Katharine Weber's witty first novel of attraction and deception, a tale with the sensibility of a Margaret Atwood, pulses with cultural references and word games that echo Nabokov.
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Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear
By Katharine Weber
Picador USAISBN: 0-312-14383-4
It's been five days since your touch. Your touch, hell, your rib-crushing hug at the security checkpoint. I think I have a bruise, Dr. Heimlich, would you mind taking a look at my clavicle? Have I told you how easily I bruise? How easily I bruise: Once, when I was maybe seven and I was walking with my grandmother, my marvelous grandmother, Gay, across 59th Street to the Park, I darted out into the street at an intersection. She grabbed my wrist, for fear of what she called Come-Arounders - cars turning the corner at a high rate of speed and disregard - and by the next day I had developed a perfect set of her fingerprints. I thought it looked as though a freshly-printed felon had taken my wrist in the middle of a booking. (Did you know that when I was little I wanted very much to be an FBI agent?)
That same afternoon, when we were waiting for the light to change at Second Avenue, a little boy darted into the street in front of us, with traffic streaming close by, and Gay let go my hand to trot right after him so she could whisk him back up onto the sidewalk with a quick underarm hoist. And then the little boy turned around and hissed, "Fuck you, lady!"
It was no little boy at all, but a dwarf, a middle-aged dwarf with acne scars and a Don Ameche mustache. He and I were about the same height. My grandmother grabbed my arm and we backed away together as she murmured, "So sorry, so sorry," in a tone that suggested a limited command of English. She hustled me into the nearest doorway as the dwarf advanced, shouting horrible obscenities at us still. This was fortunately a luncheonette, and we backed into the doorway as if that had been our intention all along, and we sat at the counter, Gay and I, and had coffee frosted milkshakes and the dwarf went away and we kept looking at each other and laughing.
I still can't believe she is gone. I wish you had known her. She was gone before you came along from out of nowhere. I dream about her. God, I miss her. Even when she was dwindling away with encroaching senility, she was still there at the core in some tiny way. One of the last times I saw her, about a week before she curled up to die - I just realized she died exactly six months ago today, which is perhaps why I find myself thinking about her now - she seemed to have no idea who I was. But she tugged at my sleeve, and kept saying, "What's this?" until I figured out what she was asking and said, "I'm Harriet."
"Are you really?" she asked. "Are you really Harriet? In that case, I love you!"
Funny: that moment with the dwarf. Horrifying, but reassuring. Something about Gay always made me feel protected, almost magically so. Though God knows she was impossible, judgmental, full of rules for others to live by. She's in my thoughts all the time. And I carry her with me in other ways, too. She was, of course, English, as you know. But she was really English. I wish you could have heard her voice. Even though Gay emigrated as a young child, and lived in New York for the rest of her life, she had all sorts of her mother's habitual gestures of speech that I absorbed osmotically, without even knowing that certain phrases or words weren't ordinary American talk.
Was it Alexander Portnoy who thought "spatula" was Yiddish? When I was small, Gay read to me a lot (possibly because she wasn't particularly adept at making conversation with a toddler), and what she read included some books from her own childhood, as well as books she had read to my mother when she was little. Consequently, when I was about six (the story goes), I asked my mother for a shilling for the gumball machine in the shoe store. (My mother thought this was a bit much, and instituted an embargo on Enid Blyton books.)
So. My own use of language, spoken and written, ends up somewhere halfway over the sea, unless I'm mindful. There I go. (I notice when you raise those golden eyebrows over some of my more uncommon utterances, don't think I don't.) Maybe it's one of my connections with Anne, recherche talk. Though I insist that I come by my affectations more honestly.
I wouldn't say that Gay was affected exactly. Is it an affectation if the things you say and do run deep, through and through? But you know, even though I ended up living with Gay for most of a year, I was never completely at my ease with her, I never felt that I knew her, not really. Maybe that's why I soaked up what I could, mimicked her as a way of trying to figure her out.
After our milkshakes that afternoon, we went, as always, to the Park, and watched the seals catch those silvery fish flung by keepers, one fish after another; life could be so sardine-y and simple. I always wanted this moment to last forever; it never did. The disappointed seals would slide into the watery murk and swim in urgent revolutions. Ritually, the disappointed child would feed greasy peanuts to squirrels, feeling guilty for eating some.
We would laugh at our reflections in the glass of the monkey house, and make monkey faces. (This was always a thrill, as Gay was at other times quite perfectly ladylike.) Then we would hunt for a balloon man so we could buy my requisite green balloon, and then we would walk back to Sutton Place. So it was on the way back, I guess, that I darted and she clutched. She had to rescue somebody. I had to let her rescue somebody. I had those fingerprints for a long time. I regretted their fading away; I liked them.
* * *
So here I am. Anne worries me. Imperial, imperious, imperative. Still the Anne Gordon of Eighth Street days, but not. Wan, thin, pale as a graduate student who hasn't emerged from library stacks to find out the season. She has developed something far beyond her old queerly tentative self that I suppose you might call a style. But you wouldn't call it a style; I'm not sure what you would call it. Tootsishness. Isn't that one of your words? A toots on wheels, you might say if you passed her on the street. Her new look seems to derive from scarves and boots and sunglasses in the hair and eyeliner and I don't know what else. She's frighteningly accessorized.
Anne's arms, for instance, are racked with silver bangles. At first I thought she was wearing Slinkies on her wrists. She didn't know what a Slinky was, though, when I suggested this. You probably think women should wear one bracelet per wrist. Which makes me think of that day when you stroked my arm for an hour, and described all the muscles and nerves under the skin. I hadn't noticed my arm in years. Not since I was little and used to lick the sun-salt from my arms at the beach when I lay on a towel waiting for the hour to be up after lunch. But I had never seen my own arm through another's eyes, loved my own arm, until there was you. The anatomy lesson of Dr. Thorne. Was it three or four hours? (I discovered that evening, in the bathroom mirror, that my face was pinked from the sun. For the next couple of days, people kept asking me if I had gone to Vermont for spring skiing.)
We sprawled on that rock in Central Park and talked all afternoon and we weren't touching except for that one place where your fingertips brushed up and down on the inside of my left arm. That tiny electrical point of connection, those molecules of skin touching. I wanted that moment to last forever. It was only the second time we were together. We had never even kissed. I embarrass myself even now when I think of it. (The smile you are smiling you were smiling then.)
Anne has acquired an edge that was not there in New York. She is even more impossibly affected than she used to be, with her Lauren Bacall-as-Alistaire Cooke delivery, always amusing in light of her Westchester origins, although she did, inexplicably, go to that hoity-toity Swiss boarding school. Thus her immunity to whole chunks of popular culture.
She loves old movies, for instance, has an uncanny memory for entire scenes, especially the Bogart-Ball or Tracy-Hepburn ones, and yet she simply has never heard, or never noticed, the music of that vintage that she should, by rights, also love. Our music. Anne's not literally tone-deaf, but she claims that she just can't remember a tune, not even for five minutes, not even while the song is being sung.
At a Shippen Gallery opening someone once tried to get everyone to sing "Button Up Your Overcoat" - I don't remember quite why, though I'm sure it made sense at the time - and Anne just wouldn't do it. Reluctantly, she mouthed the words, but no sound came out. (Meanwhile, Gloria's sister from Schenectady was belting it out, and that woman couldn't carry a tune in a bucket.)
I've tried to fill in some of the lacunae. On Eighth Street, I would endure Anne's schmaltzy Chopin records, and Anne would listen as best she could to my Lee Wiley records. Remedial Show Tunes 101. She had got to the point where she was really taken with some lyrics, though she was still comparatively immune to the music itself; Anne still seemed unable to hear the connection between words and music. It's a curious deficiency. Now, with Victor, she's probably done some backsliding into Viennese waltzes and I'll have to start over.
Oh, even as I write these words I worry that you won't like her, that it doesn't even sound as though I like her very much. I adore Anne. And - outside of family - I have never felt as loved by anyone, until there was you. We are so alike and un-alike at the same time. And, though I feel these changes in her that I can't quite pin down, we always used to enjoy our samenesses and differences, if you know what I mean.
How can I describe a friendship in more precise terms? You've heard so much, but in bits and pieces. It's much more than mutual eccentricities and passions for cultural artifacts. We can - or used to be able to - finish each other's sentences. We just knew each other as women can, as men so rarely do, at least heterosexual ones.
Anne's a terrifically loyal friend, one of the smartest people I know, and she's not just interesting, she has that rarer capacity of being interested. And she has a very droll side that unbuttons at unexpected moments, though those moments don't usually survive in the telling. One of the things I mean to say is that she's not like anybody else. A teacher at L'Ecole Pretentieuse or whatever it was called, apparently used habitually to say to her, "Mademoiselle Gordon, Vous etes une type droll!"
That's why Anne in Geneva is such a puzzle to me. I don't feel that I know what's going on with this person with whom I used to feel almost telepathically connected. For instance: Benedict, what do you call the meal you eat in the middle of the day? Same here: lunch. One of the most beautiful words in the English language, n'est-ce-pas? I could swear my old pal and roommate Anne used to call it lunch, too. We used to eat it together sometimes and it never went by any other name. (Certainly not the dreaded b--, though if it was late enough we called it "lupper.") Nowadays she calls it luncheon, as it must be known amongst the Geneva intelligentsia. But she doesn't seem to eat it, oh no, not our Anne, because during the luncheon hour she is consorting with her married lover.
Even in New York days, when she worked at Shippen Gallery, she didn't exactly always eat lunch in the manner of a normal person, I admit. Unless you call an entire bunch of raw carrots a normal lunch. She did it to save money for going to the movies, she told me. Gloria pays her people slave wages, I know, but still. The first time I ever laid eyes on Anne, she was in that little back workroom scrubbing away at a bunch of carrots over the sink in the corner where the coffee things are. Gloria was showing me the gallery, we were at the nerve-wracking point when she was thinking of putting me in a group show, and I was grateful for the distraction when Gloria introduced me to this odd creature, so angular and Vermeerish at the same time. I was particularly struck by her unusual voice. I didn't know if I liked it or hated it, but I wanted to hear more. We shook hands, and her hand was wet because of the carrots, and she apologized too much about that. I asked her questions I don't remember, just to hear her answer. I developed an instant sort of crush on her; she fascinated me.
Once, before Anne left, I met Victor, it turns out. She and I were roommates by then; it was about six months before she actually left New York to come here. This falls under the Had I But Known category of meeting people. Just as we figure you probably encountered Anne in the course of your own gallery wanderings in those prehistoric days before you and I met, but didn't know to pay attention. (I still can't believe I've known you only, what, three months. The lonely years we've wasted.)
I wish you knew Anne. I wish you could help me figure out what is going on here. When you wandered through shows at Shippen, you probably passed within a few feet of her, when she was filing invoices, or she was stashed away in the back washing carrots and making telephone calls in various languages. You would be more likely to have chatted up the more visible woman who worked at the front desk there, named Marjorie Something, also known as Our Favorite Anti-Semite. ("A nice fellow," she would sniff about some client, "Although one of the Chosen, I believe.")
I met him a long time ago, as it turns out. Victor Marks, I mean, speaking of the Chosen. Anne's non-lunch date. But at the time I could swear he was represented to me as yet another mere Friend of the Family, an enormous category of humanity known to Anne that seems to embrace half the Eastern European refugee population of the greater New York area. He came to Eighth Street to take Anne out to dinner one night early last winter. I only vaguely remember the evening, and vaguely remember him as some old guy in a blazer standing in our hallway, winded after three flights of stairs. It didn't occur to me to notice him. It didn't occur to me in all these months that that was Victor.
He even looks a little bit like "Daddy" (a dour, retired Austrian baker with a flour allergy who Anne addresses as "Henry," who lives alone with his bitter memories in deepest New Jersey), whose life Victor is credited with saving in a children's barracks (where they shared a bunk) at Auschwitz. Something about a potato.
How long has this been going on? It was only last winter. Anne says Victor is 59. He looks older to me. He has a wife, who from Anne's descriptions has got to be the Polish Julie Andrews, and three young children, whose names, if you can believe it, are Lucien, Otto, and Minerva.
* * *
So, after four days here, the routine is more or less this: Anne gets up and does things to her hair and walks into the sharp corners of furniture and mutters "merde," and leaves at about eight.
Excerpted from Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear by Katharine Weber Excerpted by permission.
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