Lucky Usby Joan Silber
Sexy, vivacious Elisa, of the miniskirts and tiny T-shirts, still in art
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Once upon a very recent time in New York City, there was a couple, two ordinary single people who met the way city people meet. Even though mismatched, they fell in love. And after some hesitations they decided, finally, to marry-only to look up and find their world caving in around them.
Sexy, vivacious Elisa, of the miniskirts and tiny T-shirts, still in art school and just coming off an affair with a temper-driven fellow artist, initiated things. She came on to cool, quiet Gabe who wore his hair in a graying ponytail and kept a low profile. A good bit older than Elisa-more than twenty years older, in fact-he found himself buoyed by her youth and her brashness. To her great surprise, Elisa craved Gabe's watchfulness and solicitude.
That Gabe's past included a successful drug dealing business bothered her not at all. And certainly he was unconcerned that Elisa's more current past included a lot of casual sex. Neither of them ever expected to have to answer for what had been so easy for Gabe and so enjoyable for Elisa. But truth be known, the one obvious thing they had in common was the burden their pasts suddenly put onto their future.
Joan Silber has written a love story for the turn of the twenty-first century, one that takes into rich account the styles and pressures of contemporary urban life. But more than that, she has created two characters who throb with real-life personality, passion, and courage.
- Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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Read an Excerpt
1 - Elisa
My boyfriend was in prison, twenty-odd years ago. He never hid this, but in our first years of living together, I heard him mention it only a few times. He was a direct person, for the most part, so if he was keeping his mouth shut on this one, that was it: he wasn't telling. Not everything has to be dug up all the time, in my opinion. He got busted for selling marijuana and he was lucky; it was before the laws got stricter and he did less than a year. I saw one snapshot of him from before, when he was a cute guy trying to look like James Dean, a squinting bad-boy. No other picture showed him like that, and he didn't look anything like that later. He worked in a camera store for a long time before I knew him, and that was where we met. He could have been something different, if he had wanted, especially once he had me.
I hadn't been born yet when he was serving time. Sometimes in our early days he liked to introduce me, slyly, as his little friend here. Naturally I called him the old man. It was nice to be the great stroke of luck in somebody's life, although that interpretation was mostly mine, not his. Gabe was glad but not dazzled, as far as I could see.
He was easy to live with, which I wouldn't have expected in someone who'd nested by himself for most of his life. He was domestic-that is, he liked to do things at home-but he wasn't rigid in his routines. He would listen to almost any kind of music I tuned in or put on the stereo-he greeted it with amused attention, he nodded in spots he liked. He was a good cook and he updated his repertoire for my benefit, went from spaghetti with meatballs (not that I minded that) to risotto and Pad Thai.
He looked pretty good. A little chewed up around the edges, a little thick in the middle and grizzled in the chest and pubic hair. But he'd never gone bald and he wore his streaky hair in a ponytail, which made him look like an old boxing coach or an aging jazz musician, neither of which he was. He wasn't anything. He was a guy who knew about cameras, and who read all the time. He read about four hours a day, and he read more than that before we lived together.
We met in the camera store. It was a big place, near Wall Street, and I got a job there part-time when I was studying painting at the School of Visual Arts. Unlike Gabe, I actually cared about photography, and I spent the first few days just drooling over all the equipment, set lusciously behind the glass counter. I was thrilled when anybody asked to see one of the really snazzy models, with all the bells and whistles. My listing of its virtues was so awed that I scared people away, which was unfortunate, since we were paid on commission.
I was told to watch Gabe, who knew how to be casual and quietly informative in a way that got people used to the idea that this camera was about to be theirs. Gabe himself was not comfortable with theories about his salesmanship, although he had worked in the place the longest of anyone. "Be yourself," he said to me. "You'll be fine. Do it your way."
He joked around with the other guys, but mostly he kept to himself. For his lunch break he usually went in the back and ate a sandwich while he read. He was reading Kafka's The Castle for the third time, and enjoying it more and more, he told me. In good weather he sat in City Hall Park. I had just come out of a really messy relationship and I was tired of going to clubs where all these fucked-up people hung out, and his self-containment seemed glamorous to me. So I was the one who came on to him.
I did it pretty bluntly. I said something like, hey, want to have a drink after work? I was not shy with men generally, and Gabe's age made me particularly confident with him. "Now?" he said. "Tonight?" He was confused. We went to one of the darkest, smokiest bars I'd ever been to, and I talked a blue streak about anything I could think of, and I put my hand on his knee. I was quite smug, it seemed to me later.
We got along fine right away but neither of us believed it would last. It turned out to be, truly, like living in another season, being with someone like him. When I was with my friends before, we all talked about how depressed we were; we had fits of being hysterically miserable, we played at being done in and bottomed out. Our unhappiness was real, but we had no idea really. A brighter day tomorrow was a definite likelihood, if we could hold out till then. Gabe was in another stage. Most of what kept me going couldn't be said to him. A lot of his life was behind him already. He was chipper but hopeless; that's how I described him. He had almost no joy in thinking of how things would turn out. A friend who was involved with Buddhism thought Gabe was very advanced in his thinking. Perhaps that was right, or half right. I couldn't tell exactly, from my corner on this.
I used to try to tell him everything about my past, such as it was. What I did in high school, how I lost my virginity, why I got mixed up with the lunatic I went out with before him. I wanted to be known, through these things. Gabe listened-he was interested-but he didn't come up with comparable incidents. He had lived in the same apartment for more than twenty years-two rooms in a former tenement on a nice Village block-and you would think he had spent every night all alone in it, from his conversation. This was not the case. There was a woman named Yvonne, whom he dated for years, and there was another person, Judy, who moved to San Francisco. And probably others, although I don't think he'd been driven by appetite since he was a young man.
When we first started sleeping together, I noticed how patient he was. He was ardent-I don't mean he wasn't-but he was always watchful and careful of me. I did what I could to take him out of himself, I tried my boldest and subtlest maneuvers on him. "Oh, my girl," he would say. "Jesus, what's this?" He was happy, maybe even wildly happy, but he was never different from the Gabe I knew.
We always kept a certain amount of our lives separate. I saw people without him, and I did my painting in a studio in Brooklyn, two subway lines away in Greenpoint. At home, he read in one room while I was in another, and I didn't interrupt him or make him talk about what he was reading. On weekends he liked to take walks all over the city by himself. He was something of an expert on its history.
Sometimes, of course, we were together for social occasions-parties that my friends gave, for instance. Gabe was quiet but people got used to him over time. He had small conversations with the other guys about politics or cars or whatever. And sometimes he even danced. This was a great thing and took a large quantity of beer to bring about. He danced in a fluid, gently wicked way, as if it were no trouble at all, although he looked a little surprised. People stopped asking why I was with him.
The only person who loved to raise that question was his aunt, whom we often visited in Queens. She was a candid creature, Aunt Angie. "So tell me the truth, Elisa," she would say to me. "Any lead left in that pencil? He needs a crutch to hold it up or what?" Gabe always told her the fountain was not running dry, never fear, and there was a lot of cackling back and forth. Angie would wink at me, and I would nestle against Gabe to back up his story, which was mostly true.
The man I was with before Gabe liked to have shouting fights in public. I got into it, I could shout as loud as he did. I was with him for a year and at the end he was threatening and hitting (mostly with an open palm, but a few times with his fist) and one night I thought I was going to shove him off the roof. I was standing behind him, thinking how easy it would be, and I got scared enough to think this is ridiculous, and I ran downstairs instead. We had a few more rounds left before it was done, but that was the beginning of my getting out.
I thought of that year as one long freak event I got stuck in, which was probably how Gabe thought about prison. Although Gabe once said, in his few words on the subject, that those months were bad but not that bad-it was a minimum security place, no picnic but not grisly. "Don't get an exaggerated idea," Gabe said.
"What was it that you wanted to do before then?" I said.
"Make money," he said.
Gabe always dressed carefully-he was careful about everything-but his tastes were pretty elemental, and nothing in his apartment would lead anyone to think he was materialistic. He had a stereo from about 1975, and he had a couch that looked like a graduate student's castoff. "What were you going to do with this money?" I said.
"Walk around like a big shot," he said.
"That's all?" I said.
"Travel," he said. "Buy books."
Gabe was surprised our first night together when I made him use a condom. He didn't ask questions or object, but for a moment I caught him off guard; it took him a little while to get back on track. Later on, when we'd been together awhile, we stopped being perfectly cautious.
My friend Fiona used to walk around the streets in a T-shirt with a photo from a fifties movie of a woman screaming in horror-NO! the caption said, Not Without a Condom! When Fiona was talking about getting married, some of us dared her to wear that shirt to the wedding. Actually she wore a dress from the twenties, white crepe with bugle beads, a slinky column that looked beautiful on her. I helped her pick it out.
Fiona had known her husband for a shorter time than I'd known Gabe. This made several people ask if Gabe and I were thinking about getting married. Often they asked this when we were both present. Gabe was too gallant to say anything pointed, but he looked as if he wanted to bolt out of the room. We murmured that we liked things the way they were. Once Gabe said that it was because he didn't have a church and there was no sanctifying body to legitimize our union. "And not the state either," I said. We were in accord about this, irritated together.
Meet the Author
Joan Silber won the PEN/Hemingway Award for her first novel, Household Words. Her short fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, Ploughshares, the Paris Review, and many other magazines. She lives in New York City and teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College and in the Warren Wilson College MFA program.
- New York, NY
- Date of Birth:
- June 14, 1945
- Place of Birth:
- Newark, New Jersey
- B.A., Sarah Lawrence College, 1967; M.A., New York University, 1980
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