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The Three Weissmanns of Westport
By Cathleen Schine
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2010 Cathleen Schine
All rights reserved.
When Joseph Weissmann divorced his wife, he was seventy-eight years old and she was seventy-five. He announced his decision in the kitchen of their apartment on the tenth floor of a large, graceful Central Park West building built at the turn of the last century, the original white tiles of the kitchen still gleaming on the walls around them. Joseph, known as Joe to his colleagues at work but always called Joseph by his wife, said the words "irreconcilable differences," and saw real confusion in his wife's eyes.
Irreconcilable differences? she said. Of course there are irreconcilable differences. What on earth does that have to do with divorce?
In Joe's case it had very little to do with divorce. In Joe's case, as is so often the case, the reason for the divorce was a woman. But a woman was not, unsurprisingly, the reason he gave his wife.
Betty was surprised. They had been married for forty-eight years. She was used to Joseph, and she was sure Joseph was used to her. But he would not be dissuaded. Their history was history to him.
Joseph had once been a handsome man. Even now, he was straight, unstooped; his bald head was somehow distinguished rather than lacking, as if men, important men, aspired to a smooth shining pate. His nose was narrow and protruded importantly. His eyes were also narrow and, as he aged, increasingly protected by folds of skin, as if they were secrets. Women liked him. Betty had certainly liked him, once. He was quiet and unobtrusive, requiring only a large breakfast before he went to work, a large glass of Scotch when he arrived home, and a small, light dinner at 7:30 sharp.
Over the years, Betty began to forget that she liked Joseph. The large breakfast seemed grotesque, the drink obsessive, the light supper an affectation. This happened in their third decade together and lasted until their fourth. Then, Betty noticed, Joseph's routines somehow began to take on a comforting rhythm, like the heartbeat of a mother to a newborn baby. Betty was once again content, in love, even. They traveled to Tuscany and stood in the Chianti hills watching the swallows and the swift clouds of slate-gray rain approaching. They took a boat through the fjords of Norway and another through the Galápagos Islands. They took a train through India from one palace to the next, imagining the vanished Raj and eating fragrant delicate curries. They did all these things together. And then, all these things stopped.
"Irreconcilable differences," Joe said.
"Oh, Joseph. What does that have to do with divorce?" "I want to be generous," Joe said.
Generous? she thought. It was as if she were the maid and she was being fired. Would he offer her two months' salary?
"You cannot be generous with what is mine," she said.
And the divorce, like horses in a muddy race, their sides frothing, was off and running.
The name of Joe's irreconcilable difference was Felicity, although Betty referred to her, pretending she could not remember the correct name, sometimes as Pleurisy, more often as Duplicity. But that was later, when Betty had surrendered the apartment on Central Park West. During the negotiations leading up to that move, Betty and her daughters were left to speculate, to surmise, and to suspect the existence of a Felicity to whom they had never been formally introduced.
"I will be generous to my wife," Joe told Felicity. "After all, I did spend almost fifty years of my life with the woman." When he said the words "my wife," it made Felicity glare at him. But he didn't notice, for when he said the word "fifty" it made him sad and confused. That was more than half his life. What was he doing? He was too old to be starting out fresh. But when the word "old" passed through his thoughts, that heavy, gloomy syllable, followed so closely by the word "fresh," his doubt passed and he uttered the word "woman" as if Betty were a rude ticket taker at a tollbooth, a stranger with her unmanicured hand out, and Felicity's glare softened.
"Of course you'll be generous," Felicity said. "You are a generous man. Anything you do will be generous, Joe." She took his hand and kissed it. "And I will help you, Joe," she said. "I'll help you be generous."
"Naturally I'll give her the apartment," Joe said. "It seems only right. We've lived in it all our lives. She's put so much work into it. It's her baby."
Felicity had seen the apartment. In a magazine. It sparkled and gleamed with a comforting Old World charm. Or so the magazine said. To Felicity, it just looked big and luscious, though the various shades of cream could do with a little splash of color, and some of the furniture seemed a bit rickety, antique or no antique. She would like to live in such an apartment. But she said, "Naturally." Then she looked thoughtfully at Joe, who sat on her own sofa in her own living room, a perfectly respectable place in Lincoln Towers that had once had a view of the Hudson River. She stood up and peered out the window at the Trump Towers that now blocked that view. "You bought that place for a song, didn't you?" she asked.
Joe smiled. "We did. We never missed a mortgage payment, either."
"You never missed a mortgage payment," Felicity corrected him.
"Yes, of course. That's true."
"Paid it from your salary?"
"Well, who else's salary would there be?" he asked. "Betty never worked a day in her life. Never had to. You know that."
Felicity did know that. She, on the other hand, had worked many days in her life.
"But it was her money that made the down payment," Joe added. He thought of himself as a fair man.
"A mere song," Felicity said. "You said so yourself."
Joe considered this. "Yes. Five thousand dollars down. Can you imagine?"
"And now the apartment is worth — what? Three million?"
"Oh, at least."
Felicity was silent, letting the implication sink in.
"That's quite a return on a five-thousand-dollar investment, isn't it?" he said.
"I suppose the upkeep is very high these days."
"It's really a burden, that big old place," Felicity said. "Poor Betty. I don't envy her. At her age."
"She ought to downsize," Joe said. "We should sell the place, and she can take her share and buy something a little more realistic."
"Joe, you really are a generous man," Felicity said. "And self-sacrificing, too."
He looked at her blankly. He knew he was generous and self-sacrificing, but just for a moment he could not quite make out how this act of taking half the proceeds, rather than none, fit that description. Then Felicity said, with some alarm, "But what about the taxes? There will be hardly anything left from the sale after taxes. Poor Betty." She saw it was six o'clock and made him his drink. "It really will be a burden on her, much more than on you. You have so many deductions. She doesn't. Not having a business."
Joe was not a stupid man, and he liked to think of himself as a generous man; but he loved the big, airy apartment Betty had made so comfortable for him, and he loved Felicity. Obviously the apartment would be too much for Betty to handle, he told himself. How could he have been so thoughtless, so insensitive?
"At her age," Felicity murmured again, as if reading his thoughts.
The apartment was far more suitable for him and Felicity. She was young and energetic. He was neither, but he was so used to the place. Was it fair that he should be thrown out of his own home just to pay good money to the government? It would be very bad judgment. It would bankrupt Betty with taxes. It would be cruel.
And so it was decided. Joe would be generous and keep the apartment.
Betty had been married before she met Joseph Weissmann. Her first husband had died suddenly and young in an automobile accident, leaving her with two little girls, Annie, age three, and Miranda, two months. Joseph came into their lives not quite a year after the accident. He married Betty, and though they ate dinner in the kitchen before he came home from work and never saw him on the Saturdays when he went to the office, the girls took his last name, called him Josie, considered him their father, and loved him as if he were.
When Annie got the phone call from her mother announcing Joseph's discovery of irreconcilable differences after almost fifty years, she immediately urged a visit to a neurologist. Had Josie been complaining of headaches? Erratic behavior, headaches, dizziness: Of course it was a brain tumor. Did her mother remember her friend Oliver from graduate school? He died just like that. Betty had better get him to a doctor that day. Poor Josie.
"It's not a brain tumor," her mother said. Joseph was feeling better than he had in years. "And you know what that means."
Annie grudgingly accepted what her sister, Miranda, understood immediately.
"He is in love," Miranda said when Betty called her to tell her the news.
"I'm afraid he must be," Betty said.
The two women were silent. They were both believers in love. This love was heresy.
"What does Annie say?"
"She's going to speak to him. And she suggested I get a lawyer."
"A lawyer?" Miranda's voice was disapproving. "What does Josie say about that?"
"He suggested we use a mediator."
"This is not really happening," Miranda said.
And she, too, decided to see Josie.
"I am entitled to live my life," Joseph told them when they appeared together at his office. But there were tears in his eyes. "I am entitled to my life."
Both women were moved by the tears. And both agreed that he was entitled to his life, but with these provisos: Annie explained that the life Josie was entitled to was the life he had always lived, the one with their mother; Miranda, a more romantic soul, pointed out that while life must be lived to the fullest, Josie was no longer young, and his present life was surely full enough for someone his age.
"This is difficult for me, too," Joseph said. He squeezed his fists into his eyes like a child. The two women put their arms around him.
"Josie, Josie," they said softly, soothing the distinguished man in his pinstriped suit. They had never seen their stepfather cry.
He stood back and looked down at his two daughters, his "girls," and he saw that his girls were no longer girls. Miranda was as lovely in her skittish, eye-flashing way as ever, her light brown hair shining, grazing her shoulders, the style not much different from what she wore as a teenager. But now in her still-youthful beauty there was something willed and hard. As for Annie, she had never looked youthful, always so serious, her dark eyes taking everything in and giving nothing back. He could see a faint line of gray where her hair parted. She watched him anxiously. What could he do for her, his sad little girl? Decades ago, in his youth, a man in his position might have handed her some bills and told her to buy herself a hat to cheer herself up. He imagined her in a little velvet cocktail hat, inclined rakishly to one side. The incongruity of it made him want to shake her.
"I will be very generous to your mother," he said. "You can count on me for that."
And the daughters left the office, angry, disappointed, but hopeful for their mother's material comfort, at least.
"Hi, Felicity," they said with forced cheerfulness to the pretty VP who had initiated the increasingly successful online side of the business. There was no point in letting their misery show. Perhaps the whole thing could be patched up before Felicity and the others in the office knew anything about it.
"Well, at least they're not getting lawyers," Miranda said. "Lawyers are parasitic vultures."
"You're mixing unpleasant species characteristics."
"Vermin," Miranda said defiantly. Miranda was a literary agent and resented the legal profession on principle for interfering in matters that ought not to concern them, like her clients' contracts, but her experiences with lawyers had been particularly painful in the last six months. "They should mind their own business."
"Unfortunately, divorce sort of is their business. Some of them anyway."
Miranda had never been divorced herself. This, she knew, was only because she had never been married. She fell in love too easily, too frequently, too hard, to get married. Miranda loved to be in love. It was a pleasure she was willing to suffer for, but not give up. Right now she was in love with a ne'er-do-well day trader. She thought of him and felt a flutter of giddy admiration: his bare back bent over her computer in her dark bedroom late at night, the pained expression on his face illuminated by the big, bright monitor.
Love was one of the reasons she gave for never getting married, the primary one. But there was another. She had always been too busy, constantly on the phone, barking out orders to her harassed assistant, flirting with a publisher on the hook, raising the spirits of a disappointed author. She specialized in the genre of what Annie dubbed the Lite Victory memoir. Her clients, the Awful Authors, as even Miranda called them, had always overcome something ghastly and lurid, something so ghastly and so lurid they had to write a ghastly and lurid book recounting every detail of their mortification and misery. At the end of the book, there was a nice epiphany, and since no one could really object to an epiphany, not even Annie, the books were very popular and Miranda had built a thriving agency that required her constant attention.
Until the lawyers got to it, she thought. "Vermin," she said again. "Ha! No divorce lawyer will ever dine on my flesh."
Annie said nothing. Miranda's antipathy to marriage was a point of contention between them. Annie had always maintained that Miranda simply lacked the imagination to get married.
"Marriage is too much like fiction for you," she once told Miranda. "Too unpredictable, too influenced by idiosyncratic characters."
Miranda, who considered herself a hopeless romantic, had replied, "Fiction has a plot, the same old plot. In what way is that unpredictable?"
"Because it all hangs on temperament, on personality, on serendipity and happenstance. On chance. Your books, and all your love affairs, are about control, losing it and then reasserting it."
To which assessment of the genre of memoir and the miracles of the heart Miranda would shake her head, smile pityingly at her benighted older sister, contemplate her puzzling insistence on always wearing such drab colors, and say gently, "I want to be free, Annie. And I am."
Then, invariably, the sisters would quote Louisa May Alcott at each other — "She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain" — and move on to other things.
Now, as Miranda walked beside her sister, she wondered if Josie wanted to be free, free of Annie and herself. As well as their mother, of course.
"It's so sad," she said. "Lawyers would make it ugly, too."
She felt her phone vibrating. When she saw who it was, she didn't answer.
"Christ," she muttered, but Annie didn't hear her.
"And expensive," Annie was saying. "They make it so expensive." That had certainly been her experience. She had been married, many years ago. She had two grown children to prove it. But her husband, such an intense, driven young man, had turned out to be a gambler. Annie hadn't seen him after the divorce, eighteen years ago, nor had he kept in touch with his children. She had been informed of his death, of leukemia, two years ago. "Nothing lasts," she said now, thinking of the waste that was love.
Miranda said, "You're so literal minded."
And the two sisters continued down the street, arm in arm, affectionate and indulgent, each smiling a small, comfortable smile at her superiority to the other.
On leaving her stepfather's office, Annie had given Felicity Barrow a brave, friendly hello, yet she had never liked Felicity. Felicity had round, oversized eyes, bright blue eyes, like a child actor who knows how to act like a child. Annie respected her stepfather's colleague. She knew how hard Felicity worked and how much she had contributed to the company, but she knew of Felicity's accomplishments by way of Felicity. It was not that the woman boasted. Quite the opposite. She was modest to a fault, the fault being that she insinuated her modesty, deftly, into almost any conversation, proclaiming her insignificance and ignorance, thereby assuring a correction.
Excerpted from The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine. Copyright © 2010 Cathleen Schine. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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