Westchester Burning: Portrait Of A Marriage

Westchester Burning: Portrait Of A Marriage

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by Amine Wefali

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Amine Wefali had four beautiful children and houses in Westchester, Nantucket, and Florida—but her marriage had become acrimonious. She had moved into the attic of her exclusive home in Westchester, a suburb of New York, while Phillip, her prosperous husband, remained downstairs. Torn between ambivalent emotions about her marriage and the inability to


Amine Wefali had four beautiful children and houses in Westchester, Nantucket, and Florida—but her marriage had become acrimonious. She had moved into the attic of her exclusive home in Westchester, a suburb of New York, while Phillip, her prosperous husband, remained downstairs. Torn between ambivalent emotions about her marriage and the inability to articulate her own longing for freedom, Wefali channeled her frustration into a whirlwind of domestic activity. Emotionally estranged, financially dependent, she was landlocked.

Parting the curtains on the intimate stage of contemporary marriage, Wefali delicately coaxes from beneath the surface of domestic life the poignancy, tragedy, loss, and humor that punctuate a long-term relationship. With lacerating wit and candor—about herself and the upperclass world around her—Wefali finds her way out of the attic and into the selfhood she always wanted. And along her journey, she has recorded a stunning personal odyssey both unique and universal.

Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
Amine Wefali and her husband, Phillip, an investment banker, had four children, a weakness for pricey real estate (and, as it turned out, infidelity), and a rickety marriage that was thirty years old when it finally collapsed. There's so little communion on record here between husband and wife, however, that this searing memoir is less a picture of love lost than a harrowing illustration of how marriage, as an institution, can amount to a public version of solitary confinement. Wefali spares no one in this indelible account (with the possible exception of her ornery Russian mother), and her singular voice -- haunted, angry, and passionate -- recalls Shirley Jackson's.
Publishers Weekly
In hypnotically flat, simple sentences, Wefali tells the story of the rise and fall of her almost upper-class, Westchester, N.Y., marriage. Her husband is a work-obsessed executive, mostly notable by his absence from family life. In spite of his long hours at the office, the couple has four children, necessitating constant shuttlings to various schools, camps and training programs. House purchases (in Westchester, New Hampshire, Nantucket and Florida), travel between homes and the elaborate cleaning and furnishing of these abodes consume the first half of the marriage. In the marriage's middle years, houses are either mortgaged or sold (or rented to disastrous tenants, entailing more cleaning). As her husband progressively becomes an absentee landlord with his marriage as well as his real estate, Wefali starts an affair with a shady but romantic Russian, propelling the marriage to its fated rocks. The devolution property squabbles, child custody threats is as ugly as the marriage, only clearer. By the book's end, Wefali and her ex are at least nicer to each other, even if it feels more like a deal-with-the-devil than a true meeting of equals. Wefali's style is spare, which may surprise readers expecting Russian histrionics, and quite unsparing, as readers are dismissively told of the sexual abuse of the narrator and her children. It's a familiar theme: the ladies lunch, tell all... and then charge the meal to hubby's credit card. (July 2) Forecast: Publicity is planned including New York Times advertising and NPR sponsorships but without a visible hook (celebrity, current event, literary or otherwise), selling this may be a struggle. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Dell Publishing
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.76(w) x 8.26(h) x 0.81(d)

Read an Excerpt


Madison Avenue was wet and cold. The first snow of the winter disappeared as it hit the pavement. It wasn't a retrospective, Susan said, just some photographs her husband put together, representing his work through four decades.

As I walked in, I saw Dooley. He and Leslie lived in the town we left. Dooley told me it was always so wonderful to see me, that Martin and he went to Yale, that they and their wives try to get together at least twice a year, that it's always so much fun. I said that's wonderful.

"I hear you and Phillip are moving back to Westchester."

If he knew that, he probably knew the rest. Leslie came over, said hello, and told her husband she wanted him to see something.

I stood before a large black and white photograph. A dark-haired girl sitting, holding on to her cigarette. A boy, his head raised, lies beside her. The Coney Island boardwalk stretches out behind them into a summer haze.

"Isn't it amazing how close they let him come in?" a stranger beside me said.

"He was probably their age when he took it," I replied.

"Of course," and the stranger laughed. "May I ask where you were then?"

"I was riding my bicycle to the Nyack library to sneak in to read Nancy Drew and The Secret of the Girl Who Couldn't Remember. And you?"

"Stationed in Germany with Elvis."

It was then I saw him.

He walked by, his hand holding hers, guiding their way through the crowd. She was young and thin. Her thick, curly dark hair was held together by pins.

Had he cleared up her face the same way he cleared up my weight?Was he in awe of her? Did he serve her tea sweetened with rose-petal jam in his darkened office? And did he tell her, softly, to bend lower as he entered her from behind?

I moved to the bar, and a young man gave me my vodka with no ice in a wineglass, and I made my way to where they stood.

My hand reached out and touched the back of his jacket.

He turned and looked at me with no surprise.

"Hello. Martin lives in our building."

"Who's Martin?"

"He's the photographer. We're at his show."

"You're still in the city?"

I turned away.

On my way out I passed the stranger leaning against a pillar.

Dress Rehearsal

We moved to New York in the late spring of 1969. Our first apartment was in Brooklyn Heights on the ground floor of a brownstone. The kitchen, bathroom were windowless, the living room, bedroom faced a large sunlit garden. Phillip had been offered a position with a Wall Street firm before graduating from Stanford, and I found a job as a receptionist for three radiologists half a block from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One night on the way home I saw a hundred leather-bound volumes neatly stacked at the curb of the limestone townhouse next door to where I worked. I couldn't get in touch with Phillip and took the books before someone else did. The cabdriver helped me put them in the taxi and helped me unload them in front of our curb. Phillip said they were worthless and I stacked them neatly by the wall next to the fireplace, where they stayed for a few years, until they were finally thrown out.

I took a bookkeeping course and worked for a sportswear manufacturer on West Thirty-eighth Street. If I took my lunch hour, I spent it on the main floor of Lord & Taylor. The salesladies at the cosmetics counters and I talked about creams, perfumes, and President Nixon. They gave me samples and tried to talk me into free makeup sessions. My mother told me never to wear makeup, it aged the skin; all you needed was a good moisturizer and a rich night cream. Once I bought a pair of brown leather gloves I couldn't afford. At my desk, when I took them out of the tissue paper, I saw they were spotted. The saleslady refused to take them back. She said there was nothing wrong with them. I again told her they had spots. She said they didn't and called over her supervisor, and when he didn't see the spots, I started to cry. On the subway ride to Brooklyn, I thought the reason why I saw the spots and they didn't was because the office I sat in was lit with fluorescent bulbs, and Lord & Taylor had lamps on their counters. When Phillip came in, I told him what had happened and again I started to cry. He didn't say anything.

A week later, at work, I got a phone call from the secretary to the president of Lord & Taylor. She said my husband had called, and they would of course take the gloves back.

Phillip and I were married a year later at the municipal building. My mother told Phillip he should volunteer to be the witness for the couple ahead of us. The woman wore a sable coat, and the man was asked to prove his age. A sign posted by the staircase said it was dangerous to throw rice. My mother gave me a strand of pearls she said was for my twenty-third birthday in May. I was to always wear them against my skin. The oil from my skin would give the pearls their luster and she and my sister Natalie flew back to California.

Phillip usually worked late, and I started working late. We tried having dinner together. We'd have a couple of nightcaps, be in bed by two, and be up at seven to go to work. When we had parties, they'd start Friday night, and it wouldn't be unusual for a few of our friends to sleep on the couch or on the floor and have Bloody Marys with us in the morning.

We planned a trip to Europe to buy a motorcycle, and to save money we'd stay in campgrounds. We bought a sleeping bag, a one-man tent, and a parachute to keep our clothes in from an army-navy store on Canal Street. My father told us Germany could be wet and cold in the summer. We didn't listen.

We'd never been on a motorcycle, and I watched Phillip drive around the lot of the BMW factory a few times before getting on with our things. The motorcyclists who passed us, as we drove on the shoulder of the roads, were outfitted in black leather. I folded our towel and put it under Phillip's sweater against his chest and kept my face hidden against his back as we rode. There's a photograph I took of Phillip by Starnberg See. I told him he looked like Omar Sharif in Dr. Zhivago.

We paid extra to have the motorcycle brought by plane so we wouldn't miss the New England fall, and we picked it up from JFK, at night, a few weeks after we flew back from Amsterdam. On the Grand Central Parkway, a man in the backseat of a limo opened his window and reached out and touched me. Phillip swerved into the next lane, and a truck almost hit us. We left the motorcycle in the garage across the street, where it stayed until a first-year associate from Phillip's firm bought it.

Two years later we bought a midnight blue 911T Porsche, using the thousand dollars we were saving for an apartment as a down payment for the car. We kept it in my father's garage, and we took the bus to Nyack to drive it around. My mother called to say, who did I think I was garaging a car in that bastard's garage? If I couldn't afford to garage a car, I had no business owning one.

I got pregnant on our fifth wedding anniversary and miscarried three months later. It was the only time I saw Phillip cry. He took me to Bermuda, and I got pregnant with Michael. I couldn't stand the smell of alcohol, and Phillip started drinking alone.

We bought a co-op on West Ninety-third Street. Phillip painted the apartment and sanded the floors during his vacation while Michael and I stayed in Nyack for the month. My father and Rosa were in Istanbul visiting her family. Natalie flew in from Los Angeles to help me with Michael; I was fourteen when she was born and now she was fourteen.

Phillip bought the crib we had picked out on a Sunday walk down Third Avenue and placed it near our bed, and he painted the wicker rocking chair Rosa gave us, and he picked up the cushions for it from the seamstress who had her shop above the butcher's on Montague Street.

I never allowed Michael to be alone. When I went to the bathroom or took a shower, I told Natalie to sit on the bed next to his bassinet and not to take her eyes off him. In September when Natalie had to go back to Los Angeles, I couldn't go into the room where she had slept, I'd start to cry. She forgot a pair of shoes, and I wore them instead of sending them to her.

In the late afternoon, if it was raining or snowing, Michael and I would go to the basement playroom. He would build cities with large red and white paper blocks, and I talked to whoever was down there. I was elected chairman of our block's sanitation committee, and every Saturday morning a group of us would meet and sweep both sides of the block from Broadway to West End Avenue. The super of our building used a wrench to open the fire hydrant, and by noon our street was clean. Diana and her husband David were one of the few couples who were there every Saturday, and we became friends.

Michael and I were in the elevator one morning on our way to the park, he wanted to ride the plastic motorcycle Phillip had bought him for his second birthday, when Diana walked in. I asked her how David and the girls were, and she told me David wanted to leave. He said he had to have quiet to write his dissertation and she started to cry. We went back up to our apartment. I let Michael play with a bowl of eggs, and I made a pot of strong black tea with milk and honey for Diana and myself. I told her we were going to start going to the movies, and afterward we'd go somewhere for dessert, and we'd go to a different place every time. "You can bring your girls over. This way we'll only need one sitter." Diana and I were in a baby-sitting club, there were about fifty of us. During the daytime the child came to you, and if it was at night, you would go to the child's apartment. You were paid with a hollow coin, each one worth an hour. At the Christmas Hanukkah party in the lobby, Diana and I asked Mr. Sotoro, whose wife had left him, if he would like to join us? He told us he didn't like going to the movies, but he would like to take us out to dinner. And he did, every Wednesday. He was the first cellist of the Metropolitan Opera, and he gave Diana and me tickets to the dress rehearsals.

Phillip worked eighty-hour weeks on a three hundred million dollar utility restructuring. The closing went well, and a vice president involved in the deal was promoted. When she left the bank to go to an investment firm, she told her boss they had to use Phillip. Phillip started bringing in a lot of money for the firm, and he was made partner. Coming home from a function held in his honor, Phillip said all he did was make money for people who already had it.

We had our apartment painted, the kitchen updated, and the windows measured for shutters. The car was now garaged a street away, and we bought an antique French country table and six chairs for the yellow dining room.

Rolls of Pennies

Michael was three and ready for nursery school. Diana's girls were in the first grade at Nightingale-Bamford. She told me we should try getting Michael into Horace Mann or Trinity. I wanted a less pressured environment for him and convinced Phillip to have Michael go to Walden.

I was pregnant with Katherine, and Michael and I were walking up Broadway. He was holding my hand when I was knocked to the ground by a heavily medicated young man living in a single-room-occupancy building next door to us.

Phillip thought it was time we left the city. We looked at a house on a quiet street in a town in Westchester. Phillip thought the house was too small. He said he didn't want to be sitting on something the minute he walked in. I convinced him to buy the house. It was small, but it was lovely, and nothing had to be done to it.

We sold our co-op. Diana organized a good-bye party, and I gave her all the baby-sitting coins I had accumulated. Mr. Sotoro sent me two dozen long-stem yellow roses.

We bought a golden retriever puppy for Michael in New Jersey. While driving back across the George Washington Bridge, I asked Michael what name he would give her. He said, "Bridge," and I added an "s."

Phillip agreed Michael should continue at Walden until after the New Year. In the mornings, Phillip, Michael, and I drove to the city in the car. I stopped taking walks through Central Park or quickly catching a photography exhibit. Instead, I told Diana I was too tired, and I waited for Michael in the car in front of Walden, eating a loaf of sliced black bread.

One morning the windshield of the car shattered as we were driving in on the Henry Hudson Parkway. Philip thought someone had thrown a rock at us, and I thought we must have run over something that bounced up onto our windshield. Phillip told me to go to the police, after I dropped Michael off, to fill out a report for the insurance company.

When I picked Michael up at twelve, it was raining. I didn't put the windshield wipers on, I was afraid the movement of the blades would cause the shattered glass to come apart and fall inside the car. Keeping my head out the window, it took me three hours to drive from the city to the house. I left the car by the garage with its door open and Michael sleeping in the back. The baby had dropped and was pressing against my bladder. All three doors were locked, and I had left the keys inside. I squatted in front of the house, under the larger holly tree.

Meet the Author

Amine Wefali studied creative writing at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in Open City magazine. She lives in New York.

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Westchester Burning: Portrait of a Marriage 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
What others call 'simple, flat lines', I call boring, unfinished, yearning for more detail and more interesting way of telling the story. One has to struggle to finish this book. Chapter after chapter there is nothing new to look forward to. A college professor (at Columbia, mind you), told me once that a good read is a read where the words flow together beautifully as if they were Russian figure skaters dancing on ice. I kept reading Wefali's autobiograpy and the same time thinking that it wasn't much of a surprise to me that the author had such dull and unispiring existence while being married. She created it herself. Her lack of love for details and small observations, her lack of capability or desire to look at her marriage in a different light. The emptiness of the state she is in isn't as frightening as it's plain annoying. Wasn't there more to her sad pathetic marriage? Was the sex decent at least? Did they ever discuss anything else besides furniture and remodeling? There had to be something that made him marry her in a first place. We know it's not her beauty and the exeptional level of independent thinking. What was it? By the time I found my desire to find out I had some 20 pages of this book left and I fell asleep. The next day I went to the local Barnes & Noble to return it.'I know this is a special online order but we'll be happy to give you a full cash refund'.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A truly riveting account of one¿s life, the opportunity to look into ones marriage unobstructed. Brilliantly written a book one must read.