In the apartment where we used to live, the front door opened to a long hall. At the end of that hall was a window, a fire escape, and beyond that the view opened up like a painted fan. In the middle distance was the green copper roof and steeple of a huge church. Beyond it lay the low flat rooftops of Harlem, the elevated train, and a narrow bright wire of river. I never learned the name of that church, although every day I admired it. I thought it looked like a church in Prague. When once I said that to my old friend, who has been to Prague—she, unlike me, has been everywhere, while I, who live three blocks from where I was born, am the most provincial person in the world—she told me I was ridiculous, it looked nothing like churches in Prague, it looked as little like a church in Prague as it was possible to look. Nevertheless I continued to think that in my mind, like a child who has been told that the words she is singing to a song are wrong, but continues to sing them.
Not everyone had kind words for this view. After we moved out, the woman who bought that apartment came to see me. It was a winter evening, and she had on a violet wool coat that I immediately coveted. At that time the cost of heating was astronomical, and we kept the house to which we had moved so cold that the tiny stars of snowflakes on her coat stayed frozen. She told me that a month after moving into the apartment she had discovered that her husband was having an affair with a younger woman. Now less than a year later, they were divorced. When I first met this woman, whom I will call Joan, I felt I already knew her, because she so reminded me of the mother of a boy I had once loved. She had her long, wide, flat bones and straight brown hair that fell in a comma over her forehead. Both of them were from the South, and decisive. After I had left school, and my friend and I had parted, his mother came once to visit me in the small grimy city where I was bored and unhappy. She was on her way back to India, where for half the year she sat at low wooden tables in houses that flooded during the rainy season and taught women to read. The other half of the year she lived in an apartment in New York near Carl Schurz Park. At that time her life greatly appealed to me, and I imagined that someday I too would do good work, crouching in mud, and bestowing beneficence. I had no idea that I was entirely unsuited to selflessness. As a way out of my boredom and unhappiness and the slight fear I felt every time I walked out the door in this city (once on the way home from a store a car had followed me), I was learning to cook. I had picked up a paperback in a used-book store. It was Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking. Standing in the bookstore, I’d read, in the section on sweets, the words, “Everyone knows the recipe for chocolate mousse.” I did not, but I wanted to. I wanted to be a person who knew things, and I believed then that there was a programmatic way to do this. I was in this city, accompanied by a boyfriend with whom my exchanges had become increasingly rancorous, because I had been given a fellowship to spend a year writing poems, but month after month, I couldn’t think of a single poem. Out the back windows of the apartment I could see the blank windows of closed-down redbrick factories, and the huge hands of the electric company clock. The hands of the clock were lit day and night, and folded and unfolded like a giant’s pocketknife. I had counted the recipes in the book; if I made one recipe a day, the year would be over. By then, I was sure, I would know what to do next.
The day my friend’s mother arrived, I was making onion soup. It was the kind of recipe I liked then, because it took hours. She took the onion out of my hand. I was cutting it the wrong way. She put a second onion on the chopping board and showed me how to make tiny crosshatched squares without splitting the root. “See,” she said, “now you know how to cut an onion.” The gray sky of the city out the back window of the kitchen was punctuated with white church steeples. Each set of bells was timed differently, so that the five minutes before and after each hour were cacophony. My friend’s mother was upset by this. She was drinking whiskey and she put down her glass. The disorganization struck her as unconscionable. Years later I had a friend whose mother threatened to blow up her house if she didn’t get a clock that worked, and I thought of those bells.
We had sold the apartment to Joan sight unseen. An acquaintance at the children’s school was a friend of Joan and her husband. They wanted to move. They lived in Battery Park City, and it was too close to Ground Zero. Joan was having recurring dreams.
It was her husband who came to see the apartment. He was an actor. He liked everything about it. He walked down the long hall and exclaimed over the view and the steeple. He admired the way my blackened pots and pans hung in rows on the scuffed kitchen wall. I had bought two dozen red lilies and put them in a blue bowl on the table in the living room, and he exclaimed over the lilies.
The subject of money came up. We told him the price of the apartment, which we had thought and talked about endlessly, before his arrival. It seemed preposterous to us that we should own something so valuable. It was as if a sandwich forgotten about for many years at the bottom of an old suitcase filled with sand and the broken-off arm of a starfish, had turned into a tiara.
The purchase of the apartment in the first place had come about almost by accident. I was married then for the first time, and my first husband and I were living on West End Avenue, in a brownstone building. Instead of caring for the brownstone, years before the owner had painted over it, using paint the color of face powder, but swaths of the paint had peeled and fallen off, so that the house was strangely pigmented, like a pinto pony.
The owner was a small, stooped gray man. He required that I make an appearance at his Midtown office, where his name was affixed in peel-off gold letters on a frosted glass door, each time I renewed the lease. Because he was not inclined to spend money on the building, walking in the common front door one was plunged into smells and gloom.
The smells were not entirely his fault. The brownstone was four stories high, and the first and third floors had been cut in half, with one apartment fronting the avenue and the other in back. On the first floor, adjacent to the entrance, lived Marina, a junkie whose complicated life meant that she often forgot to throw out her garbage. In the back apartment a small crouched woman whom I saw, in the years I lived there, leave the house only once, surrounded herself with old newspapers and combustible fabrics. Occasionally, she would have a visitor, who arrived with a plastic bag reeking of curry. Marina ate only sweets, and when she did take out her trash, some of it would fall in the little hall, and tiny roaches would edge the leavings of sugar icing.
On the second floor, every night, a couple with a little boy railed at each other. “You cunt-pig,” he shouted at her. “Snake cocksucker!” she lobbied back, as if in another life they had been zoologists and had fallen back down the evolutionary chain, phylum by phylum, until what came up through the grate in the floor was the sound of thwacks and her mewling cries. The very top of the building was inhabited, on and off, by a man who, when I first moved in, told me that he worked in television. He was rarely at home, but when he surfaced, usually in the spring, he spent all day pounding a punching bag he had screwed onto a post on the roof. Bang, bang, bang, went the ceiling in my tiny kitchen, rattling the dishes.
I lived on the third floor. In front lived a girl about my age with gingery hair who worked for a publishing company. I had a partially furnished, two-room apartment, the size of a boot box, in the back. One evening I bumped into her in the tiny stairwell, and she was with a boy with whom I had gone to school. He had occasionally contributed small odd essays to the college literary magazine. There was a dispute among our group of friends, which had not been resolved, as to whether he was immensely talented or very stupid, and he had a reputation for dramatic, antisocial gestures (he had once put out a cigarette on his own or someone else’s arm, he drank other people’s drinks at parties), but he always had plenty of money, so his company was tolerated and even welcomed. If we had met elsewhere, the girl across the hall and I might have become friends—here, however, we guarded against intimacy and exchanged only pleasantries: anything more would have required us to acknowledge the sordid life of the building and how it sank into our dreams. Once, she knocked on the door and asked if I smelled gas.
I had lived intermittently in the apartment for eight years. That flat itself had been a bit of luck. I had sublet it from Adela, a friend of one of my aunts, who was going to Southeast Asia for a year. She came back only once, one rainy afternoon, when she turned up with the man she was going to marry. Screeching, she excoriated me for a stain on her pink satin comforter, a chip on her Indonesian table, and the loss—she counted them—of three spoons. In the end, she left everything behind as worthless, the implication being that I had contaminated her belongings. Just last week, planting marigolds in a pottery jar, in the backyard of the house where we live now, while a few feet away my youngest daughter added on to the hut she was building for her worms with a piece of broken brick, I realized the planter had been Adela’s.
I inherited the apartment. Even for that time the rent was incredibly cheap. Soot fell from the skylight into the bathroom. When I was bored or disenchanted I would sit by the Dutch door that opened onto the terrace and peel off the flaking paint with my finger. Over time I discovered, three layers down, hand-painted wallpaper, a pattern of silver chrysanthemums on an indigo ground.
On the terrace, I had a few rose bushes in pots. Directly across the alley, the apartment faced a brick wall. To the south, across a drop of four floors, was an identical terrace, which backed up to the corner building, which was planted each year by a Welsh biologist who was the fifth daughter, she once told me, of a fifth daughter. In spring her morning glories turned the old brick blue. To the left, if I leaned out against the parapet, I could see a few weedy gardens four floors below. One windy day, when I was out, I left an umbrella open. The wind lifted it out of its ramshackle stand, which I had weighted down with an inadequate amount of sand, and it flew a few houses north before dropping into the farthest garden, where it was just visible, pole up, forlorn, in the lower branches of a dogwood. It did not occur to me to abandon it. At the house that belonged to the garden I rang the likeliest buzzer. Time elapsed. It was cold. I had run downstairs without my coat, clutching my latch key. Presently the door, which led to a common hallway in no better shape than my own, was opened by a disheveled man wearing an ornate red velvet dressing gown tied with a black cord. He was naked underneath the robe. “I believe my umbrella is in your backyard,” I said. He narrowed his eyes. “Who the hell are you?” he replied. “Mary Poppins?”
He disappeared for some minutes into the long funnel of the house, and returned with the umbrella. Inside the little hall it seemed immense, a gigantic Venus flytrap, its steel corset exposed. In the moment he handed it over something complicit passed between us, a shudder. To me he seemed immensely old. He was perhaps forty.
After that, although I looked out for him in the street, I never saw him again. He certainly did not say hello to me. It may have been he was unrecognizable, out of his fabulous dressing gown, and that minus the umbrella, I was just another girl skittering up the avenue, with my one grocery bag holding fruit, milk, a bottle of wine, and chicken to roast in the tiny kitchen. I also learned later that the couple who would become for a time my greatest friends in those years lived directly across the street. Their son was born there. But at that time I never met them or, if I saw them in the street, it meant nothing to me.
I lived in that apartment like a crab in a shell. Whenever I felt more suspended than usual, I would scuttle off and leave it to friends. Returning, I’d find bits of odd cutlery and linens mixed in with mine; one old friend told me recently that he had fallen in love with the woman who has been his wife for twenty years in that apartment, when he stayed there one summer while I was away. I’d forgotten entirely I’d left the keys for him. Twice while I lived there the apartment was burgled. The first time I found the window open, huge dusty footprints on the windowsill, four floors above the ground, and the ancient tiny television gone; the second time the thief, disregarding the front door, punched a fist-size hole in the wall, reached in, turned the bolt lock, and took a pair of blue satin Ferragamo evening shoes.
In those days I was constantly in love. In my own mind I had been a romantic child (in truth I had been truculent and ungainly), but by now I was hapless. Since arriving in New York I had been in thrall to a boy I had known in college, who drank too much gin and rolled his own cigarettes using Bambú papers. He longed for pine forests and favored trench coats worn open in the style of Inspector Clouseau.