The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg
By Deborah Eisenberg
Picador Copyright © 2010 Deborah Eisenberg
All rights reserved.
The other evening, I was having a drink with a friend when the sight of two women at the next table caused me to stop speaking in midsentence. Both of the women were very young, and fashionable to an almost painful degree. They were drinking beer straight from the bottle, and they radiated a self-conscious, helpless daring, as if they had been made to enter some baffling contest and all eyes were upon them.
"Earth to Charlotte," my friend said. "Everything all right?"
"Fine," I said, and it was, but for a moment that seemed endless I had been pulled down into a forgotten period of my life when I, too, had strained to adhere to the slippery requirements of distant authorities.
I had just come to New York then, after breaking up with a man named Robert. At first, everything had gone well with Robert. We lived in Buffalo, on the ground floor of a large house, and while he taught at a local university and read and worked on his dissertation in the study, I tried to make things grow in our little patch of a garden and did some part-time research for a professor of political science. At night, we cooked dinner together or with other couples from Robert's department, or once in a while went dancing or to a movie, and I thought Robert was happy.
But after a while Robert seemed to lose interest in me, and part of what I had been was torn from me as he pulled away. And the further he pulled away from me, increasingly the only thing I cared about was that he love me, and there was nothing I would not have done to be right for him. But although I tried and tried to figure out how I ought to be, my means for judging such a thing seemed to have split off with him. So while Robert seemed to grow finer and more fastidious — easily annoyed by things I said or did — I seemed to grow coarser and more unfocused, and even my athletic tallness, which Robert had admired when we met, with the dissolving of his affection came to feel like an untended sprawl, and my long blond hair, which I'd been proud of at one time, seemed insipid and childish — just another manifestation of how unequal to Robert I had proved to be. And after a time I was overtaken by a paralysis that spread through every area of my life, rapidly, like an illness.
One day, Robert and I had been sitting in the living room reading when I noticed that he had put down his book and was just staring out with a little frown. "What are you thinking about?" I said before I could stop myself.
"Nothing," he said.
"Sorry," I said. "I'm sorry."
"Then why did you ask, Charlotte?"
"Sorry," I said.
"Then why do you always ask? Always," he said.
I didn't say anything.
"You know what?" he said. "You're like the Blob. You remember that movie The Blob? You're sentient protoplasm, but you're as undifferentiated as sentient protoplasm can get. You're devoid of even taxonomic attributes."
"Robert," I said.
"Have you ever had an intention?" he said. "Have you ever had a desire? Have you ever even had what could be accurately described as a reaction?"
My ears went strange, and I heard my voice say, "You always want me to be different. You want me to be some other person, but if you don't tell me what you want, how can I know what to do?"
"Jesus," Robert said. He looked at me, his eyes narrowed.
The moment locked, and I felt a harsh tingling across the bridge of my nose, and I knew that if I didn't turn away fast Robert would hit me.
I went out carefully, as if trying not to startle something from a hedge, and drove to a drugstore where there was a telephone, and eventually I got a hold of my friend Fran.
"Sit right there," she said. "Don't move. I'll make some calls and get back to you."
So then I sat on the little wooden seat and waited. A pretty girl with dark hair came into the store, and I watched as she chose a lipstick at the counter, looking very pleased with herself. What was going to happen to me, I wondered. After a while, Fran called with the number of someone named Cinder, who lived in New York and was looking for a roommate.
"Great," Cinder said when I reached her. "I'm desperate. The girl who was living here disappeared a few weeks ago with about half my stuff. Ex-stuff now. I had to get myself a live-in junkie, right? And of course she stuck me for all of last month's rent. I know it's a sign that you called today, because I was just about to advertise, which I really hate to do, because you get these guys saying their name is Shirley and can they come over and shit in your ear or rupture your asshole, kind of thing."
"Well, I got your name from Franny Straub," I said. "Her friend Lauren took a design class with you."
"Whatever," Cinder said.
"Listen," I said. I felt ill with apprehension. "Could I move in tonight?"
"Sure," Cinder said. "You wouldn't be able to bring the rent in cash, would you?"
I'd never been to New York before, and I remember so clearly how the subway looked to me that night. How gaudy and festive it was, like a huge Chinese dragon, clanking and huffling through its glimmering cavern. Even though it was very late, the cars were full of people. They sat there, all together, and their expressions were eased in that subterranean lull between their different points of embarkation and destination. It seemed to me that I was the only newcomer.
Cinder came down and helped me lug my suitcase upstairs. She moved with brisk precision, and her blond hair was cut like a teddy bear's. "Cinder," I said. "It's an interesting name."
"Lucinda, actually," she said. "But — you know." She opened two bottles of beer and handed one to me. "So, hey, welcome to your new home, which is what my seventh-grade teacher said to our class the first day of junior high, scaring us all out of our wits. So you're just coming down from a bad thing, huh?"
"Yes," I said, looking around unsuccessfully for a glass. "Well, not exactly." I didn't know how to put into words to this able person my failure with Robert.
"Anyhow," she said, "tomorrow we'll talk and talk and talk, but there's some stuff I have to take care of now, and, besides, you probably want to sleep. If you go out before I'm up, just leave the rent on the kitchen table."
Cinder gave me a tiny room to myself, but I spent most of my time in the kitchen with her and men she was seeing and her friend Mitchell. Most of my belongings were in the kitchen, too, which had shelves and a closet and a bathtub in which things could be kept, and Cinder had told me to put anything I wanted on the walls. In a place of honor, looking down over the kitchen table, I tacked a snapshot I'd taken of Robert one day in our garden. He was smiling — a free, simple, lifted instant of a smile that I never saw again.
The apartment was in the East Village, and although the neighborhood had long since lost its notoriety, it glittered to me. Cinder and Mitchell seemed so comfortable there. Mitchell moved with an underwater languor that was due to a happy combination of grace and drugs, and his black hair was marvelously glossed. But even though he and Cinder were so different in appearance, they both dressed in meticulously calculated assemblages that reached from past decades far into the future. Together their individual impact was increased exponentially, like that of twins, owing to a similarity I now understand to be stylistic, in addition, of course, to whatever similarity underlies all acute and self-conscious beauty.
Next to them, I felt clumsy and hideous, but it seemed to me, I suppose, that the power of their self-assurance would protect me, that my own face and body would learn from it, and that soon things and people would alter in my path, as they did for Cinder and Mitchell. It seemed, in short, that I would become fit for Robert.
But nearly five months passed, during which I sat around Cinder's kitchen table under Robert's picture, and my face and body remained the same. And then I found one day, that what I'd become fit for was, in fact, something quite other than Robert.
Everything seemed to change on that one day, but really, I think, things had been changing and changing over the course of many previous days, and perhaps what eventually appears to be information always appears at first to be just flotsam, meaningless fragments, until enough flotsam accretes to manifest, when one notices it, a construction. In any case, there was a day when I started out as usual by going uptown to the office where I'd gotten a job as a secretary, and around lunchtime Cinder called. She was at her store, a tiny place around the corner from the apartment, where she sold clothes, some of which were used and some of which she designed and made herself, and she was in a terrible rage, having just had a big set-to with John Paul, a man she was going out with. "Can you come down?" she said. "I need you."
I was always gratified and astonished that it was I in whom Cinder confided and whose help she asked for, but when I arrived at the store that day Mitchell was already there, lying on the couch, and Cinder was laughing. "Charlotte!" Cinder said. "I know what this looks like, but I was an absolute wreck when Mitchell got here — wasn't I, Mitchell? — and he literally glued me back together. You know what we should do, though. I'm absolutely starving. We should get some pirogi. Hey, I've learned this interesting new fact about men. The more weight they make you gain, the more attractive it means they are. God. Why can't I be one of those little twitching things who shred their food when something goes wrong? I wish I were willowy and thin like you, Charlie."
"You are willowy and thin," I said. "I'm bony and big, like a dinosaur skeleton in a museum."
"Dinosaur skeleton." Mitchell centered me slowly in his gaze, and I faltered. "It's been a long, long time since I thought about one of those," he said.
"Mitchell, darling," Cinder said, straddling him to massage his shoulders, "how could I get you to go next door and get us some pirogi? Like three orders, with extra sour cream. I am ravenous."
"That stuff I glued you together with sort of absorbed my liquid assets," he said.
"I have money," I said, handing him a ten.
After Mitchell left, Cinder told me about her fight with John Paul. "He called and said he wouldn't be able to go to the concert tomorrow night, and I said why, and he said it was work, but I mean, how could I believe him, after all, Charlie? So he said, right, there was this girl, and then, stupid me, I got just incredibly pissed off, and naturally he ended up saying he didn't think we should see each other anymore. I mean, Charles, I really don't care, you know, about his girls. Heaven help us, I'm hardly in a position to complain about that sort of thing. It's just that he makes me feel like some ...doddering nagging haggy old wife. And the worst thing is, though, I think a lot of it has to do, unconsciously, I mean, with revenge. I mean, I bet that what this is really about is Arthur."
"Arthur?" I said.
"Oh, you remember," she said. "That guy I met at that party John Paul and I went to last week. Oh, fabulous," she said to Mitchell, who was walking in with an immense load of pirogi. "But I really don't see how he can get so upset about a thing like Arthur. The guy was boring, he was stupid, and he wasn't particularly attractive, either. In fact, I really don't know why I did it. Just to assert myself, I suppose. Have some pirogi, Charlie." She held one out to me, speared on a plastic fork.
"No, thanks," I said.
"Really?" Cinder said. "Hmm. Mitchell?"
"No food," Mitchell said.
"Wow. Well, what are we going to do with all this shit?" She looked helplessly at the pirogi. "Anyhow, I don't mind that John Paul likes women. I know he likes women."
"Likes women," I felt, was an inexact description. Something happened, even I could see, between John Paul and women, that didn't have all that much to do with what he thought about them. One evening recently, while he and Cinder and I were standing around in the kitchen talking, he rested his hand on my arm, high up, where a slave bracelet goes. Later, in my room, when I got undressed for bed, I looked at the place in a mirror, before I remembered what had caused it to burn like that.
"Oh, get real," Cinder said to a roach that was sauntering across the pirogi. "God. This place is such an ashtray."
"Oh — are you open?" said a girl in a very short skirt, hesitating at the door.
"Definitely," Cinder said. "Come in. Look around. Have some pirogi."
"Well, I don't think I will, really." The girl looked at the plate sidelong. "I'm on a diet. Goodness," she said, drawing nearer, "they're awfully pale. What exactly are they?"
"An acquired taste," Mitchell said, lying back and shutting his eyes again.
The girl looked from one of us to another.
"Well, I suppose all tastes must be acquired, really, musn't they?" I said nervously. "It's a confusing term. To me, at least."
"I've never encountered a taste I haven't acquired in about one microsecond," Cinder said, staring flatly at the girl, who shifted under the scrutiny. "Besides, why are you on a diet? You don't need to lose any weight, does she, Mitchell?"
The girl looked over at Mitchell. He unlidded his green, stranger's eyes and stared at her for a moment before the suggestion of a smile appeared on his face. She began to smile then, too, but bit her lip instead and looked down.
"Everything's half price today," Cinder said.
"Great," the girl said neutrally. She glanced at Mitchell again and then turned her back to us and moved the hangers along the rack with a rhythmic precision. Why were we watching her like that, I wondered. I felt terribly uneasy.
"That peacock-blue one would look really sensational on you," Cinder said.
"Really?" the girl said. "This one?"
"Are you kidding?" Cinder said. "With those legs of yours? The light in the dressing room's broken, but you can just slip it on over there.
"See? That's great," Cinder said. Next to the brilliant blue of the dress, the girl's legs gave off a candied gleam, as if they had never been exposed to the light before.
"It is good," the girl said, watching herself approach the mirror. "But it's very — I don't know if I could really carry it off."
"What you need is something like these with it," Cinder said, putting one of her own earrings to the girl's ear.
"Hmm," the girl agreed to the mirror, with which she had established a private understanding.
"You know what, Cinder," Mitchell said. "You should wear that color yourself." The reflection of Cinder's face floated behind the mirrored girl.
"I really like this dress," the girl said. "It's really good. The only trouble is, I'm looking for something to wear to dinner with my boyfriend's parents."
"I used to have a boyfriend," Cinder said. "Up until about an hour ago."
"Really?" the girl said. "You just broke up with some guy?"
"Broke up," Cinder said. "Fantastic." She related her story to the girl with as much relish as if it were the first time she'd told it. "He says he doesn't even care about me," Cinder said.
"He said he didn't care about you?" I asked.
"Well, that's what he meant," Cinder said.
"But maybe he meant something else," I said.
"I know what he meant, Charlotte. I know the guy. When you're in love with someone, you know what they're saying to you."
"That's terrible," the girl said, looking at Cinder round-eyed. "That happened to me once."
"So you understand," Cinder said.
"Oh, God," the girl said. "I really do."
Cinder stepped back and looked at her for a long moment. "I'd really like you to get that dress," she said finally. "You'd be a fantastic advertisement for my stuff. But let's face it. I mean, your boyfriend's parents! They'd have you out the back door in a couple of seconds, bound and gagged."
"Well," the girl said, looking into the mirror.
"Look." Cinder turned to me. "Would you wear that dress to your boyfriend's parents', Charlie?"
"What about you?" the girl said to Mitchell. "How would you react if I showed up in this dress?"
"I'd run amok," Mitchell said, lying immobile on the couch, his eyes closed. "I'd go totally out of control."
"See, I might as well, though," the girl said, examining the mirror again. "Jeff wouldn't care. Actually, his parents are fairly nauseating people anyway. In fact, his sister just cracked up. She tried to stab her husband with her nail scissors, and they had her put away. Anyhow, if I don't use it for dinner I can always wear it someplace else."
"Oh, shit, though," Cinder said. "I just remembered. That's the one with the crooked seam."
"Where?" the girl said. "I don't see it."
"Well, I wouldn't want anybody wearing it around. Listen, come back next week. I'll be making up some more, and I've got this incredible bronzy-brown that would be really good on you." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg by Deborah Eisenberg. Copyright © 2010 Deborah Eisenberg. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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