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When Philomena looks in the mirror she sees a creature fat and unattractive. This despite the fact that she is a woman whose photographic image is expensively employed to arouse desire in conjunction with certain consumer goods. Or rather, because of that fact. Toxic body consciousness being the black lung of her profession. Dressing for the party, she screams that she's bloated and has nothing to wear.
I'm clutching a preparty martini when she makes this declaration. "You look terrific," I say.
She seizes my glass and hurls it at the mirror, shattering both.
It's all right, really. I drink too much anyway.
The name of the party is the Party You Have Been to Six Hundred Times Already. Everybody is here. "All your friends," Philomena states in what can only be described as a citric tone. It seems to me that they are her friends, that she is the reason we grace this fabulous gala, which takes place in the Waiting Room of Grand Central, presumably evicting dozens of homeless people for the night. We're supposedly on hand for the benefit of a disease, but we were comped, as was everyone else we know. "I'm sick of all this pointless glamour," my glamorous girlfriend says. "I want the simple life." This has become a theme. Weariness with metropolitan life in all its colonoscopic intricacy. I wonder if this ennui is somehow related to that other unstated domestic theme: sex, infrequency thereof.
We are accosted by Belinda, the popular transvestite, whom I am nearly certain is a friend of my girlfriend's, as opposed to one of my very own. I can't exactly remember if I know him from the gossip columns or if I know him personally, from events like these. Belinda is with an actual, ageless woman with striking dark eyebrows and buzzcut white hair, a woman who is always here at the party and whom I always sort of recognize. One of those women with three names: Hi Howareyou Goodtoseeyou. All the women lately have either three names or just one. Even the impersonators.
"Oh God, hide me," says the woman whose name I always forget, "there's Tommy Kroger, I had a bad date with him about five thousand years ago."
"Did you sleep with him?" Philomena asks, raising one of her perfectly defined eyebrows, which looks like a crow in flight in the far distance of a painting by van Gogh.
"God, who can remember?"
"If you can't, then you did," says Belinda. "That's the rule."
Ah, so that's the rule.
"Hello, darlings." Who could it be but Delia McFaggen, the famous designer, streaking toward Belinda, blowing kisses all over everyone. I retreat, slaloming through the thick crowd to find beverages, the first of many trips.
A FRIENDLY FACE
At the bar I encounter Jeremy Green, an unlikely and conspicuous figure at this venue, his golden locks falling superabundantly across the square shoulders of his rented tux--which juxtaposition suggests a flock of begowned angels camped atop the Seagram Building. He is an actual friend, my best friend, in fact, though he ignores my repeated greetings. Not until I pour vodka on his shirt does he deign to acknowledge my existence.
"Excuse me. Aren't you Jeremy Green, the famous short story writer?"
"That's an oxymoron. Same category as living poet, French rock star, German cuisine."
"How about Chekhov?"
"Dead." Jeremy pronounces this verdict with a poète maudit manner that seems tinged more than faintly with envy. He doesn't quite add Lucky bastard, but you can see that's what he's thinking.
"Ditto. Plus, you think the guy who read his gas meter knew who Carver was? You think this bartender knows?"
The bartender, an aspiring model, says "Shortcuts" in midpour. "I saw the movie."
"I think," Jeremy says, "that proves my point. And don't even think about saying Hemingway."
"Wouldn't dream of it. Any particular reason you're ignoring me?"
"I just think I'll feel better about myself if I pretend I don't know anybody at this hideous ratfuck." Finally he turns his wrathful gaze upon me. "Besides, if memory serves, you're the slimy lowlife who talked me into attending this fetid fete."
"Your editor talked you into it," I remind him. "I merely encouraged you by way of saying that I, personally, would be happier and less chagrined if you were among the throng."
Why, I wonder, are all the boys and girls blaming me tonight? Jeremy has a book coming out, and his editor, Blaine Forrestal, thought it would be good for him to be seen. Blaine is part of this world. She wears terrific suits, has a Radcliffe degree and a house in Sag Harbor; Jeremy is the least commercial of the writers she publishes. In fact, one might surmise that she is publishing Jeremy as a kind of penance for the frothy, wildly successful stuff she generally dispenses--memoirs by disgraced politicians, autobiographies by Emmy-winning TV stars. Jeremy's stories tend to appear in Antaeus and the Iowa Review and frequently are set in mental institutions.
"I feel," he says, "like a whore."
"Now you know how the rest of us feel."
"I'm sure this will really boost my lit cred, showing all the media elite that I swim in the same sewer they do."
"Don't worry, I think the media elite's swimming in some other sewer tonight." Indeed, excepting a few young black-clad Voguettes and self, I don't see much in the way of the Fourth Estate.
"Who's that fucking midget over there who told me he 'rather liked' my first book."
Following Jeremy's aquiline nose, I spot Kevin Shipley, book assassin for Beau Monde, in conversation with the New York Post.
"Jesus, I hope you didn't insult him. That's Kevin Shipley."
"He told me he bought it on the remainder table at Barnes and Noble and I said I was deeply honored that he felt he'd gotten his buck ninety-five's worth."
"Just pray he doesn't review the new one. His keyboard's made out of human teeth."
"Yeah, but how does he reach it?"
Finally I have reached the bar, where I request several cosmopolitans, one of which I hand to Jeremy. "Your problem," I say, "is that you don't drink enough. Where's Blaine, anyway?"
"Last I knew she was kissing Hollywood butt. Some fucking troll from Sony Pictures."
"Let's go find Phil," I suggest. "Maybe you can cheer her up."
WHAT'S WITH PHILOMENA?
The love of my life has been decidedly edgy and nervous. I would ask her why, except I'm not entirely certain I want to know. What we need is some ecstasy therapy, drop a few tabs, have a long night of truth and touch. There has been too little rapture of late. Not to mention the touching part.
Fortunately, by the time I find her again, she seems to have undergone a mood transplant. Delighted to see Jeremy, she kisses him and then, for good measure, me.
I introduce myself to the attractive young woman of color with whom Phil has been conversing, whose name sounds familiar.
"Do I know you?" I ask.
"We've never met," she says. "I'm Chip Ralston's personal assistant."
"Well," says Jeremy, "bully for you."
"I was just telling Cherie," Phil tells me, "that you're doing the profile for CiaoBella!"
A photographer suddenly appears: "Philomena, let's get a shot."
My statuesque soulmate breaks into autosmile and gamely reaches for my arm, but, shy guy that I am, I say, "Do a shot with Jeremy, we're trying to get him noticed." Shoving them together, I chase after the retreating personal assistant.
"Is Chip here," I ask.
"You just missed him," she says. "He's flying back to L.A. tonight, but I gave him your message. I'm sure he'll check in with you next week."
I'd press her harder, I've got to talk to the bastard, but soon, then I suddenly see that she's edging directly into the path of Jillian Crowe, my formidably glamorous boss; and while I admire Jillian's fashion sense and editorial skills, I'd just as soon avoid her at present. Backtracking, I find Philomena teasing Jeremy about the career that awaits him in modeling. She is more vivacious than I've seen her in days, Jeremy being such a Jeremiah that he tends to spur his companions to sparkle and shine.
Fueled by several uncharacteristic cocktails, Philomena's high spirits last well into the morning; she surprises me by agreeing to join an expedition of fashion folk down to the Baby Doll Lounge, a low strip joint in TriBeCa.
Cabbing down with three revelers--satellites of Planet Fashion--she sits on my lap and sips from a drink she managed to smuggle out of the party. "I have a joke," she suddenly announces.
TOPLESS MODEL IN HEADLESS BAR
At the Baby Doll, Philomena orders another cosmopolitan and, not unkindly, critiques the bodies of the dancing girls. With the body God gave Phil, she can afford to be generous. Finally the guy named Ralph, whom Philomena introduced as "genius with hair," suggests that Philomena show us her tits. The cry is taken up by Alonzo--who introduced himself as "a powder fairy," which Philomena annotated as "makeup guy"--and then by the adjoining tables. To my astonishment, she jumps on the bar and pulls her dress down to her waist, giving us a liberal flash of lunar breast. And it is a measure of their excellence of form that I nearly swoon--if indeed one can nearly swoon--despite having seen them nearly every day for the past three years of my life. Tumid with desire, I try to coax Philomena home the minute she jumps down from the bar. But she's on a roll. Wants to dance. Wants another cosmopolitan.
For the third time I try the men's room and it's still locked.
SHIPS IN THE NIGHT
We continue to have an uproarious time, but by now I have lost the feeling of being in the moment, and stand as if on the sidelines watching Philomena entertain her friends, though I dance and drink with the best of them. I don't mind, it's good to see her like this. Alonzo, feeling no pain either, slips me his phone number and says we ought to get together sometime. I explain to him that while I appreciate the thought, he is barking up the wrong telephone pole. He raises a skeptical eyebrow, then plants a hand voguishly on his hip. Working as I do for a young women's magazine with a strong emphasis on fashion, I often encounter this suspicion.
Philomena's mood slips away when I'm not looking, possibly around the time that Ralph's giving me his card and telling me that I have to do something about my haircut immediately, for the sake of the nation. "They actually let you into the offices of CiaoBella! with that do?"
"Maybe he really is straight," says Ralph.
By the time we get in the cab my love is silent and pensive.
As we undress for bed, she announces preemptively that she's exhausted.
No nookie for you, buckaroo.
AT LONG LAST, SEX
The narrator, slightly hungover now, the day after the party, helps Philomena choose the outfits for her trip--a versatile taupe suit from Jil Sander, a Versace jacket and ripped jeans for the plane, a fetching little sheath from Nicole Miller for the audition, as well as an extra pair of ripped, faded jeans plus three immaculate white T-shirts. And some nice clunky boots suitable for heavy construction or light shopping in SoHo. If he were more attentive it's possible the narrator would pick up certain clues from the packing, or from her behavior, indications that this trip might be something more than advertised, but he is not a suspicious person by nature, and his powers of observation are swamped by a surge of hormones. When, after trying on the sheath, she slips out of it and asks him to fetch some panties from her dainties drawer, he is overcome with desire for the taut, tawny flesh beneath her teddy.
"Please," he pleads. "Just a little slice." He reminds her that it has been five days, nine hours, and thirty-six minutes. And they're not even married yet.
"No we're not, are we?" Oh, dear, a tactical mistake on his part, this allusion to matrimony. This is a sore point, something he has been meaning to get around to addressing for the last couple of years. While she has been waiting for the big question, he is waiting to be worthy of such an honor; he does not believe that anyone, let alone Philomena, could really want to hitch her shining carriage to his lame gelding. Yet for some reason she seems to want to do so. As long as he is only a boyfriend, he believes that his fortunes are still fluid, that his lowly station is merely a stage of gestation. Whereas she believes that the actual obstacle is his sense of superiority. Luckily she doesn't pursue the subject, though perhaps with the absence of a marriage proposal in mind she makes him kneel and beg for it.
Craven, genuflective begging ensues, as per standard form. But heartfelt and genuine on his part. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE. Feeling like the target audience for the recent beer commercial in which she appeared, oiled and glistening in a bikini, he tells her he will do anything. He will bark like any species of canine she can name and, if necessary, roll over. Finally she peels off the teddy and lies back on the bed like Manet's Olympia, ripe and haughty, a bored odalisque.
"Fast," she commands, "and no sweating."
The narrator takes what he can get, a grateful consumer.
Afterward, lying in bed, a single gemlike tear appears on Philomena's cheek. When I ask what's wrong, she concocts a smile and shakes her head.
"Don't worry," I say, although I have no idea what I mean by this hollow formula. While I am full of doubt as to the future, my job, I feel, is to reassure her, my consort, my lost little girl.
Later, a moment of perfect melancholy: watching Philomena gather her cosmetics at her vanity in front of the cracked mirror, the dusky dimness infiltrated with pulsing red light that strobes through the window slats of our half-basement bedroom. This lurid glow likely signifying a more permanent death than the one I have just experienced; across the street is a nursing home where ambulances call with some regularity.
"Don't go," I say in a sudden swoon of dread.
"It's just for a few days," she says, brushing her hair.
"I love you," I say--a too-rare declaration.
She smiles at me from a shard of mirror.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
We live in the West Village, near the river, on the southern edge of the Meat District, far enough west that we are largely spared the Visigoth invasions of provincial teens with boom boxes. Of a summer's evening the breeze is frequently infused with the stench of decaying flesh wafting from the scrap heaps of the warehouses; after dark, the streets outside the butcheries are taken over by transvestites and the cruising vehicles of their johns; many nights we will be awakened by thick whispers and carnal grunts from the stairwell just outside the bedroom windows. Love and death. "It's always a trade-off with Manhattan real estate," our agent cheerfully informed us, just before she demanded seventeen percent of our first year's rent.
Meditating on the strange fact that while you were making love
to Philomena you were actually fantasizing about a previous fucking. With Philomena--so she has no real grounds for complaint, though even so you don't propose to share this insight. This has become almost a habit, conjuring a previous sexual episode in the commission of a current one, as if the memory possessed a vivacity somehow lacking in the physical present. As if, say, the breast of Philomena, delectable as it might seem in the flesh, was only truly eroticized in the imagination. But why isn't the flesh enough?
You have a repertoire of sexual memories, and in time this latest act might be added to it, but while happening it was experienced through the scrim of a recycled midsummer encounter behind a beach house in Amagansett. Sex itself becoming, according to this model, merely the raw material for an aesthetic event.
My sister, Brooke, has a tiny rent-controlled apartment in the Geritol Zone off Beekman Place. Not long after putting Philomena in a car for the airport I call, but she will not pick up her phone. I know she's there, listening to the messages. I know because I am my sister's keeper. Maybe it's my hangover, or perhaps the ambulance has made me jumpy and morbid; nonetheless I'm filled with a sense of the fragility of life, love and the social contract. That something bad is about to happen feels as palpable as rain in the air. I consider calling the airline, to see if Phil's plane is okay. Except come to think of it, I don't know which airline, which flight.
Instead I walk out to Hudson beneath the yellowing stingko trees. Wait for a cab, sharing the sidewalk with nocturnal pigeons who waddle uptown like portly tourists.
At the door of Brooke's building, trying to flush her out of her lair, which takes longer than the cab ride uptown. Finally the intercom crackles to life. She beams me up after I identify myself as her only sibling. Pushing through the cracked door, I find her in bed, reading, bones poking through the sheets, her beautiful strawberry-blond hair unwashed. When I kiss her, her breath has the hollow keloid stench of starvation, of the body consuming itself. I try not to look alarmed.
"They made separate piles of the body parts," she says in greeting. "Legs in one pile, arms in another. Living torsos on a pile of other torsos six feet high. Their neighbors. People they had lived with for years."
Brooke is reading transcripts from the UN War Crimes Tribunal. On the headboard of her sleigh bed she has taped a map of the former Yugoslavia. Sarajevo, Mostar, Srebrenica and other unfortunate cities are circled in red ink. Lately she has taken up the study of the recent atrocities in Central Africa.
Searching the kitchen cupboards, I discover an inch of Orville Redenbacher's popcorn in the bottom of a jar and a half inch of olive oil in another. I fire up a bowl, bring it back to the bedroom, casually placing it within reach of her delicate, freckled hand on the bed.
"How's Mad Dog," I ask, this being my ironic appellation for Doug Halliwell, M.D., her current would-be consort. Doug is a trauma surgeon whose acquaintance Brooke made in the ER at New York Hospital after she tumbled down a set of stairs at Rockefeller University. To me he does not seem worthy of my sister's attention, let alone any of her now-mended body parts. Not that I really imagine Doug has actually gotten hold of any of them just yet. Brooke's on the rebound from a colorful marriage, hence this sudden tolerance for beige.
"I wish you'd stop calling him that. Doug's fine. And how's the mannequin? Has she mastered the alphabet yet?"
"She's in San Francisco on a shoot," I say. "And for your information she took Anna Karenina on the plane."
"You enjoy saying that don't you? On a shoot. On location. The jargon of the glamour industry."
"Well, let's just say she's on a business trip."
"Do you know that one of the reasons the Hutus hated the Tutsis is because the Tutsis were considered more attractive? Tall, thin noses, lighter skin."
"Are you suggesting that the secretaries at Ford and Click might rise up and kill all the models?"
"Seems like she's been traveling a lot lately."
"Why wouldn't she?"
"Hmmmm," she hums.
Brooke is not a fan of Philomena's. And vice versa. Phil calls Brooke the scrambled egghead. Which goes to show that she's far sharper than Brooke would ever concede. Staying loyal to both has been difficult. While I'm used to Brooke's skepticism vis-à-vis my squeeze, tonight it makes me anxious. My ribs shrink around my lungs. What does Brooke know that I don't?
Why do I always feel that everyone has more information than me? Actually, Brooke knows a great deal that I don't know: the difference between natural and unnatural numbers, the significance of Heisenberg's indeterminacy principle, Gödel's incompleteness theorem, the probable casualties from Banja Luka and environs. Until recently Brooke was doing postgraduate work in physics at Rockefeller University, but she is on an extended hiatus, crippled by depression and an acute sensitivity to human suffering. My sister resembles one of those bubble children who are born without an immune system; she does not possess that protective membrane that filters out the noise and pain of other creatures. She is utterly porous.
Mom and Dad think it has to do with witnessing a murder at age seven. And while that would be enough to fuck most of us up, Brooke decidedly is not most of us.
"So how was your day?" I ask, fishing. Something must have gone wrong, whether on a global or personal level.
"My day? Well, let's see . . . it started with Jerry on the Today Show explaining the proton accelerator to a grateful nation."
Ah, yes. Here's the pea under the mattress, the fly in the K-Y. Until recently Brooke was married to a prodigious young Harvard professor, Jerry Sakoloff, who wrote an improbable best-seller about quantum physics and who frequently appears on television to explain subatomic phenomena. Brooke had been Jerry's student when their romance commenced; the problem was that Jerry continued to sleep with other students after he and Brooke were married. Or rather, the problem was that he didn't at all see why he shouldn't and in fact insisted on bringing them home to befriend his wife. It's hard to say which upset Brooke more, the infidelity or the television appearances.
"How was he?"
"Charming. Quotable. Hair and tie askew for that authentic, absentminded professorial look. Before those shows he'd work on the tie for twenty minutes so the knot would hang just low enough that it looked like he'd forgotten to pull it up all the way. And brush his hair within an inch of its life, then muss it up with his fingers--you know, as if he'd been tearing at it while pondering the great problems of the universe."
"If I'd been here instead of Japan I never would've let you marry him."
"You wouldn't have let me marry anybody."
"I do think you might consider the life of a nun. Lord knows, the Church could certainly use you." This an allusion to the discarded but indelible faith of our forefathers.
I pretend to look aimlessly around the room while attempting to will her to eat the popcorn. EAT EAT EAT EAT.
"How are the beautiful people," she asks, reaching down and tweezing a kernel of popcorn between thumb and forefinger.
"They're fabulous, by definition," I answer, watching out of the corner of my eye as she inserts the popped kernel between her lips. CHEW CHEW SWALLOW SWALLOW.
"What about that young actor who died? The one with the weird hippie name." Her hand is in the bowl again, and she's actually chewing! "Did you know him?"
"You mean River Phoenix? Brooke, that was, like, years ago. This is 1996."
"So, excuse me, I'm not a big maven of popular culture."
"Okay, so I spent a few hours with him at the Olive, which was this club in West Hollywood, when I was doing a piece on his girlfriend. Let's just say it's a wonder he lasted as long as he did."
LISTEN TO YOURSELF
Lord, listen to you. How embarrassing that you even know this shit. How pathetic, the offhand manner in which you exhale this little toxic cloud of inside dope.
Meanwhile you are worrying that Philomena does seem to be taking a lot of trips lately. And why wouldn't she know where she was staying? Or if she did know, why wouldn't she leave you her number?
But hey, wait a minute--this is ridiculous. You trust her. Right? Well, yes, basically, although you can't quite ignore the merest tingle of suspicion, of dread, that animates the hairs at the base of your neck.
ANOREXIA STRIKES DEEP
Once Brooke is fully engaged with the popcorn I repair to the kitchen to warm a can of Campbell's chicken noodle soup. "Um-um good," I call out. "Just like Mom used to heat." No, actually, come to think of it, Mom would ask the housekeeper, Daisy, to do the heavy lifting. Anyway. I pour the nourishing liquid into a big Harvard mug and carry it in on a plastic tray, treading cautiously so as not to frighten the prey. In her approach to eating my sister is rather like a stray dog we adopted as children who was so used to stealing food that he couldn't eat while anyone was looking. Any direct reference to nutrition will scare her off for days. Neither, of course, are we allowed to speak the name of her illness. Several years ago, at the nadir of her emaciation, she told me that the average weight loss among adult residents of Sarajevo after a thousand days of siege was twenty-five pounds, thereby giving her fast a symbolic dimension, but the siege is long over, and anyway she's been starving herself on and off since the Vietnam War.
Toward the end of her marriage to Jerry she began to cut
herself--small, razored incisions on her arms and legs.
"Talked to the 'rents lately?" I ask. Although not actually eating the soup, Brooke is blowing at it, a hopeful sign.
"Dad called a few days ago," Brooke says.
"How was that?"
"I find it strangely reassuring--the sound of ice cubes against glass."
"Crystal," I correct.
"You have to give them credit, though--our parents--for being the only couple in America still together after forty-odd years."
"Indeed." Our father inherited orange groves in Central Florida from his father, who at the age of fifty sold his seat on the New York Stock Exchange and followed the sun. The property produces just enough income to keep my father in bourbon, Brooks Brothers shirts and Book-of-the-Month Club Main Selections for life. Exactly enough to kill any ambition he might have had to actually work for a living. Not enough that there will be anything left for us after estate taxes. Every few years Dad sells off five acres to finance a trip to Europe. So don't worry about a looming inheritance spoiling me. Dad reads the classics--Grisham, Clancy and Crichton--plays tennis and keeps a fond paternal eye on the oranges. Mom reads poetry, paints landscapes and sips her drinkie. Cummings is her favorite poet, Bonnard her painterly hero, Pernod her current preferred tipple.
Oranges are not exactly labor-intensive. They grow while you sleep, while you drink, while you play tennis, while you paint, while you nap. And they are still growing when you wake up to stir another cocktail. Twice a year the migrant laborers come to pick them, and sometimes a frost blowing down from the North will necessitate the application of smudge pots and extra-strength cocktails. Conveniently, oranges are monoecious, containing both sex organs in the same blossom--the laziest of fruit.
Unlike Brooke my parents don't worry enough. The worry muscles are thoroughly atrophied. Every fall they spend a week in New York. In just a few days, they will arrive to celebrate Thanksgiving with us here in the city. Gobble gobble gobble.
"How can people live together for years and suddenly start to butcher their neighbors," Brooke asks. "What happens to them? Is there a fucking light switch on the moral faculty?"
"Are we talking Rwanda here?"
"That's what's so depressing. The situation was identical in both places."
Devoid of insight, I hold the mug to her lips, tilting it toward her. One tries to distract her from these idées fixes, even at the best of times. When my sister isn't depressed, she talks about Boolean binary lattices and icosahedral symmetries with an enthusiasm that calls for a gag order.
My sister, my beautiful tomboy sibling with an IQ like the surface temperature of the planet Venus.
From the Trade Paperback edition.