the CLIMBER ROOM
The sign in the Sweet Apple kitchen declared it a nut-free zone, and every September somebody, almost always a dad, cracked the usual stupid joke. The gag, Laura, the school director, told Tovah, would either mock the school’s concern for potentially lethal legumes or else suggest that despite the sign’s assurance, not everyone at Sweet Apple could boast of sanity.
Today, as Tovah leaned into the fridge to adjust the lunch bag heap, a skinny gray-haired man in a polo shirt, old enough to be the grandfather of the girl who called him “Papa” as he nudged her toward the cubbies, winked at Tovah, pointed to the sign.
Here it came, the annual benediction.
“Nut free!” Papa said. “Oh, no! Guess I’d better scram!”
He looked at Tovah as though expecting some response, but what? Tolerant smile? Snappy retort? Hand job? These older fathers with their second, “doing-it-right-this-time” families were the worst. This version stuck out a large, knuckly hand that seemed locked in a contest for supremacy with his heavy platinum watch.
“Randy Goat,” the man said.
Tovah figured she had misheard.
“Tovah Gold,” she said, and shook his hand, or, rather, a few of his supple fingers.
“And this is Dezzy.”
“Dezzy!” Tovah said, recognized the girl now. She sank to a knee, which was not only the proper way to address children but a nifty evasive maneuver vis-à-vis their crypto-creepy progenitors. “Hi, Dezzy. Do you remember me? I tagged along with Laura on the home visit a few weeks ago. You showed me your new sparkly shoes.”
“Sparkle shoes,” said Dezzy.
“Sparkle, of course.”
“Right,” Randy said. “I was out of town when you guys popped by.”
The place had been enormous, dizzying, a living (well, not quite living) embodiment (not embodiment, precisely) of the aspirational sconce porn that Tovah sometimes indulged in online or at magazine racks.
“We met your wife,” Tovah said. “She was so nice.”
Tovah still blanked on the family name. She was stuck with Goat.
“I remember with my older children,” the man said. “You guys like to do a little recon. Find out if we keep our kids in filth while we boost skag all day. But I guess we passed. We good, God-fearin’ folks, I swears.”
Tovah stared at him, unsure of Laura’s preferred reply to such a performance. She was new to the pre-K world, and just part-time, temporary. Tovah had been an administrative coordinator at an East Side prep school for years, until the school brought back the retired headmaster to replace her. The crash had made crumb snatchers of the toniest. The headmaster had run the school. Now he ran the office, and Tovah, at home, ran a lot of hot water for non-revitalizing soaks. The offer from Sweet Apple, managed through a distant family friend, had saved her.
“Sorry to shock you,” Randy Goat said now. “Just funnin’.”
“You didn’t shock me,” said Tovah, though the word “skag,” the old-timey TV creak of it, intrigued her.
“A tightass,” Randy Goat said. “Good. It means you’ll be careful with my kid.”
Now other children tore past, monogrammed backpacks jouncing. Laura jogged up in an outfit she’d recently described as “business yoga casual.”
“Mr. Gautier,” she said. “Wonderful.”
“You know to call me Randy, Laura. You look radiant. You must have bloomed with love this summer.”
Laura blushed. “Not quite.”
“Just a fling? Sounds fun.”
Tovah pictured another universe where, without hesitation, she could slap Randy Gautier’s smug, maybe once sensual old-man mouth. Laura was annoying, but she didn’t deserve this spinster baiting, especially from a geezer. Tovah wasn’t that far from cat ladyhood herself, though she believed—had staked her life on the belief—that everything always changed at the last minute. The right man, or even woman (what did it matter, really?), would just appear and, for goddamn certain, the right baby. Which meant any baby, within reason. Race or gender didn’t matter, but spine on the inside would be nice. Now an unknown force, perhaps the man’s shimmering wrist piece, whipped her back through conjectured space-time, far from the cool, lavender room where she cradled her perfect newborn. She stood with her hand on Desdemona Gautier’s silky skull while the girl’s father bent down to address her.
“It’s going to be a great day, sweetie. The first of many great days. Just do whatever Laura and Tovah tell you.”
The Goat Man winked at Tovah again.
Tovah treated him to the smile she once bestowed upon the creative writing professor who told her that some people were meant to write poetry and others, like Tovah, to treasure it.
She’d proved that incontinent toad wrong, for a few years, anyway.
* * *
Tovah’s D’Agostino’s card wouldn’t beep her the rebate. She feigned a pressing appointment, offered to pay full price for her crackers and sodium-free vegetable broth. The woman at the register looked at Tovah as though she’d chucked a diamond brooch into the Hudson.
“I can just swipe for you,” she said, slid an extra card from beneath the cash drawer.
“Save it for somebody worthy,” Tovah said.
“Hey,” the woman said. “We need the wood.”
“You didn’t die for my sins, lady. So don’t go building a cross for yourself. We need the wood.”
Tovah gave a feral grin. By midnight tonight, fueled by soup and crackers, she would have her first verse in years.
“Thank you,” Tovah said. “You don’t even know.”
“I know you need crazy bitch pills,” the woman muttered, but Tovah, lost in private, triumphal noise, did not catch it.
* * *
By midnight Tovah lay on the couch with a stomachache. A miniature swordsman flensed her gut with his foil, or so went an intriguing image that had come to her as she puked up the crackers, the soup, and the Chinese entrées she’d ordered after the crackers ran out. She never ate like this. She kept her slim figure with a subsistence diet of iced espressos, store-cut cheese cubes, and a few dry salads a day. But she remembered that back when she really wrote poetry, she ate a lot of greasy food, with no gastric regret. The extra weight had just made her voluptuous. She’d been so young.
Now she was thirty-six and in one eating spree had become a vile sack of fat and rot. In her vision of herself she was not even obese, but more like a bloated carcass gaffed from a lake. There on the couch, her belly flopped over her jeans, the new chin she’d acquired in about five hours damp and rashy, rank scents curled from her pores and, especially, from her crotch, whenever she tugged at her waistband to ease the ache. It was all so awful, evil, so unlike the Tovah of recent years, of modified appetites and reduced expectations, that her corpse-body surged with something revoltingly, smearishly pleasing. She felt slimy, garbage-juice sexy. Her hand jerked inside her underwear for relief. She pictured the actual gaffer leaning over the gunwale: rugged, with kind, lustful eyes under a brocaded cap. Sparkle eyes. Tovah’s legal pad, upon which she’d written only the title of her poem, “Needing the Wood,” slid to the carpet. Her fountain pen, caught against an embroidered yellow pillow, impaled it.
Morning light woke her, but Tovah’s half-closed eyes bent the rays back into a dream about a sun-stabbed land of which Tovah was philosopher-queen. She could retain her crown only by mastering a vintage pinball machine set atop an onyx plinth. The flippers stuck, and the holes were the mouths of female poets. A silver ball plopped into the maw of Dickinson. A voice in the head of her dreamself told Tovah not to “skin lip.”
She woke again, rose from the couch, saw the stained cartons of kung pao chicken, sesame chicken, sweet and sour chicken, and mystery moo shoo. She retched. She took a shower and made gunpowder tea and sat on the toilet and sighed. She had a date tonight.
It would be odd to see Sean again. Her best friend in college, Callie, had a brother, and everyone had agreed that this lean black-haired wonder was bound for an extraordinary life. Sean might direct a morally resonant movie, or design a marvelous bridge, or climb a heretofore unscalable mountain both to prove his prowess and deliver medicine to a snowed-in camp on the far slope. He had a keen mind, a daredevil physicality, a conscience. You could picture him leading large, semi-whimsical social movements.
At his sister’s party during one Christmas break years before, Sean’s graciousness, even more than his charisma, had undone Tovah. Sean made the rounds, checked on everybody’s drinks, lavished his attentions on the shy. When he walked up and handed Tovah a daiquiri and they spoke for a few moments about turtles, or tortoises of great size and longevity, Tovah felt something magical and formfitting slip over her: a tunic of light. This was the way Jesus must have worked, some petty wonder talk while revelation sunk its celestial needle. An artificial insemination of the soul. Soon Sean drifted away, perhaps to knock up other guests.
Tovah never saw him again and thought about him constantly. She waited for word of his victories. Callie nourished her with stories about new jobs and cities, so that Sean became a character in some corny but secretly enthralling serial adventure. He worked on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, wrote experimental screenplays in Gobi desert yurts, enrolled in architecture school, film school, medical school (but only for research, with no intention of doctoring). He had undertaken a scientifically significant balloon journey. But after a while the stories got hazy. Callie said something about a junk habit.
Tovah wondered if Sean was the type who peaked just before setting off into the world, the boy the gang bets on before they understand life. A sad notion, but she still wanted to see him. He’d reached out to her through several friends (not Callie, though, who’d broken with Tovah over a misunderstanding about the location of a brunch spot). Sean’s contact was not random, but certainly sudden.
His interest surprised her. People had eased away from Tovah. She had become a tad too prickly, or self-sufficient. Maybe her empathy seemed strained. Unfair, this last, as she really felt for others, and with them, but it never quite came across. That’s what creative writing was for. She knew better, from so many workshops, than to suggest that poetry existed to express one’s feelings, though infuriatingly, hers did.
A baby, however, especially a baby bred to be lean and coal haired and jade eyed and slant smiled, like Sean, could learn to express Tovah’s feelings, too, without the torture of words.
* * *
Out on Broadway, Tovah stepped into a hat boutique, the kind of sparse, dusty affair you assume would be a depression’s first prey, but here it stood. Tovah hated hats, or could never conceive of a hat that would suit her, except maybe a floppy straw thing she could wear to the beach with sunglasses and coquettishly unflattering sandals. She’d lug along books in a canvas bag, but when would she get to the beach? She lived on an island, sure, but that didn’t mean she numbered among those permitted to go to the beach.
“Can I help you?” said the salesgirl.
She seemed, but didn’t look, fifteen.
“Who comes in here?” Tovah asked.
“People looking for hats.”
“That is twisted.”
Tovah felt funny. Maybe she hadn’t really bounced back from last night’s death feast.
Maybe what she’d been on the couch was pregnant, though only ignorance could make it true. You could reckon the dates, track the cycles, but then certain facts press down. You couldn’t be pregnant if you hadn’t been laid in three years. A devout Catholic could still hope, but not Tovah. She’d never even considered herself the maternal type. She didn’t believe there was such a temperament, unless one assembled it in the culture factory along with images of women as radiant white creatures traipsing through summer fields with their tanned, though still white, spawn.
Those were the old lies. The newer ones claimed that all committed mothers could also manage begemmed careers, that only the weak or untalented had to choose. But even the mothers at Sweet Apple, not to mention her former school, could not disguise their struggle. Instead they sought catharsis in their comic monologues about the slog, or the sick joke of being marked as both mediocre mothers and lousy colleagues.
Some mothers at Sweet Apple had gleaned an even greater shift: the shame in procreation. People glared at families, at mothers. Nobody got up for pregnant women on the subway anymore. The planet couldn’t sustain more mouths. So stand, greedy lady.
Tovah had picked her side years before. No peace-shredding hominid would find shelter in her womb. She loved to play with the pre-K kids, but live with one? Then something embarrassing and maybe purely chemical occurred. She wanted a baby. That was all. She still believed everything she believed, cultivated privacy and solitude, and, despite her attachment to the Sweet Apple tykes, believed childlessness the noble course (yes, your kid might cure cancer, but probably he’d grow up to play video games or, if the world followed its current path, huddle in a gulch slurping gulchwater and recalling the magnificence of video games). But she wanted a baby. That’s what her body was for, in the cruel scheme of things, and she craved the bleakness of biology. It didn’t matter if the baby was hers, except it absolutely did. She wanted to carry it and give birth to it and breast-feed it and live in a natural cocoon with it for as long as possible, with somebody on the outside slipping everything she needed through a slim vent. In this way life would be joyful instead of nearly unlivable. The part of her that she’d always trusted knew this was crazy, but that part had also, one had to admit, led her to this grim limbo.
Tovah started across the street for a cleansing smoothie. Somebody shouted her name. Mr. Gautier strode toward her. He had a sharp-boned swagger and wore a hat, a baseball cap, stitched with the words GLYPH SYSTEMS.
“Mr. Gautier,” she called.
“Hello,” Tovah said.
Mr. Gautier put a hand on Tovah’s shoulder, took a few hard breaths. He dipped his head and spat something pebble sized onto the pavement. Tovah noticed the tiny hearing aid that lurked behind a shrub of ear hair.
“You played hooky today,” he said.
“It was a day off. I’m only part-time.”
“Did you hear what happened over there?”
She could picture only worst-case scenarios. Fires, floods, a collapsed ceiling in the lunch nook, a child pincered in that window sash the caretaker still hadn’t fixed. Or maybe Laura had finally snapped, kicked one of what she liked to call the Future Date Rapists of America in the skull. Boys, Laura had told her, were bad for schools, bad for society.
Which wasn’t to say, Laura added, that she didn’t love the cuties to death.
“Dezzy was in the climber room,” Mr. Gautier said, “and she fell off the … whatever it is.”
“The climber,” Mr. Gautier said. “They could just say jungle gym. What’s the big diff?”
“Is Dezzy okay?” Tovah asked. “Those pads on the floor are pretty soft.”
“She’s fine. That’s not the point. She freaked out, and she cried for you. I’m convinced she feels more comfortable and confident with you around.”
“That’s sweet. She’s so delicious. Really.”
Tovah had heard other teachers use “delicious” this way. It seemed natural, but also strange, which maybe described cannibalism in general.
“A delight,” she amended.
“Of course she’s a delight,” Mr. Gautier said. “She’s my daughter. So anyway, I worked it out with Laura. You’ll be changing your days so you can be there every morning Dezzy is.”
“You what?” Tovah said.
“Don’t worry, you don’t have to do a thing. I took care of it.”
“Look, I’m flattered, but I picked my days already. I think Dezzy is great, but so are the other kids, and I’m all set in my schedule.”
“Do a search,” Mr. Gautier said.
A low snarl threaded his voice. There was something birdlike about his face, she noticed now, specifically a big scavenger bird, maybe a turkey vulture. But a handsome turkey vulture. It was confusing.
“When you get home, open your browser and do a search on me.”
She couldn’t believe she’d agreed. What a bastard.
“Then you can do a search on me,” Tovah said.
She hoped her snideness bore no hint of tease. She hoped she sounded young enough to make him feel old.
“I did,” Mr. Gautier said. “When they aren’t mired in postmodern feminist crap, your poems are really good. Couldn’t find anything recent online. What happened?”
“Life,” Tovah said, startled.
“I’m thinking maybe the opposite. Look, we should be friends. I like the effect you have on Dezzy.”
“It’s been two days,” Tovah said.
“Those first few are the ones that count. Anyway, thanks for rejiggering your schedule. It means a lot, and you shall be rewarded.”
“Rewarded? I’m a professional.”
“No, you’re not,” Mr. Gautier said. “That’s why you’re good.”
* * *
She figured she’d have to be patient, but the Goat popped right up on her computer search and dominated the many pages of results that followed. Math prodigy Randolph Gautier had dropped out of a North Jersey high school in 1973 and hitched out to Palo Alto. He would have seized a silicon throne but for some purloined software here, a botched algorithm there. Still, he’d done just fine. He’d sold his company, Glyph Systems, for tens of millions, though in interviews he seemed bitter about it. He told RadTech magazine that Bill Gates had an IQ of seventy-four.
The man had made money in computers. Was this fact the object of her search? There were plenty of rich oldies in the neighborhood. Then she noticed another branch of search hits, sites that mentioned Gautier in relation to artistic foundations, to his funding of a poetry journal called Glyphonym. She’d never heard of the journal or any of the poets listed in the index, but the bound editions looked swank. Photos of a launch party in a grand ballroom featured charitable omnipotent people chuckling over cocktails. No real poet would want a poem in that journal, but the party looked like vulgar fun, or at least better than a night on the couch locked in a frigonometric fugue state, sour sweet-and-sour sweat soaked through the cushions, although Tovah did, to her surprise, look back on that evening with fondness. “Needing the Wood” had a few lines now, borrowed, perhaps, and in Sanskrit, but indelibly on the page.
* * *
The shock about Sean was his shock of white hair. It looked regal but incongruous with the dark-locked boy she’d known. He stood and seemed to bow as she approached the table, a fairly formal gesture for a place that specialized in artisanal scrapple.
“Sean!” she called with cheerful volume, as though to cover for her disappointment in his follicles.
“Tovah!” Sean said. “Awesome!”
They hugged, and Tovah’s chin grazed his collarbone. That zap, the hot, sweet charge of the party long ago, tingled. She wanted Sean to save her and screw her and give her a baby. After that, maybe he’d have to leave.
“You look great,” Tovah said.
“If that’s true, I owe it to the mighty sport of handball. I play with the Spanish gentlemen at the playground. It’s an epic workout. You look really good, too. Seriously.”
“I never exercise and I rarely eat. It’s a winning plan.”
“I think you’re meant to be a little heavier, though. You’re tall and skinny with big, beautiful bones.”
“Totes. I know it’s a euphemism for chubby girls, but you just happen to be hot with slightly extra-large bones. I always wanted to jump them. That night we talked. That was an epic night.”
They hadn’t even heard the specials and he’d already mentioned their magic moment.
“Man,” he said. “What’s it been? Twenty years?”
“Oh, that’s better.”
“How’s your sister?” Tovah asked. “I haven’t spoken with her in a long time.”
“She’s good. I mean evil. She works for this huge rape-a-licious law firm.”
“Is she still married?”
“Sorry, I work with a lot of young people. I pick up their lingo. Anyway, man, Tovah, you do look really good.”
Was it possible he could be a moron and still be her savior?
“Where do you work?”
“Right now I’m involved with a new start-up,” Sean said. “It’s hard to explain. We make apps for apps, basically.”
“So that pays well?”
“No, not yet. Meantime I’m working with organic food materials. Mostly flour items.”
“Like a muffin shop?”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“I’m a part-time preschool teacher right now.”
“Sounds epic,” Sean said. “Little kids.”
“I love kids,” said Tovah. “But the politics…”
Or could she be the moron?
A young waiter arrived without menus and explained the ordering process, which involved a few crucial decisions about sides and beverages but a surrender of volition in the realm of entrées. Tonight was Thursday, which meant Pennsylvania-style scrapple.
“What exactly is scrapple?” Tovah asked.
“It’s Mennonite soul food,” Sean said.
The waiter rolled his eyes.
“It’s everything from the pig except the meat,” he said. “Organs, hooves, eyelashes, lips. It’s all pressed together in a loaf. I, personally, love it.”
“Sounds kind of tref,” Tovah said.
“Très tref, dollface,” the waiter said. “After dinner you can join a settlement and redeem yourself.”
“Whoa there, buddy,” Sean said.
“It’s okay. I’m a Yid,” the waiter said.
“Really?” Tovah said.
“Totes,” the waiter said.
“Look, I think I’m going to leave,” Tovah said. “I actually prefer pig eyelashes as a separate dish.”
“Of course,” Sean said. “Let’s go.”
They walked the streets for a while, laughed at the shitty waiter and the perspectival complexity of time. It reminded Tovah of those play scenes from eighth grade. Lovers by the creek or at the carnival. Something about the moon. Now they leaned on a playground fence. Beyond it, in the last of the light, children stalked each other with neon water rifles.
Sean looked at Tovah, pinched the collar of her shirt.
“Twenty years later, and I still feel attracted to you.”
“Sixteen years,” Tovah said. “I had no idea you liked me. I was so smitten. You were the genius. You were going to do all the wonderful things.”
“Nothing happened,” Sean said. “I’ve had all sorts of adventures. Good times, bad times. You know I’ve had my share…”
“Seriously,” Tovah said.
She must have clawed out of the womb saying that.
“Seriously, I wasn’t measuring myself against a prophecy of me.”
“We were,” Tovah said.
“Well, then, fuck you, Big Bones. That’s your problem. And what are you doing that’s so great? Anybody can play with kids.”
“I’m also a poet.”
“And you have a blog, I’m guessing?”
“I’m sorry,” Tovah said. “You’re right. I’m being abrasive. I get scared of intimacy. I flail.”
“That’s so cool.”
“Let’s start again. No more scrapple.”
“I don’t think so,” Sean said. “Whatever the opposite of compatible is, that’s us.”
“Incompatible?” Tovah said.
“If you say so, wordsmith. Thing is, we both need the same crap. Somebody with money, and security, and also did I mention money? To shore up our egos. To nurture our unrealistic dreams.”
“Yes,” Tovah said. “That’s actually true. That’s an insight.”
“Thank you,” Sean said. “I used to be very promising.”
“Can I ask you something?”
“Are you going to ask whether my hair turned white slowly or overnight?”
“Do you want me to?” Tovah said.
“Well, let me tell you a story. I was working on a guide boat out of the Solomon Islands.”
Sean spoke into the darkness for a while, telling a mesmerizing, no doubt spurious tale. Tovah realized that she didn’t care about him or his saga or the whiteness of his hair one whit. She could never mate with a man who called her Big Bones, even once, even in jest. She could never expose her eggs to such a jerk.
* * *
The climber room admitted six kids and one teacher at a time. The other children had to wait in the next room at their sand tables and clay stations. Tovah stood near the varnished wooden bars and watched Dezzy scale the ladder. This day had once been her day off.
Laura had called her soon after she’d talked to Mr. Gautier.
“Is this standard at Sweet Apple?” Tovah had asked. “Letting a parent dictate schedules?”
“He’s not dictating. He made a request.”
“What’s the diff?”
“Tovah, I understand how this might seem concerning to you. But you’re just here temporarily. Mr. Gautier has been part of the school family for many years. His yearly donation keeps us afloat. I don’t want to disappoint him. That would be concerning to me. I don’t want to say that if you don’t abide by his request, there’s a chance you might not be able to continue with us.”
“You don’t want to say what?”
“I believe you heard me.”
“What if I just quit?”
“God, can you afford that? Lucky you. Can I quit with you? Do you have us covered?”
“Okay, Laura. I understand. It’s okay.”
“You’re a real sweetheart,” Laura said.
“I’m a schmuck,” Tovah said.
“Always a fine line.”
Tovah winced admiringly.
Now Dezzy turned from the ladder and shoved herself at Tovah’s shoulder. Her frizzy hair scratched Tovah’s cheek. The girl’s breath carried sour fruit.
“I love you, Tovah!” Dezzy said, gurgled through surplus saliva. Desdemona wasn’t slow, just charmless, a sloppy need machine.
One of the other kids, a funny boy named Ewen, tugged on Tovah’s jeans.
“Tovah,” he said. “Can we read about the tigers again?”
Because Laura did in fact care about the boys and didn’t want them to notice her revulsion, they’d become Tovah’s responsibility.
“You can change them, the boys,” Laura had told her. “Erase the predator patterns in their brains. Make them docile and generous. I’d do it myself, but I get so nauseated.”
Tovah’s Dezzy duty was a drag. She wanted to read to Ewen, but if Dezzy didn’t want to join them, the morning would turn dire. Dezzy would collapse and wail. A real Trojan widow scene. It made Tovah wonder what went on at the House of Gautier. Randy Goat hadn’t been making drop-offs or pickups this week. A young Tibetan woman came instead. And what did Mrs. Gautier do with her time? Or was that blond woman at the home visit even Dezzy’s mother? Now Tovah found the narrative becoming dense. Dense wouldn’t do. She was ready to wrap this up, find another—what did they call it?—situation.
Dezzy licked and nibbled Tovah’s neck. Tovah hoisted the girl away from her.
“You don’t want to skin lip?” Dezzy said.
“What? What did you say?”
“Ouchie. Put me down.”
“Tigers, Tovah,” Ewen said, tugged.
* * *
Mr. Gautier offered too much money for the babysitting job. It was more like a call girl’s fee, even factoring in Dezzy’s unpleasantness, but this was no era to demur. Tovah took the gig. It would be a noon-to-midnight shift on Saturday. Mr. Gautier had meetings, a benefit dinner.
Tovah had never babysat, not even in high school, but at least she was starting at the top. This wasn’t a few hours at the neighbor’s house, with Tovah paid in cable TV and leftover casserole. This was big bucks to encamp in a palace on Central Park West and monitor a brat while Mr. and Mrs. Gautier lorded it over the city’s top-shelf kowtowers. Maybe they’d bring her white-frosted cake in swanned-up tinfoil. Everything seemed so pathetic and exciting.
She knew she should mention the offer to Laura, but she enjoyed the secret, side-business feel of it. There was something odd about Mr. Gautier, to be sure, but even if he returned home in his tux, tipsy from champagne, and his wife excused herself and retired to what she might refer to as her chambers, and when she was gone Mr. Gautier, while plucking sharp green bills from his silver clip, accidentally brushed his well-preserved knuckles against her breast or her bosom or her (perhaps let’s just say specifically) unusually responsive (based on informal polls of friends) nipple, and they locked eyes and giggled and then, for no reason at all, kissed, skin lipped, as some tiny persons would have it, until they heard a noise, a door off the den or a loose board in the refurbished hallway, maybe the wife returning to the kitchen for her bedtime book, one of those wretched memoirs with a blurred photo of a schoolgirl on the jacket, and upon hearing the noise, they, Randy and Tovah, froze and broke apart in thrilled fright—even if all of that happened, she wasn’t sure she would tell Laura. In fact, she knew she wouldn’t tell her, so why mention the babysitting job at all?
Besides, it would be awkward in a few years, when Tovah was—and let’s be totally random here—Randy’s new wife, the mother of his baby, and Tovah found herself, for example, president of the board of Sweet Apple, which had the power to hire and fire directors as she (or she and the board) saw fit. Of course, without question, Tovah would endorse a renewal of Laura’s contract. The woman needed a viable wardrobe, but she’d proved herself a more than capable employee. Besides, there would be so many other things to worry about, such as the transformation of Glyphonym from a ludicrous glossy bursting with trust fund doggerel to a rigorous journal where the best poets, regardless of tradition, would connect with one another and a larger audience. A few poems a year by Tovah would not be unseemly. Other editors did it.
Plenty more so-called luxury problems might rear their plush heads. You had to hire the right people, make certain that the nanny wasn’t teaching the baby Cantonese by mistake, or the cook wasn’t drizzling the wrong oils on Tovah’s salads, not to mention the guaranteed Stukka dives of bitchery from the ditched blond wife. Tovah didn’t know a thing about her, but the woman’s gold-digging implements had been edged enough to carve out some precious metal from the Randolph Gautier vein. Doubtless they could leave nasty divots in the flesh of her usurper. Still, the state of alert would be worth it because of the baby, the baby that would be hers and also nestled in cozy plenitude, the combination she never thought possible.
* * *
Dezzy didn’t come to school on Friday, so Tovah e-mailed Mr. Gautier to make sure the date, or the job, rather, was still on. He did not respond all day.
Sweet Apple exhausted her. Her boys—Ewen, Juanito, Medgar, and Shalom—had been hanging all over her, begging her read to them or play airplane or lie on the carpet as a launchpad. Tovah wasn’t sure if she had deactivated their predator wiring. It was hard to tell when they were such relentless puppies. She fell asleep on the train home and nearly missed her stop. She’d need some quality rest to handle Dezzy tomorrow, if that was still her destiny.
The call finally came as she finished her radicchio.
“You e-mail me?”
“Yes. About tomorrow.”
“It’s better to just call me. I don’t check e-mail much. But I see your e-mail in my browser. It scared me. I didn’t open it. Does it say you’re not coming? Don’t tell me you’re not coming. Jesus fucking Christ. I counted on you. I put my neck on the chopping block convincing Connie that you weren’t just some tight little piece of … well, whatever, but a real—”
“I’m coming, Randy Goat!” Tovah cried.
“I mean, I just e-mailed to confirm. I’m certainly planning on coming to watch Dezzy, so you and your wife shouldn’t worry about a—”
“Yes, I met her at the home visit.”
“Connie’s my sister. That’s who you saw. She’s always trying to horn in on the raising of Dezzy. I guess I let her. It’s easier that way. Dezzy’s adopted. She was my goddaughter, and her parents were killed. Okay, what the hell are we doing? Are we phone buddies or something?”
“No,” Tovah said.
“You bet your ass we aren’t. I’ll see you tomorrow at eleven.”
“You said noon.”
“Stay flexible, Tovah.”
A few minutes before eleven the next morning Tovah waited outside the building. She wore a dress that was maybe too chic, especially given the bleached-out T-shirts she favored at school, but after Dezzy went to bed, there’d be some spare hours to relax in a beautiful apartment. She thought she’d do it in style.
She knew she’d never be back after today. Since the phone call, she’d been mortified by her matrimonial fantasy. You think you know yourself, the world. You believe you’ve got a bead on everybody else’s bullshit, but what about your own? She’d had delusions of using this man because he somehow deserved it. Now she wondered if she even deserved to watch Dezzy. At eleven she pushed the buzzer. The elevator, just as Tovah remembered, opened into the plum-colored foyer.
* * *
She felt the hand on her shoulder even while asleep, and the whole day whizzed through her, all the games and snacks, the walk to the park, the Winnie-the-Pooh books, the TV programs full of anxious furry creatures, the sudsy bath, the creamy noodles, Dezzy’s kissy snuggle at tuck-in. Tovah had come to the study afterward to read. The leather Eames had pulled her into sleep better than a pill. She blinked up at Mr. Gautier. He smiled, and his eyes looked fogged. His bow tie hung limp around his collar. His tuxedo took on a rumpled sheen in the lamplight.
“Wake up, little Toh-Va, wake up,” he sang.
“Mr. Gautier.” Her voice sounded deeper, liquored, in her ears. Her ears seemed stuffed with silk.
“How was your evening?” he asked. He sat on the coffee table beside her.
“It was perfect. How was your evening with the muckety-mucks?”
“Actually, I lied about the event. I don’t know why. My older son got married today. Evan. He’s a lawyer, she’s a doctor. They will be very happy or something.”
“No. They’ll thrive. It’s just been a long, emotional day.”
“Was your ex-wife there?”
“Like I said, an emotional day.”
Mr. Gautier stood.
“I should go.”
“You should have a drink with a sad old man first.”
Mr. Gautier fetched Scotches from the kitchen, handed her one, and lowered himself on the arm of her chair.
“Is that comfortable?”
“It’s an Eames ream,” he said, laughed, stroked the back of Tovah’s neck.
“What are you doing?”
“Tovah, let’s be realistic. You’re not the high school babysitter. I don’t play bridge with your father. We’re grown up and broken, just like everybody else. Stop acting like a precious flower.”
Tovah set her drink down on the coffee table, rose, squeezed past Randy Gautier. She walked over to the bookshelf and stared out the window at the lights of the avenue, the darkness of the park. She pictured wolves, packs of them, leaping the gates.
“You know,” she said, gathered herself. “It’s very hard. Here. In America. In the world. For women. It’s a fucking nightmare. Our choices are no choice. Everybody has a goddamn opinion, but nobody ever wants to help. The politicians, the culture, they push the idea of family, the importance of the mother, and they also push the idea of opportunities for women, but they screw us all on the stuff that counts, that will make it real. We are alone and suicidal or we have children and are suicidal. The only women who escape this are the rich. All the accomplished women in history had servants. I’m convinced of that. Even if it’s not true. It certainly feels fucking true. I’m sorry. I’m babbling. Why am I going on about this? It’s stupid. I’m just cranky. Must be getting my period, right? That what you think? Well, fuck you, and of course I am. But that’s not it. Maybe I wasn’t ready to wake up just now. Maybe I’m tired of waking up. Nothing changes when I do. Nothing ever suddenly … Christ, I’m sorry. I should just go. Maybe I should just…”
Tovah turned and saw that Mr. Gautier had tugged his penis out of his tuxedo pants. He gave a shrug and, like a loved boy, beamed.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I’m listening.”
Copyright © 2013 by Sam Lipsyte