By Jane Ades
Jane Ades is a psychoanalyst with a practice in Port Washington, NY and Manhattan. She holds a Master’s in Social Work from Columbia University. Imagining stories is as intriguing as learning life’s truths. This is Jane’s first published story.
The house was divided into sections. The upstairs loft was all ours, while our parents’ bedrooms were downstairs. The kitchen and screened-in porch were always our mothers’ domains, and no one much bothered with the living room during the summer.
“Where are the people?” Sarah asked.
“The smart ones, Caleb and Nick, are under the bed. The parents and the other adults are still having their drinks. You can’t see them from this angle,” I said.
“The boys?” Sarah asked.
“No. The parents. They’re just, living, you know, eating, reading, talking as if there’s time. It’s careless.” I was already being pulled in more than I had wanted, but Sarah had a way of asking and pausing that made it hard for me to ignore her. She sat there and twisted her hair and looked at the drawing pad on my lap.
“I see them. Nick and Caleb, I mean. It’s almost over. They’re just about ready to come out.”
I was drawing on the steps outside of the Metropolitan Museum. I was at the museum because I needed to breathe fresh air, instead of the stale stuff that permeated my apartment building during meal times. I’d been living alone for seven years, mostly. I’d had boyfriends, but none who’d made me give up my solitude. I learned early on that some connections, no matter how sturdy, can still be severed and this worried me about the men who claimed they’d always love me.
My apartment was in an old building with beautiful wood moldings and a tin lobby ceiling: but sound echoed through the hallways--a laugh or a toilet flush--as did smells of chicken soup or spaghetti and meatballs. I had a preference for neither food nor bathroom habits, and so left for the tepidness of anonymity on the museum’s steps.
The Museum takes up about one entire city block. The steps are wide, solidly formed blocks of beige concrete and they stretch out into the street like a chaise lounge. On sunny days, or surprisingly warm winter ones, people spread out on the steps. The concrete has been polished by time, and now looks like long benches of marble that’s been softened and curved in spots from people’s bottoms. I haven’t quite seen anyone making love, but on those cold days, with coats and scarves, bags and blankets, it’s not a reach to see some humping under it all. And illegal substances flow as readily as tourist guidebooks.
As I was completing a sketch for a large, rambling house, a deep shadow, like the wing of an eagle, spread across my drawing pad. It grew from the corner and hovered in the center. I was suddenly unsure which were the edges I had drawn and which came from the shadow’s. I squinted first and then shaded my eyes. The shadow didn’t stir. I shifted my position to view the drawing from a different angle and then saw a woman outlined from the sun standing above me. It must have been the way she lifted her arms to stroke down her blowing hair that caused the darkness to intercept my drawing. When I turned to look at her, she reminded me, in an odd, solitary way, of a still life. I went back to my drawing pad, content to have the whole day ahead of me.
Sarah came up to me later, while I was sitting there drawing. She hovered behind me, and at first I didn’t notice, since the steps are always crowded and I’d grown used to being bumped and jostled. Sometimes those movements caused my hand to jerk and I accidentally drew a line where I never intended one to be; but I usually liked the suddenness of it and so kept it in the drawing. But unlike other people, Sarah’s presence didn’t go away. She shifted and leaned in and as she did, I could feel the air behind me warm. I waited to feel cool air return, but instead felt more and more cramped, like an arthritic hand that can’t help but turn in on itself. I looked back and was prepared to glare at her for usurping my space: but when I saw her eyes, I stopped.
I hadn’t seen eyes that pale since I was young. The blue was almost washed out and if you looked quickly, you’d think her eyes were entirely white. Her eyelashes were sparse and fair, giving her a fairy-like appearance. And her skin was so pale, as if she rarely ventured outdoors. She was crouched down, arms tightly wrapped around her knees, head propped right on top. Her black jeans cradled her from thigh to ankle, contrasting dramatically with her fair complexion. She began speaking to me as if we had known one another.
My heart thudded as I packed up my pencils and notebooks. If she were a wraith, I’d rather not be present when her mood shifted. I’d brought my large canvas sack that held all my art supplies, just in case I needed watercolors, or small dabs of paint to highlight the grays that are the essence of my drawings. If I could have thrown myself in it, I would have, but short of that, I retrieved the jetsam which I’d surrounded myself with, my fingerless gloves, charcoals and an empty coffee cup, crammed them quickly into the large bag, and left.
I stood quickly, momentarily losing my footing from a sharp head rush that I should have anticipated, but Sarah did it for me, instead. She was suddenly right there, at my elbow, propping me up. Her touch was weightless, but I shrugged her off as if I was batting a fly, and I headed down the steps. She kept pace just behind me.
“Can I see your drawings?” she asked.
“You saw that I just put them away,” I said. I hoped I sounded irritable, but a gust of wind blew my words away, and brought tears to my eyes.
“I remember something about the house you’re drawing,” she said. I turned, looked at her, and finally, I recognized her. “I’m Sarah,” she said, as if I had known. And then, as if the conversation had never been interrupted, she said, “Where are the people?” I felt compelled to answer, as if my response could explain what had happened years ago.
At first I attributed my encounter with Sarah as something so bizarre that, like the old saw in which New York City harbors all kinds of odd individuals, most of whom should be quietly ignored, I was tempted to shake her off. Her face, however, remained stuck in my mind, the way a bicycle wheel ticked around and around when a rock or twig got lodged in its spokes. I was surprised at how the memory she brought with her affected me. I thought that day belonged to other people, not me. But once I recognized her she didn’t scare me as much as suffocate me. I suddenly missed Caleb and wanted to see him. I didn’t think he’d be happy to see me because of my absence at a time when I knew he needed me. But he wouldn’t throw me out, either. We’d been children together until our childhood ended that summer evening.
I hadn’t seen him since our parents sold our summer house ten years ago. It had been awkward between us without the house, as if that was the sole link for our connection. But like old lovers, after the house was gone, we were tentative with one another until our relationship dissolved from lack of use. As Sarah looked at my drawing, I felt transported back in time and it was our families’ house again. I needed to know if Caleb and I could finally take a look at it together, but I knew mentioning Sarah might be too much.
The last I knew, Caleb owned a high-end crafts store selling everything from Murano glass to Mexican shawls, to Ethiopian coffee. I hoped that it was still there as much as I worried it wouldn’t be, but as I rounded the corner of Eldridge Street, I was relieved to see the giant Buddha that had ruled the center of the window for years. I felt the thud of my heartbeat, just knowing I was moments from seeing Caleb again.
I partly hoped I’d miss him if he had closed early, or perhaps he’d be away on a buying trip, but when I wrenched open the door, he was there, after all, sitting in the back on an old threadbare sofa, with Nick. They might have been arguing or Nick’s face might have just settled into a scowl. Either scenario was disappointing. The old metal door was shoved unevenly inside its frame, and I wedged my way in, so my entrance couldn’t possibly be a surprise. The hinges screamed and my bag caught, stripping it from my arm, exploding its content on the already cluttered floor. Caleb looked my way, without saying a word, but I saw his eyes widened and the muscles in his jaw tensing.
I stood in front of my cousins who were now composed like the Maginot Line. “Hi,” I said. Nick and Caleb looked at each other before they raised their eyes to mine.
“Hi? Just hi? Jesus, Liz, what are you doing here?” Caleb said, after waiting a few seconds too long.
His voice was strained and came out almost like a cough. He no longer wore the trademark sunglasses he’d worn in his youth and I noticed that he squinted a lot. His shirt swelled a bit at his belly, and he had fine lines growing on the outside of his eyes, but otherwise he looked the same as he did fifteen years ago.
“It’s been a while,” I said and gave a half-hearted smile.
“That’s an understatement,” he said.
His lips curved up at the ends, but it wasn’t a smile. He turned to face Nick who was sitting by the cash register. Nick’s face registered neither recognition nor interest. He looked like he was as stolid as the ceramic bowls and tableware lining the shelves. I got up to admire a mug, just to have something to do, but as I stood there looking, I remembered Caleb’s eye for beauty. It had been that way since he was a boy. The glaze of the mug glowed with a burnt orange iridescence and the indentations along the body were perfectly suited for a hand. It had no handle. I felt Caleb study me as I made my way back to my seat. I sat down on a tree trunk side table with about 20 rings inside.
“Is there something you want?” he asked. His voice no longer had the animosity it first had.
“This wasn’t the entrance I intended,” I said.
My hair fell into my mouth as I bent over to pick up the pad and pencils that had begun to root around the floor. I used the time rounding up my drawings from the floor to slow my breathing, but I flushed as I rose.
“So, how’d you get this table?” I asked, my voice rising and falling like a teenager’s.
He smiled at my nervousness and it made me recall the understanding we used to share between us. “Chopped it myself,” he said. “I went into a forest, found the most beautiful tree and cut it down.” He was joking, but a line of worry coursed through his eyes. “No, you know I get it from dealers, reclaimed wood, blah, blah,” his voice softer now, though still on guard. “And you? Still drawing, I see.”
“You haven’t said why you’re here yet,” Nick said, impatiently.
Nick and Caleb were twins, though fraternal. Nick wasn’t my favorite cousin, but he came with Caleb. When we were kids, Nick occasionally stuttered and we named him “Nickwit.” I felt bad for him, but his lack of imagination had always been irritating. He took our playtime so literally that he made the games boring.
I ignored Nick, put my drawing pad back together, and showed them the house I’d been drawing when I’d seen Sarah this morning. It was pretty sketchy with black lines like scaffolding but the rooms were all there. I wanted it to have the perspective of someone looking through the window. That slightly eerie feeling combined with the potential for mischief. Sarah had ruined that for me though. Her presence rendered the mischief as danger.
Caleb had always had an eye for “art.” I’d heard from my mother that he’d studied at The Arts League. That made sense to me and I was glad he hadn’t given it up. I remembered when we were young how extraordinarily focused he was when he painted, how he could sit for hours in the same position. He liked to think of himself as one of those old-fashioned artists and he’d wear long-sleeved, white shirts and sunglasses, explaining that his skin and eyes were sensitive to light. I laughed like a hyena at his artist costume, mostly to get his attention. Those were the times when he was lost to me and I existed on his periphery. I should have persevered in reuniting us then, as if I could have known what we’d lose by being apart, but I didn’t because I was resentful that he could be content without me.
“You’re drawing our house,” said Caleb, like an accusation. He pointed to the bedroom upstairs. When I didn’t answer, he said, “What house has only one bedroom upstairs but two downstairs?” That room was our fort or space station, an intermediary before real life caught up to us, and our parents never came up.
My stomach lurched. “Actually, I wasn’t,” I said. “I was drawing a house, but then I saw Sarah, or really, she saw me and the more she looked at it, the more it became our house.” I hadn’t put this together until I said it.
“Sarah?” Caleb asked.
“The girl, the daughter. I saw her that last time at the party in our summerhouse.” I hesitated. Then I said, “I ran into her just now at the Met.”
“I don’t know who you’re talking about,” Caleb said.
The house I had intended to draw was the one from Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World. I’d had the painting over my bed since I was a child and it moved with me during my adult years. I was an only child and the image of the girl, forlorn and helpless, seemingly miles from the house at the back of the canvas, always brought with it a shiver of fear; she could have been me, alone and so far from home. Back at our summerhouse where the trees that welcomed us and the small, out-of-the-way places scared us at night, we three, Caleb, Nick and I were never alone. We were just three wild children. We had no thoughts other than avoiding our parents’ vigilance, and managing the free time that was as constant as a soft wind. But that innocence disappeared in one day. Until I saw Sarah again, I reveled in the loneliness inside Christina’s house, as if it could exist only there.
But somehow, after I saw Sarah’s silhouette near the top of the steps, her long hair, like a newly hatched butterfly fluttering in the breeze, the house I was drawing changed. My comfort with being alone disappeared, and I longed for connection. Like the precariousness we all felt that last summer, she looked like the wind could topple her at any moment. Her coat was open and her hands simply trailed down her sides as she gazed uptown. She brought the wind with her and my drawings, like unruly children with a new babysitter, flitted around me as I grabbed hold of the edges. She’d asked about the people in the house, and then it was no longer just the Wyeth painting from my room: it was my room, and the rest of my house.
I was older than Caleb and Nick by three years, which as children, was akin to ten. I took pride in my age, as if it were an accomplishment. Nick used to complain about the inequity of my leadership, but it suited me, and Caleb didn’t care. Anyway, I was never the boss, just the engine.
Caleb followed me to our favorite trees and he climbed faster and farther than either Nick or me. But then when I’d had enough, I’d clamber down and head back to the house, eager to take my place beside our mothers. The boys soon followed, first Caleb, then Nick, not because they had anything to do, but just because when it wasn’t the three of us, nothing was ever quite as fun. We pledged our allegiance to each other in a low tree, once before the end of our last summer. We tied our shoelaces together, linked pinkies and jumped, landing in a heap of arms and legs, scrambling up, embarrassed by the closeness.
There were drinks lined up on the long console - vodka and gin, sweet lemonade and soda. I’d pour a Coke for myself and for the boys. Ice sweated on the outside of the glass, cooling my hands and I plastered it onto my forehead. We sat on the front porch and listened to the gossip.
Our parents traced time in the way of traditional families, where the mothers stayed the weeks with the children and the fathers traveled to Boston to work and came home on the weekend trains, tired and pale. Our mothers had drinks waiting for the men and a week’s worth of errands waiting for themselves. The conversations they had on the porch when the day was done were fairly repetitive, and I usually didn’t eavesdrop for long. I knew our parents would eventually end up fighting, our fathers accusing our mothers of enjoying themselves at their expense and so on. We knew that our mothers’ time was spent as leisurely as the hour hand of the clock, but it was up to the fathers to figure out exactly what their wives did with their languorous days. That was the substance of the weekend, the discovery of our mother’s derelict duties: not enough food for the weekend, laundry still in need of folding, dishes that sat a day too long so that our fathers saw food encrusted on our dinner plates.
It was during the summer when I turned fourteen that Mr. Pappel’s name became as familiar as the sight of my father’s car coming down the driveway. Jared Pappel was the principal of the local high school. He sailed during the summer, racing to Block Island and Newport, RI. Once he raced all the way to Florida. He smiled easily at us, even though we were only a summer family. One brisk, rainy morning, not so unusual in the summer, Caleb and I were on the porch playing a mad game of spit. My hands were flying in a blur of motion to get the most cards down before Caleb slammed his hand over mine. The porch was around the bend from the kitchen. Our mothers’ conversations were the background noise that city life is to me now, constant but with crescendos and a few lapses. That day was different because their long murmurs seemed conscious of our whereabouts. I was wary in the moments of silence. Then after one particularly still silence, I heard my mother shushing my aunt. I put my cards down slowly, implicitly knowing that Caleb and I would be bound together by our mothers’ secrecy.
“Really, Carol, maybe it’s your guilty conscience coming out,” my mother said. “It was dark. You don’t really know if it was him.” In the same matter-of-fact way, I heard my mother offer my aunt the box of tissues. I could always count on my mother for having just the right thing around.
“Leave my conscience alone. I know his smile,” my aunt snuffled under the tissues. “You know how white his teeth shine? They were unmistakable.”
“What did you see? That a man you shouldn’t be involved with in the first place is with another woman?” My mother had a way of speaking that made you want to answer.
At first, it seemed as if she didn’t care, but then her voice slowed and went down an octave and you felt bound to it. It made for difficulties when I was a few years older, but for now, it felt reassuring to hear her take charge of my aunt’s sadness and accusations. I nudged Caleb with my foot because at that moment, I wanted him to know that I was different from him in a way I never had been before. It was his mother and not mine who had betrayed everyone. I sensed right then that things between our families would change and selfishly, I wanted him to realize that it was his mother’s fault. My mother was innocent and I believed we would remain unblemished, as if sorrow had boundaries. I believed we’d be spared. Caleb didn’t respond to my warning, but stared at the cards laid on the porch floor.
Carol, Caleb’s mom, continued, “I was in the back parking lot. I had to slide through the cars because the spots are so tight. You know that.” My aunt paused and I imagined my mother nodding as she continued. “I managed to open my door and was squeezing myself in when I heard a car door slam nearby. I looked up and thought I saw Jared behind the bakery. He loved their rolls. I started towards him, to surprise him, but he was with Dana, the young girl from the bakery. You know, the one who always hangs back? She twists her hair around her finger, which I think is unhygienic. He was covering Dana’s mouth with his hand and he shoved her against the building. I heard a thud or a grunt. Maybe she hit her head against the side and he threw himself against her. I screamed a little.”
“A little? Carol, what happened?”
“I don’t know, but he must have lost his grip and she was able to run off. I think he heard me because he looked in my direction, and that’s when I saw Jared smile. It was unmistakable.” My aunt sounded like she’d run out of breath.
The game of spit had long ended and I sat slumped on the floor. Caleb didn’t even look at me as he left, his head bowed by the weight of his mother’s affair. At that moment I wished I’d shown more kindness to him earlier. I knew he prided himself on being the man of the family when the fathers were away, but now he learned how truly unimportant his father was to his mother.
I didn’t hear much more gossip the rest of the summer. After a while I quit eavesdropping on the porch. Caleb wouldn’t play spit with me and our mothers’ conversations grew boring and guarded. Instead, I spent afternoons walking past the bakery two or three times to see if Dana was still there. She never took a day off, it seemed.
On one of the last days in the fall, when the weather cooled and it was no longer brisk, but icy, the story of Jared Pappel resurfaced. We had a fall open house, welcoming people as we were leaving. It made no sense, but our mothers enjoyed this last bit of festivity. Still, that year, it felt forced. Mr. Pappel was there, along with his wife and kids. His daughter, Sarah, looked about six. She was extremely fair for a child who had spent the summer at a beach house and her eyes were pale blue, almost white. I didn’t want to be the child-minder, so I headed up to my room. Just before the landing, I heard my aunt speak in a sharp whisper. I crouched on the steps to listen. She was recounting the story about Dana. A man responded. His voice was coarse. He said “slut” and “whore” and I didn’t know who he meant. My aunt rushed down the stairs, never noticing me, but as Mr. Pappel followed, I saw him turn his head towards me. I looked away quickly, but at that moment, I saw Mr. Pappel’s daughter. Though like me, she had crouched low at the turn of the stairs to listen to the adults, I saw her eyes take on a look of faraway stillness. Her pale face had the same dream-like coolness that I saw years later, that morning at the Met.
The summers weren’t as much fun after that. Our mothers were quieter and our fathers’ appearances seemed mundane. Our families no longer got together with the people who lived in town. We felt unwelcome in the stores we frequented. I wanted to shield Caleb, to apologize for my selfish vulnerability, and I grew cautious with him, wary about intruders. But he just got annoyed. I felt bruised, and though I’d always loved going to our summerhouse, I didn’t mind when our families decided to sell it. I never knew what became of Mr. Pappel or his family, and similarly, our families faded from each other’s views. I didn’t see Caleb or Nick after that.
Caleb was studying my drawing as if he intended to critique it. “It’s been quiet without you,” he said at last.
“I know,” I said.
I realized now that, after that summer, I’d created a life without momentum. I thought it was an asset to an artist, but being with Caleb now made me long for the days of my childhood when daylight was enough of a reason to celebrate and connections were as simple as tying shoelaces. I sat with the drawing of the house on my lap and looked around Caleb’s store. It was filled with stuff that presupposes life’s excesses. Boiled wool bags rested along with cashmere gloves and silk scarves against a low, antique foosball table. I made my way around the store touching the rough fibers of lashed together baskets filled with colorful, children’s stacking blocks.
“How’s your mother?” I asked, the way strangers do.
“Getting older and slower since my dad died,” he said, telling the truth in a way strangers never do. It jarred me.
I’d heard about my uncle’s death and had sent a sympathy card. “I’m sorry,” I said.
Nick swung his foot over his ankle and leaned back, stretching his arms behind his head. “Yeah, we know,” he said with a shrug.
His sharpness stung me in a way it never could have when we were kids.
“Well,” I said, “I thought we could just...talk.”
“It would have been better if you’d showed up years ago,” Nick said.
“What did you have in mind when you came in?” Caleb asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “But after Sarah left and I packed up my bag, you were the only person on my mind.”
“I’d love to help you out, but you’re a little long in coming. I’ve moved on and so has Nick. You never tried to come over.” He continued, “It’s just a small thing, but it would have made a difference to me.” He paused and thought a minute more. “I needed you and you weren’t there.” He breathed a loud sigh as if saying this had totally exhausted him.
I could feel his child’s foot nudging me away. I put my mug down on Caleb’s desk, careful not to knock over a bundle of papers on which his laptop was balanced. “You’ve done a wonderful job here,” I said softly. “It looks like everything belongs. There are no empty spaces.” I could feel Caleb’s eyes on my back as I said goodbye and walked out the front door. The small cowbell rattled dully as the door swayed shut.
I slung my bag over my shoulder and headed west. It was almost dusk by the time I got to my apartment and I had nothing in the refrigerator. I could have forgone dinner altogether and resigned myself to a bowl of cold cereal, but that reminded me too much of the times Caleb, Nick and I made ourselves dinner, when we’d make oatmeal covered with heaping spoons of brown sugar. I felt my mouth water at the slimy sugariness of our concoction.
I didn’t bother with a jacket and went back out to the 24-hour store at the corner. I picked out instant oatmeal, with brown sugar. As I waited to pay, I felt a warm breath on my cheek. I turned and saw Sarah behind me in line. She smiled.
“Here you are,” she said. Her light coat fluttered at the opening of the shop door, the way it had on the museum steps. Her greeting sounded like we had inadvertently been separated from one another. I tightened my lips in recognition, the best reply I could come up with.
“Have you been drawing any more today?” she asked.
“Not since I packed up my stuff this morning at the Museum,” I said. “I visited my cousin Caleb.” Again I was surprised that I had volunteered this.
“How is he?”
“Angry, more Nick, though.”
“It’s odd how life can change so quickly, isn’t it?” Sarah said.
I didn’t say anything.
“You think you’re headed in one direction, only to find that it’s diagonal or circular. You’re the artist. You have a better vocabulary for metaphor than I,” she said.
“Well,” I said, “It was quite a coincidence to meet here.” My voice trailed off, giving a sense of finality, I hoped.
Sarah finished paying for her food and followed me outside. “I’d love to see more of your work, if you’re free now. I have a bit of time,” she said.
Like every interaction I’d had with Sarah, I instinctively complied. We walked to a small café and sat outside. I hoped that the dusk might give my drawings more perspective than I’d been able to create. I spread my pages that were softly backlit from the candle at the edge of our table, and showed her the one I’d been working on before today. It, too, was my summer house, surprisingly, the one I’d drawn today, but just the rear view, from the back yard. The porch was lit from the inside and dusk settled outdoors. I hadn’t recognized the coincidence until just now.
Sarah placed her index finger on the back porch and left it there for a moment. “It’s warm there,” she said.
“Yeah, family and all.” I said.
“Actually, I meant the paper is warm. Here, feel it.” She took my hand and placed my palm where she had just pointed.
“You’re right, I said.” I looked for a candle that might explain the unusual temperature.
As if reading my thoughts, she said, “It’s not warm from a candle. It’s hot from the inside of the house.”
I went along with the conversation because she’d picked up on something I’d thought about but hadn’t named till I’d seen Caleb and Nick. My notion of family used to be unalterable, boring even, as tradition spilled over into a predictable monotony, the years when I was a kid. But since the summer when Jared Pappel made his appearance inside our house, the structure began to slowly fray, like a flag that’s been waved so long, it’s worn out its usefulness, until there was little left except for the strands of knowledge that it was once whole.
“I remember when we met,” Sarah continued. “It was the fall open house at your family’s home. We were all there.”
“It’ll never be the same,” I said, and the drawing flickered from the center with a deep orange glow. Sarah and I sat there watching until the edges of the drawing furled and browned and all that was left were ashes.