt and my jolly boyfriend were already having a friendly little conversation. Demi Tasse had finally stumbled out from the bedroom to investigate. He was somewhat deaf and hadn’t heard the buzzer. He was nosing around Chloe’s ankles, making a low keening sound, his standard greeting.
“That sounds like a dirge,” Chloe said.
“Yeah, it’s a mournful noise, isn’t it?” Ian said. “Like Danny Boy as the Titanic goes down.”
“Ha!” Chloe laughed, and slapped him hard on the shoulder.
We went into the kitchen and sat around the table eating the bagels Ian had gone out earlier to buy. I half-expected my aunt to start in on some jokey stories about her time away, some sly reference to the big house. Her humor had always been a little irreverent and dark, but she told us about her apartment instead ― its postage stamp square footage, its slanting, wormy floors. She liked her new job at the law firm, she said, except one of the senior partners had the robotic personality and soulless eyes of a serial killer.
The dark humor was still there apparently, lurking around.
After we ate, we went over to Fort Tryon Park. It was a nice day in June. We all commented on the drenched, blue color of the sky.
“Cerulean,” Ian called it.
Well, he was the artist.
In the park, Chloe raved about the manicured gardens and spotless walkways. I was surprised she’d never been up here before.
“I was a Brooklyn girl,” she said. “I never came this far uptown. It felt like the frontier to me, like a cross-country trip.”
On the walk through the park, Ian told my aunt about his time in art school, his long hours at the studio and the Bush paintings. This led to some ranting political discussion. I held back as they gossiped like teenagers hating on the same boy, their voices harmonizing in outrage. After a while, we arrived at The Cloisters, the medieval museum in the middle of the park. It was designed to look like a 13th century church. Ian was excited to do his little tour. As he moved in front of us to get the tickets, Chloe motioned to him and said, “Well, your boyfriend’s fucking perfect. I guess you hit the jackpot.”
“Maybe he hit the jackpot,” I said.
“Listen to you,” Chloe said.
Ian took us to his favorite chapels inside the museum and showed us various collections of stained glass. He had us bend over a display of illuminated manuscripts and stand in front of a pieta he particularly admired by an unknown German artist. He spent some time reading out loud from the information cards under some porcelain statuettes. He saved the tapestries for last, telling us, eagerly, how the Hunt of the Unicorn was a common theme in renaissance art and literature, and how the tapestries were woven in wool, metallic threads, and silk. He shared so much information with us, I thought there might be a pop quiz. I was surprised Chloe wasn’t bored by all this. I certainly was. In fairness, this was my third time through the place, with my boyfriend, the accidental docent.
Afterwards, when we were walking back across the park, Chloe told us how lovely the day had been. Her voice was tinged with something I couldn’t identify, gratitude maybe. There was none of her blithe, mocking tone. Perhaps prison had knocked some of that out of her. It must have been difficult for her to reach out and get reacquainted. She hadn’t let anyone visit her while she was up there. Three years was a long time.
“I know you’ve been wondering about something,” Chloe said suddenly, as if she’d been reading my mind. “Stop wondering. It wasn’t so bad inside. It was minimum security. I got to read. I had time to think. I wouldn’t recommend the experience, but don’t make too much of it.”
There was an awkward silence after that as we gazed out toward the Hudson, as it shimmered conspicuously in the distance. Ian had looped his arm through my aunt’s as we walked. He tried to grab ahold of me too, but the Yellow Brick Road aspect of that maneuver embarrassed me. I pulled away and stuck my hands in my pockets.
“What I really want to know,” Ian asked my aunt, tilting his head in my direction, “is what was this guy like growing up?”
Chloe waited a beat or two before answering.
“Gavin?” she laughed. “Oh, Gavin had his secrets.”
My aunt was a blunt person. She liked to curse, tease and lob jokes around, like some foul-mouthed Auntie Mame. She had a brash, know-it-all style. I’d always just called her Chloe, as if we were buddies. Even when she was spouting dull advice or telling you stupid things about old movies, you tended to listen to her. She was a real film buff and loved to recite entire plots, start to finish. She’d been an actress when she was young, in New York, but not very successfully. I saw her perform once. I was ten years old and my parents had taken me into the city on a Saturday night. The show wasn’t in a regular theater, more like a church basement. We sat on rickety folding chairs. I couldn’t pinpoint my aunt. Everybody onstage was dressed up like a peasant; the women had kerchiefs tied under their chins. They wore wigs and heavy make-up. They all delivered their lines in borscht-thick Russian accents. Maybe the plot had something to do with the Czar or The Revolution, but how would I know? I had a decent attention span for a kid my age, which is why my parents must have chanced bringing me. My little sister, whiny and grasping even under the best of circumstances, had been left behind in New Jersey with a babysitter. Still, I was bored out of my mind. The rest of the audience was fidgety too ― shifting in their chairs, clearing their throats. My father sighed deeply every four or five minutes.
After it was over, we waited around for Chloe to come out from backstage. We stood there with the other members of the audience who’d come to support their own Russian-impersonating loved one. Now that it was finally over, these spectators were free to put on brave, happy expressions. When Chloe joined us, her face was still made up. It looked like she’d drawn apples on her cheeks.
“Sorry, folks. That was a real piece of shit, wasn’t it?” she remarked loudly.
My mother, who could be very composed in public, had stiffened at the cursing. She taught at a nursery school in the suburbs and chaired the volunteer committee at church. As sisters, they’d never been close. Chloe, five years younger, had been a hellraising teen, with biker boyfriends, school suspensions and a couple of DUIs. The bad behavior didn’t prevent her from remaining my grandparents’ favorite. Chloe knew how to charm them, with her shrugging apologies and funny asides.
When Chloe had moved to the city to give acting a shot, my grandparents were quick to offer their support because the risky whims of the theatrical world felt like a big improvement over her other harebrained schemes ― which usually involved helping out some lazy boyfriend.
After my grandparents were killed in a car crash when I was five. Chloe blew through her small inheritance, thereby limiting her future options. She must have been over thirty when we saw her in that Russian show, getting a little old for unpaid church basement work. Her tart and public assessment of the production was proof enough of that. Still, it was a surprise to everybody when she gave up acting for good and took a job as a bookkeeper at an upscale restaurant in midtown where she used to waitress. The previous bookkeeper was retiring. Chloe had a facility for numbers and the owner, a popular restaurateur, liked my aunt’s brisk authority, trusted her direct, unflappable style. Her sudden respectability ― she’d dumped the latest loser, opened a savings account, and cut her long, unruly hair ― unnerved my mother no end, as she herself held the copyright on standard-issue appropriateness.
When I was in high school and my aunt offered to take me on a trip to Rome, my parents did not raise any objections, as they surely would have if Chloe was still painting apples on her cheeks. Growing up, we went to Cape Cod or Down the Shore in the summers, but international travel was not exactly a line item in the family budget. My mother was still teaching and my father was an insurance underwriter at a company he despised. They were exceedingly cautious with their cash. So, if Chloe wanted to foot the bill and broaden my horizons in Europe, then why not? She would take my sister on a separate vacation the following spring, but to Paris instead. Shelly and I would have strangled each other if we’d been taken on the same trip.
On the plane to Rome, I’d been huffy and sarcastic, though at seventeen this was my natural state. Something shifted though, once we got through customs and got in the taxi. As we approached the city, everything was lit up and on display, like the dioramas in a science museum. When we passed the Colosseum, massive and luminous against the dark sky, I felt a touristy jolt, a tremor of unexpected joy. Chloe grinned at me with a frank I told you so satisfaction. Our pensione was located across the river in the heart of the Trastevere district.
The next morning, when we went out into the winding, cobblestoned streets of the neighborhood, the scorching heat almost knocked me flat. It was mid-August. The guidebooks said it was the worst time to visit Rome because of the sultry weather and how nearly everything was closed down for the month. Chloe must have gotten some good, off-season rates. What I mostly recall from that trip were our leisurely late dinners at outdoor cafés and how hard she tried to get me to come out to her at the time. Who knows how long she’d known about me. She’d probably caught me stealing steamy glances at various hunky Italians as they approached us on the Via Veneto, or wherever we were, those furtive head to crotch glimpses which had kept me in a perpetual state of arousal since the time we’d arrived.
One night, over dinner, Chloe started rambling about the plots to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly. Last Summer. I soon figured why she’d chosen these titles.
“Tennessee Williams was a genius,” she said in a fake casual tone, “but so much of his work was about tortured people who just weren’t allowed to be themselves. Doesn’t that seem ludicrous now? I mean, the tortured part and the unhappiness?”
I sipped my lemonade and pretended to be very interested in my dessert menu.
“I mean, today you can be with anyone you want.”
“Hmmh?” I shrugged.
“Are you listening, Gavin?”
“What?” I said, looking up from the menu.
“Jesus Christ. I’m saying it doesn’t make any difference who you fuck!”
Chloe sort of slammed her fist on the table for emphasis, scattering the silverware. My aunt was glaring at me with such testy encouragement, trying to will some epiphany out of me, then and there.
“Good to know, Chloe,” I said.
“Fine then,” she sighed dramatically, before waving for the check.
My aunt probably figured her casual cursing and dirty observations (She liked to joke about the small endowments on the male statues we’d seen in the Villa Borghese) would disarm me; get me to disclose all my private thoughts and musings. I could tell she thought I was some neophyte who needed her wise, shopworn counsel. The truth was that I’d been sleeping with one of my soccer teammates for nearly a year. Some pining little virgin, I was not. But why should I bring my aunt up to speed? Chloe’s wild youth was long gone, a relic of the past. A free ticket to Rome didn’t entitle her to unrestricted access to my personal life. How smug people were when they thought they had some special knowledge of you, when they thought they knew you better than you knew yourself.
It was a few years later when I came out to my parents. I was at Rutgers then. I’d come back home for the weekend to have this conversation, which I considered a formality. I assumed they already knew on some level, but I was wrong about that part. I remember how their clipped, icy reactions stunned me into a bruised silence. My father, who had never really been a macho shithead, scowled angrily at me and put his head in his hands; my mother pursed her lips and told me she would have to pray on it. She was an Episcopalian from suburban New Jersey, for fuck’s sake, not some Southern Baptist! They didn’t come around right away either. I felt betrayed and furious. I realized I should have been kinder to Chloe, the night of her needling hints in Rome. She was probably trying to give me a soft landing, predicting the response I was to get at home, something that I had misjudged.
My mother phoned me in New Brunswick toward the end of my senior year with the big news about my aunt. Chloe had been arrested for embezzling from the restaurant. The details were sketchy. She’d apparently been having an affair with one of the assistant managers and he was involved in the crime too. There was a lot of money involved. There would be no trial. She’d plead guilty. Her sentence had been handed down, five years with two suspended. The facility was in northern Connecticut.
“I don’t think you should try to contact her,” my mother had said.
That had not been my first thought.
“She says she doesn’t want anyone to visit or write. Your aunt has always been stubborn like that. She didn’t even let me know any of this before it was practically all settled.”
I noticed my mother’s voice had taken on a voyeuristic trill. Perhaps she felt that order had been restored to the universe, now that her sister had fallen from grace. Chloe’s situation didn’t upset or concern me as it might have, if I’d been a more sensitive person. I remember sort of joking about it with my friends at school, getting some laughs about my spinster aunt who was going to prison for ripping off an overpriced Manhattan eatery. I made Chloe an old maid in the telling, to sell the story more, to paint a more outrageous picture. I might as well have given her half-glasses and a frayed cardigan, when she’d been nothing at all like that.
Ian and I saw my aunt fairly often that summer, after her release. She’d stop in on weekend mornings or occasionally at other times. She might come with us when we took Demi Tasse for a walk in the park. She told me she’d been out to see my parents in New Jersey, a tense visit, I gathered. Perhaps they’d hidden the silverware. And she’d been in touch with Shelly too, who was going into her 5th year (and then some) at a small liberal arts school outside of Boston. My sister’s intractable nature was now getting in the way of her completing basic graduation requirements.
During these visits, Chloe would fill us in on her progress acclimating to society, as she referred to it. It was going well, she said. She liked her parole officer. My aunt was lucky in this regard, she told us, because sometimes these guys could be complete and utter assholes. Ian and I nodded when she’d told us this, as if we really knew anything about it. They were giving her some paralegal work to do at her job, in addition to the phones, which pleased her. She organized litigation binders at the reception desk, labeled exhibits. Sometimes she’d work through her lunch hour or stay late and make some overtime.
“I like putting things in order,” she said. “It’s good spiritual exercise.”
In prison she’d started reading about Eastern philosophy, Buddhism in particular, so occasionally some quote would leak out of her.
“If a man can control his mind,” she told us, “he can find the way to Enlightenment, and all wisdom and virtue will naturally come to him.”
“That’s interesting,” Ian had responded. “We could all use a little more wisdom and virtue coming our way. Am I right?”
“Speak for yourself,” I said.
One morning when my aunt was visiting, there was a knock on the front door. It was Skyler, who lived in the apartment above us. He’d moved in five months earlier. He charged in wearing tight shorts and a muscle shirt. He was known for his eye-popping entrances. Now he was on his way out to Fire Island, but had run out of sunscreen and needed to borrow some of ours.
“The shit’s so expensive at that little store in the Pines,” he explained breathlessly. “I just refuse to pay it!”
He stopped ranting long enough for me to introduce Chloe.
“Hi, doll,” he said, flashing his killer grin and then he ignored her completely.
He spent more effort on Demi Tasse, scratching him behind the ears, as the dog made his low moan. Skyler wasn’t used to conversing with anyone over forty and certainly not anyone as unadorned as my aunt. He might have taken more of an interest in her if he’d known she’d recently been released from prison (Scandal fascinated Skyler.) but I’d intentionally never filled him in on that. He worked for a famous clothing designer in Soho and was also a part-time model. He was telling us now about the week he’d had, which consisted of some circular, catty arguments with his boss and a fraught photo shoot in Quebec, where an incompetent stylist messed up somebody’s eyebrows. He did have a slick and glossy appearance, enhanced by his perfect summer tan. Ian referred to this look as laminated. Skyler thought he’d come down in the world because he was living in Inwood. He’d told us this when we introduced ourselves as his neighbors, but it was only a temporary situation because of finances, he pointed out. Too many flights to Ibiza for the weekend, he said, too many jaunts to Palm Springs for circuit parties.
“Yes, of course,” we had sympathized, but Ian and I never really went anywhere other than the park.
After Ian had retrieved the sunscreen from the bathroom, Skyler managed to say thank you while frowning at the inferior brand and the high SPF. Then he waved goodbye to us all like a visiting dignitary. As I led him to the door, he squeezed my shoulder and stuck his tongue out at me before he left. Chloe shot me a glance.
“Glad you could meet our fabulous neighbor,” Ian said after Skyler made his exit. “Or as I like to refer to him—The Lowest Common Denominator.”
“Oh, Christ, Ian, he’s not that bad,” I said.
“You only say that because he’s got a mad crush on you.”
“What’s this?” Chloe asked.
“He saw Gavin one night in his tux when he was going out to some fundraising event. He fell all over him. I witnessed this. It was disgusting. He told him he looked like James Bond.”
“I was wearing a tux the night I met you, too.”
“I overlooked that fact,” Ian replied.
“Oh, right. My starving artist with the scruples,” I said, not very pleasantly.
“Real nice,” Ian said.
“Now, now, boys,” Chloe said.
She sounded like a schoolmarm, which was not her usual tone.
Ian’s jealousy wasn’t like him at all and I didn’t know what to do about it, considering I’d been sleeping with our neighbor for months, since before the incident with the tux actually. I’d been annoyed when Skyler had made such a fuss about my appearance in front of Ian. I’d told him as much later on. Now when I saw him next, I’d tell him to lay off the shoulder squeezes too.
I had stopped living in that sweet, optimistic area of my brain. That’s the quickest explanation. Ian was the one who could see our future ― some hazy blueprint version of it at least. He was already talking to me about kids and surrogates. He said there was a lesbian basket weaver he knew who was practically offering herself up to us. He made that tired old joke about wombs for rent. I was twenty-five and too young for any of this. Ian should have been too. And could I honestly picture us together twenty years down the road? A new director of administrative planning had been hired at the school. It was clear there were major changes ahead, probably a clean sweep of the whole department. I hadn’t told Ian any of this, but he would have seen it as an opportunity. He didn’t like the idea of me having my hand out to rich people for a living anyway. He thought I should go back to school and do something else. “Anything!” he’d shout whenever I asked him exactly what he had in mind. Ian thought I was saving myself for better things. He thought I harbored hidden talents and that I was an all-around smarter and nicer person than I really was too. He had a lot of free-floating faith in me, Ian did.
It’s not that I liked Skyler, but he wasn’t the dolt Ian thought he was either. I admit I was susceptible to the gritty allure of his life, the zippy traveling and upscale parties. I was not immune to the appeal of hearing those gossipy stories from his time on the island either, where he’d been sharing a house that summer with a hot local weatherman and a notorious porn star, among others. Despite the trickle down sophistication of my job, my existence had been short on glitz and excitement. I was a kid from New Jersey when it came right down to it. Sex was a big part of the equation. With Skyler, it was frenzied and combustible every single time, which was usually once or twice a week, in the early evening when Ian had catering work or was in Queens at his studio. Things had become a little too predictable between Ian and me in that area. It was like the jokes people made about married couples. The heat was gone. Skyler, on the other hand, was one of the guys in an underwear ad on a bus shelter near my job. I made sure to pass by it every day to remind myself of our latest wild encounter. I very much liked getting lost in the reverie of that.
Ian wasn’t so perfect either, despite my aunt’s certified approval. I didn’t like his parental tone, for instance, when he got after me about the chores, when he bitched about the laundry or told me to feed the dog. He could be braggy about his work ethic too and his artistic dedication. He made cracks about other painters he knew who never went to their studios or produced anything at all, but still referred to themselves as artists.
“Painters paint,” he’d say. “Period.”
And how talented was he anyway? Despite all those long hours in Queens and the paint he could never get out from underneath his fingernails. (There had been some complaints about this at the catering company.) He might not even make any headway as an artist and then where would we be? What would some defeated and sulky version of Ian even look like? I was making up a lot of excuses for what I was doing that summer.
A couple of weeks after he had come to the apartment to borrow the sunscreen, Skyler and I were having sex in the park on a Thursday afternoon. I had called in sick to my job. If they were going to get rid of me, then what was the point of my slogging away. Skyler’s schedule was always erratic and unpredictable, so who knows where he was supposed to be? Ian had gotten up early that day to go to Queens. He was painting up a storm just then, preparing for an upcoming studio tour. Skyler liked the risk and adventure of messing around out-of-doors or al fresco as he referred to it, and in my fog of horny selfishness I was happy enough to comply.
There was a thicket of brambles not far from the Heather Garden, and if you crawled underneath them you came out into a tiny, hidden clearing, large enough to stretch out the blanket we’d brought with us. We’d each taken a hit of Molly on our way to the park. Soon I was floating on the warm, love-the-world expansiveness I usually felt when I took the drug. I’d been a lightweight in college and barely even drank. Ian smoked some weed now and then, but we were both basically novices in that department. Skyler had been introducing me to the joys of pharmaceutical enhancement. This had provided a nice supplemental jolt to our encounters. That day in the park, after we’d messed around, I was another satisfied customer, in a state of post-coital bliss.
We had just climbed out of the bushes and onto the flagstone pathway, still adjusting ourselves in our shorts and wearing dopey, contented grins on our faces, when we saw Chloe bearing down on us from twenty feet away. I switched into some dizzy and immediate crisis mode as she approached. I lurched forward and pulled her into a sweaty, awkward hug, peppering my aunt with greetings and explanations. The drug hadn’t worn off yet. I was still rolling. It was fueling my giddy sociability. I felt that if I rambled on, if I used the right combination of words, I could deflect any suspicions, tamp them right down. Extreme self-confidence was another side effect of the drug. I blurted something to Chloe about a comp day from work and how I had run into Skyler only a few minutes before we had bumped into her, a lie that added a needless layer of complication to everything.
“How random is the universe?” I said, or something along those lines, while raising my arms up in the air.
Chloe ignored this. She didn’t respond to anything else I was ladling around either. She mumbled something about a gas leak in her office building, which was her reason for being in the park, a story that sounded as implausible as anything I’d just come up with. The only difference was that she wasn’t saying it while standing next to the person she’d just been fucking. I noticed Chloe was not looking me in the eye. She was observing Skyler’s cum-stained shorts, the blanket in my hands and our untied sneakers. We all stood around dumbly for a moment, until Skyler, who’d been silent up until then, grinned at my aunt, as if only just noticing her.
“Hi, doll,” he said.
Chloe started to edge away from us after that, muttering some flat goodbyes.
As Skyler and I left the park, I felt the Molly finally wearing off, along with my chatty confidence.
“Shit, fuck, crap,” I said.
Skyler was still in a happy, messed up daze. He thought I was overreacting, which I might have expected. Even cold sober, he wasn’t exactly acquainted with the concept of actions and consequences.
“Why are you so worried?” he asked. “You must think your aunt has a pretty dirty mind. Why would she know anything? We’re two friends hanging out in the park.”
“Don’t be a moron,” I told him. “She knows.”
“I don’t see the problem, actually,” Skyler said.
“You wouldn’t,” I said.
That evening Chloe phoned to tell me she was on her way over—after she had determined Ian was still at his studio and I was alone in the apartment. I could have made up some excuse to not be home, some event I needed to attend for my job, but how long could I go on dodging her? I told her to come on by.
“I’m not going to apologize for butting into your business,” Chloe told me as she walked through the door.
“Who’s looking for apologies?” I said.
I didn’t ask her to sit down. I figured I could maybe control the arc of this conversation if I didn’t let her settle in or get too comfortable.
“And I don’t want any explanations either,” my aunt said.
“Fair enough, but is it okay if I ask what we’re actually talking about here?”
I had thought briefly that coy denial might still be on the table.
“Screwing your upstairs neighbor,” she said—a swift answer that put an end to that particular option.
Demi Tasse must have picked up on the bad energy in the room. He was pacing under our feet more urgently than usual, whining plaintively, until I had to lock him in the bathroom. On my way back to the living room, I was beginning to feel a tic of righteous indignation. Some edgy rebuttal was forming.
“Can I just say that you don’t know anything about this situation?” I told my aunt. “You really don’t know what my arrangement is with Ian or anything about our relationship at all.”
“I’ve met Ian. I doubt he’d approve of you banging that grinning magazine cover in the great outdoors. But is that what you’re telling me?” Chloe asked. “That Ian knows and approves?”
“I don’t need to tell you a thing,” I said.
But that’s when I really began to talk, rattling off that list of Ian’s faults and my other gripes that had been accumulating in my head. It occurred to me that maybe I’d been compiling this inventory for a moment just like this, as if I’d been eager for a debate. Chloe watched me with a glum, flickering impatience until I wound down.
“I’m not telling you to settle down with Ian,” she told me. “In fact, it seems pretty clear that you shouldn’t. The only thing I’m saying, the only reason why I’m here, is to suggest that you consider avoiding a bigger mess than you are already in. If you want to end your relationship, then do it. But don’t do it this way. Don’t hurt Ian needlessly. And he will be hurt, Gavin. You’re better than that, unlike some people.”
“I suppose I should appreciate your input, but this doesn’t concern you in the slightest.”
“It became my concern when I saw you stumbling around half-naked in the park, but I figured something was up when I was first introduced to . . . that Skyler person.”
She waved her hand dismissively.
“Congratulations on your detective work,” I said.
“Ian’s obviously too in love with you to see what’s going on. I hope that will give you some pause at least.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that specific observation. I hadn’t felt lovable for a while.
“Look,” my aunt said now, “for knowledge and experience to be of any value, somebody’s got to hear it.”
This sounded like a line from one of the old movies Chloe used to tell me about, but I knew it was also a reference to her own life, to the embezzlement that put her away and the affair with the assistant manager who’d egged her on. It had come out that the bank account where she thought she was depositing all those stolen funds had actually been bogus. The guy had been swindling her too, along with the restaurant. The money she’d been stealing, so she could run away with him, had been earmarked for another woman entirely.
Chloe must have felt she was entitled to be tossing advice around.
“Just take a breath, Gavin,” she said. “Pick a lane. Figure this out. Do no harm, for Christ’s sake.”
She had placed her hand on my cheek, a gesture I didn’t expect.
“No one saves us but ourselves,” she said finally, as she moved toward the door.
I spent the rest of that evening in a state of suspended gloom. Ian came home very late that night, after I was already in bed. He took a quick shower and then crawled in with me, embracing me in one of his warm, damp hugs. I was in a stew of fussy worry after my aunt’s visit. I planned to break up with him right then, before it got any uglier, before I left a trail of collateral damage. I turned to Ian. I held his face in my hands and nuzzled his neck, breathed in the clean, soapy smell of him ― and then I lost my nerve.
I never did tell him, not about Skyler nor my doubts about our relationship. I knew Chloe wouldn’t say anything either. She’d already spoken her mind. Skyler tired of me pretty quickly, as it turned out. I was like the corner drugstore for him. He liked the convenience. He might have had sex with anybody who lived downstairs. That fall when he somehow pulled his financial situation together (Some rich dude was probably involved.) he was true to his word and moved out of our building to a fancier address downtown. That was really the end of it. My aunt had departed the area by then too. She’d found a nicer apartment back in Brooklyn, in her old neighborhood. She’d had to get special approval from her parole officer to move. We didn’t see her much before she left. When we did, she’d converse in tidy, cordial sentences, without her usual bounce.
“What’s wrong with your aunt?” Ian would say. “Something seems a little off.”
“Maybe she’s having more trouble being out in the free world than she counted on,” I said unpleasantly.
It was the following spring when Ian came home one night and explained he had developed feelings for another artist, a printmaker, who had the studio across from his at the warehouse. They hadn’t even messed around yet, or so Ian said. He thought we should stop living together while he sorted this out. He was being extremely civilized and kinder than he might have been. He never mentioned, for instance, that I’d been pushing him away almost from the start. I listened to him and nodded … and then I completely lost my shit. I wept furiously and slammed stuff around like a betrayed housewife on a soap opera. I ripped pages out of Ian’s favorite art book and told him I had always loathed his work. (“A fifth grader could do what you do!” I said.) I threatened to keep custody of Demi Tasse, whom I never much liked. The dog howled in muddled sympathy, as I was flailing around. If it wasn’t such a noisy neighborhood, the cops might have been called. The tantrum lasted for half an hour before Ian simply walked out.
Nothing had happened the way it was supposed to. I hadn’t even lost my job. There was a restructuring in my department, as I had predicted, but I’d been given a promotion, put in charge of a small staff and asked to organize some high profile events. Later I fell in with an interesting crowd ― a kind of a B side version of Skyler and his pals. I was back to feeling young again after so many at-home evenings with Ian. I very much liked the after-hours clubs and dancing with my shirt off and the buzzy, winding slur of the evenings, though this, I should point out, was the start of the behavior that would get me into some trouble down the road. I did miss Ian in the beginning and afterwards too, his infectious cheer and lively determination, especially when I was dating some drunk and tiresome moron. There were a few of those.
A couple of years ago my parents had an engagement party for my sister in New Jersey, at the family home. Shelly was in her thirties by then and had been living in Boston with her fiancé for years. I gave her credit for letting my parents do this for her, even if she did sigh ironically when anybody asked her anything about the upcoming wedding and roll her eyes at Paul, the fiancé, every two minutes. Our mother and father did not get the easy, appreciative children they might have preferred. I hadn’t expected my aunt to be there, but there she was, sitting in the corner of the sunroom, with a bland expression on her face. After she’d completed her probation, she’d left New York for good, moved to the middle of Pennsylvania, where she worked at another law firm (My mother had told me this.) and was back doing community theater too. I hadn’t seen her since she’d left Inwood. We greeted each other warmly enough and I pulled up a chair next to hers. We made small talk for a while. I told her about my new job writing grants for non-profits (arranged by my father) where I was still a trainee. I hadn’t left the private school under the best of circumstances.
“It’s good to learn new things,” Chloe said, a little too brightly. “We must strive on with diligence.”
That sounded like another Buddha quote. I wondered how her unsolicited spiritual guidance was going over in that small town in Pennsylvania. I was sure my mother had already told her about my stint in rehab, so I didn’t mention that. I was sticking to bottles of water at the party, so my parents wouldn’t have to wonder what I had in my glass. They’d paid for my time away, had bankrolled my recovery. For some reason, as we sat there, I wanted to remind my aunt of the night she confronted me about Skyler, and how what she’d told me hadn’t really mattered, since Skyler had dumped me anyway and Ian had never found out. Ian had emerged unscathed I wanted to say ― or better than that, if you could go by what you saw on Facebook. He had married that other artist long ago and now they ran an arts consortium in Hudson, NY. They lived in a converted barn (Of course!) and there was a child or two. I didn’t tell my aunt any of this. I didn’t think it was necessary to say out loud. We spoke instead of my sister and her engagement and of the party buzzing around us, until I was able to stand up and make a clean getaway.