Daphne has never met a man who treated her as well as Kenny. The only problem is he’s married. Intoxicated by love in the afternoon, she luxuriates in his affection, but the afterglow fades when Kenny drives home to his wife and children. Although he promises Daphne that he’ll leave them, she’s not sure he will ever be able to give up his family. As Kenny tries to make up his mind about ending his marriage, Daphne finds herself with nothing to look forward to but their stolen hours together. She distracts herself with work in the Palomar Arms, a retirement home where decay hangs in the air. But this proximity to death will make Daphne aware that she is wasting her life. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Hilma Wolitzer, including rare photos and never-before-seen documents from the author’s personal collection.
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In The Palomar Arms
By Hilma Wolitzer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 Hilma Wolitzer
All rights reserved.
"What smells like that?"
It is two o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon in July, and Daphne Moss and Kenny Bannister are resting in a grand, wet, postcoital tangle on her foldout bed. She extricates herself carefully and rises up on one elbow, staring into the constant orange flicker of the fake fireplace. "What smells like that?" she asks again.
"Like what, puss?" he says drowsily. Daph has been acting a little strange lately. She's always sniffing at everything: the furniture cushions, her own hands, even him. He wonders if she's developed an allergy to something, or a nervous tic. Ah, well. He runs his nipping mouth along her spine. Her skin is salty; his lips are pleasantly sore. When she doesn't respond to his questions or his kisses, he repeats, "Like what?" And then, more alert, "Is something burning?" That's all he'd need. He starts to sit up.
"No, no," Daphne says, pushing him back down. "Nothing like that. It must be my imagination." His immediate alarm should offend her, but it really doesn't. She understands that if they were to be rescued from a burning building in one another's naked arms, Kenny's divorce plans might be hindered. The prime and delicate matter of child custody would certainly be jeopardized.
Tax consultants are not known to make bedside house calls.
Kenny has a boy of four and a two-year-old girl Daphne has seen only in wallet-sized snapshots. They appear to be beautiful children, possibly exceptional children. In one picture, they're standing in marbled light holding hands, and look like Hansel and Gretel just before the betrayal.
Daphne strokes Kenny's chest in diminishing circles until he falls asleep. A short nap before the seventy-mile drive back to his office is important. A shower to erase the gorgeous and unmistakable stink of sex is even more important. She lies quietly next to him, drifting into a lazy flow of random thought, starting with a replay of their just-completed lovemaking—those kisses no less desperate than the first ones six months ago; the glorious boom of Kenny going off inside her, and the smaller jolts of her own orgasms—one, two, three! Four? She wonders when they'll have an overnight. How odd it will seem in utter darkness. They haven't even been to a movie together yet.
Something in the air conditioner flaps rhythmically, and Daphne muses about the course in television script-writing she's taking during this summer semester, pretending an impossible triumph when her work is read aloud the following week. Everyone, including Mr. Steinmetz, bursts into spontaneous applause. A voice from the back of the room yells "Bravo!"
Impossible, all right. She is definitely getting better at dialogue, though, giving her main characters, who are lovers, clearer speeches, never longer than the three prescribed typewritten lines. Sometimes this makes them sound strangely taciturn and distant, like a taxi driver and his dispatcher talking on a two-way radio. So she lets them gesture and smile a lot more.
The fat Tolstoy paperback she's reading for World Lit I is open on the night table, and its pages are densely black with descriptive prose. For a moment she sees her own existence, sparsely recorded in a cramped, limited hand. In Russian novels, miles of wheat fields are sown and threshed with the changing seasons. People make leisurely journeys during which their lives are carefully contemplated, and they even fling themselves in front of trains. There is none of the ticking monotony of real-life daytime drama.
Daphne glances at the digital clock. Time pulses from the afternoon like blood from a serious wound. She should get a clock that doesn't mark the passing of every single second in disgusting Day-Glo green. Soon she will have to get up and go to work. She sighs deeply. The atmosphere at the Palomar Arms is so depressing. The pay is rotten, too, and she knows that she's over-qualified; none of the other kitchen aides are college students. It was the only job she could find with a four-to-midnight shift, other than the one at the phone company, and she had not done well enough on the tests she'd taken there. The interviewer told Daphne that she was deficient in the area of complex numerical retention, making her an unlikely candidate for the opening in Directory Information. That, after a two-hour battery of personality, aptitude, and interest tests. Many of the questions had been boring, or seemed pointless or loaded. Would you rather be a florist or an exterminator? A court stenographer or a glassblower? Do you often feel that people are against you? Do you have blinding headaches? Never? Some of the time? Most of the time?
Daphne thinks now that blinding headaches are probably a prerequisite for a job with the telephone company. Look at all the wrong numbers she always reaches, and the phone calls she receives in the middle of the night for people named Tony, Rochelle, and Dr. Mandelbaum. She recalls bitterly all the coins she's lost in pay telephones, and the wobbly recorded voices that urge her to throw good money after bad and have a nice day.
"What would you say my strong points are?" Daphne had asked the interviewer.
There was a long miserable pause during which the other woman tapped a pencil against her own forehead. Then she smiled with aching effort, and said, "Well, you seem to show considerable interest in nature and in people."
But who didn't? Perhaps only Mrs. Shumway, the head cook at the Palomar Arms, who had hired Daphne in an instant, asking only if she'd ever had hepatitis or TB. Mrs. Shumway had absolutely no interest in Daphne's headaches or aspirations, her love life or her move to Ventura. She kept flogging a slab of meat while they spoke, and without looking up advised Daphne to get a uniform from Supply, and not to forget a hairnet.
The job is just temporary, until Kenny gets his divorce and Daphne is finished with her course work at Ventura College. Both goals should be reached by the end of the year, before her twenty-fifth birthday.
In the meantime, there are all those old sick people. And that row of deadly, humming microwave ovens. The posted signs give warning only to those wearing a pacemaker. But Daphne's learned to hurl the trays in and step quickly aside, before she's zapped into sterility, or worse.
She tries to think of the inmates collectively as "them," an unfortunate club of aliens she will never be asked to join, and she moves in their midst with the swift, scissoring energy of youth, breathing out more often than she breathes in. She also sprays herself liberally with perfume to overcome the odors of urine and food, which are surprisingly interchangeable. The people, however, are not. Names, faces, voices declare their individuality, and inscribe themselves on the stone of her memory.
The Palomar Arms Senior Home is registered with the Buildings Department as a "convalescent and rehabilitation facility." But hardly any of its residents ever convalesce or get rehabilitated. Their major common complaint is extreme and irrevocable old age, and most of them are kept hostage until they die, or are moved at the last moment for that purpose to a conventional hospital.
One woman has been there for thirteen years, since the younger Dr. Rauscher took over. She is almost a hundred now, and although her skin is shirred into millions of tiny folds, and her vision and hearing are impaired, she's considered stable, and a likely candidate for a special centennial celebration. Daphne has heard that it will include fireworks on the lawn, and telegrams of congratulation from the Governor of California and the President of the United States.
She stares at her own smooth bare arm and slowly brings it to her nose. Then she smells her fingers, peeking slyly between them at the sleeping Kenny. Despite the perfume she wears, and the lingering scent of their bodies' work, the odors of the Palomar Arms are here, too, in the bedclothes, and in the long strands of Daphne's brown hair. She believes they have even invaded the shelves of her refrigerator. Every week she throws out something else—a head of lettuce or an egg—that seems perfectly good, but has a funny smell.
Daphne looks up at the ceiling she had recently painted a midnight blue. She'd pasted luminescent paper stars here and there to reproduce the heavens and a semblance of night for their daylight loving. The whole thing has the phony charm of an amateur stage set. Perhaps she should have followed the patterns of actual constellations instead of this random distribution. But when she's here alone, in the real night, the stars burn and wink and she swirls into sleep under their cosmic watchfulness.
Now she gazes directly at Kenny, and is impressed by how beautiful he seems, although she knows that he is only moderately handsome. He is, she imagines, the way men used to be before the sexual revolution—tender, grateful, and crazily aroused most of the time. Everything appears to turn Kenny on: the painted sky; the artificial fireplace, with its motor-driven fan and cellophane flames; the cheap white cotton panties she buys, three pairs to the package, at K-Mart; and especially her hair, which, when she takes him into her mouth, he winds and winds into a tight skein around his hand until her scalp prickles, and he lets it loose all at once, snaking and spilling over both of them. He slips into her like a thief entering a doorway, and she is rutted, exactly as she wishes to be. At the same time, he holds her face in his cupped hands as carefully as a thirsty man would gather water.
Kenny's marriage and fatherhood disturb Daphne, of course. She needs frequent reassurance that she is not responsible for the destruction of his family, that it was an inevitability before she and Kenny ever met. Still, she has shockingly nasty daydreams in which his wife and children are all killed instantly in a tragic accident. She is horrified by the cruel range of her imagination: their car diving off the edge of a mountain; the house exploding into dust just as Kenny clears the door on his way to work; an insane sniper in a shopping mall ...
When the time is right, he will merely leave them. There'll be lawyers, recriminations, and the tearing wrench of parting, but no unwarranted violence.
It would be so much better if they had never been at all. Yet Daphne reasons that Kenny's domestic experience has helped to make him a lover of greater dimension than the single men she's used to. Often she's treated like a wife who is still in high favor, or like a treasured child. After the tumult of their first love-making, they kept smiling at one another, immodestly proud and happy. Kenny gently fingered her ribs and then the dancing pulse of her throat. He said, "Are you okay? No broken bones? No internal injuries? Oh, Jesus!" And they both laughed out loud until they turned serious again with desire.
He always covers her with the blanket when he must remove his own heat from the bed, and it floats and settles over her like a wide blue wing. The other, unmarried, men she's known were more like affectionate but competitive siblings. How marvelous it is to be cherished instead.
In turn, Daphne is sometimes inspired in her inventions of pleasure: wrapped candies under the pillows for after; love poems torn into pieces to be reassembled with wonderfully silly or lyrical results. Once, after the bed was folded, and he was dressed and about to leave, she did a naked cartwheel across the room, landing upright close to where he stood, trapped and dizzied by the spectacle.
Kenny's breathing is faint and mysterious, and each flaxen hair on his body is separate and remarkable. His lolling penis is a dear amnesiac she will not be selfish enough to restore with a kiss. Let it, let all of him sleep.
Red hair on a man can be a dubious asset, Daphne knows. There's the accompanying pale skin others might not like but which she chooses to think of as luminous. And the shower of freckles everywhere that look edible to her, but could be unattractive to some people. She vows never, never to tell him that taller men used to be her secret preference.
Daphne sighs again, even more deeply than before. The best years of her infinite and promising life are about to begin, and almost everything is perfect. Then why is she seized by a clutch of fear and loneliness? She throws her arms around Kenny, waking him up.CHAPTER 2
As always, Kenny enjoys the drive back to Studio City after being with Daphne. He experiences an afterglow that would be visible to anyone, even a traffic cop, who would excuse him for speeding with a brotherly grin and a mild reprimand. Kenny starts to sing "Everybody loves somebody sometime" against a competing stereo tape of the Supremes. His Toyota is only trembling along at seventy-five, and there's a silver Mercedes bearing down on his tail. Through the rearview mirror he can see the other driver, who is also singing, or maybe talking to himself. Kenny laughs out loud and bangs the steering wheel in time to the Supremes, who have won out by the sheer force of their vitality. "Baby love, oh, baby love!" he shouts in unison with them. He can afford this brief indulgence in abandoned happiness. By the time he gets to his office, a metamorphosis will have taken place; he will be totally unmarked by love and hardly stirred by memory. The speedometer will soon quiver around seventy, drop to sixty-five, registering also the dissipation of magic. If he's pulled over later, he'll definitely get a ticket, and probably be frisked for grass or coke, besides.
Kenny has never confided to Daphne that his image of her and of their fevered meetings always begins to fade as he approaches Camarillo, and is almost gone before he reaches the Malibu turnoff. This is not a slight to Daph or to their relationship. It is only a trick he's learned to protect himself from the grief of conflict. He is really mad about her, and often likes to think of how she first appeared to him that evening in the Intro Philosophy class at U.C.L.A. She'd stood to recite from Aristotle about lovers finding their chief delight in gazing upon the beloved, and therefore preferring sight to all the other senses. Kenny had been wandering inside his head most of the past hour, hearing bits of what was being said, about happiness, friendship, goodness, and evil. His own sight was blurry—all of his senses were dulled. The question had been raised earlier: How far may a man love himself above others? The broad moral dilemma was immediately reduced to a personal one, and Kenny pondered his own selfishness. Hadn't he taken this course as much for the night out from his marriage as to come to some deep understanding of human existence?
And then Daphne, that low-voiced woman whose hair fell almost to her waist, spoke about sight and lovers, and Kenny's vision sharpened in a kind of ocular miracle. She was tall and generously built, and her skin seemed as finely textured as his children's. A slight, appealing nervousness could be perceived in the hand that wandered blindly over a notebook while she spoke. She went on to defend the narcissism of self-love that must precede the love of others. It was as if Justice herself had ripped off her blindfold and spoken in his behalf, and Kenny's other senses woke, one after the other, like dreaming schoolchildren tapped on their heads with a pointer.
On another night he saw her at the main library, sitting in isolated splendor on a high stool, stamping books. He remembers the unexpected and unreasonable pleasure of her smile when she looked up at him, and the low, whispering voice that directed him to the periodicals room. Unable to concentrate on the microfilm of the Wall Street Journals he had sought, Kenny took his time anyway, aimlessly browsing through obscure literary magazines—things called Shove, Rutabaga Review, and Hermaphrodite—expecting, knowing, that she would he there when he got back to the other room, her heels hooked over the rungs of the stool, giving her calf muscles that dancer's tension. He dared a bar with her near campus that night, still innocent of significant act or commitment, and then the riskier confinement of his car, and finally her apartment. His bravado faltered only when he recognized the strength and willfulness of his attraction. When he was with her, he was plagued by a demented yearning to be with her again.
And it wasn't just the sex, although that was sublime. It was also her rapturous attention, which gave him a second chance to be new, to be capable once more of fortunate surprises.
Excerpted from In The Palomar Arms by Hilma Wolitzer. Copyright © 1983 Hilma Wolitzer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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