Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.
Sounds stretch out in the station—footsteps, crackling announcements, rag ends of instructions and goodbyes echo and balloon, tangle in a mass that hangs high up under the sooty vaulting of transoms and girders. Far below, where a thin scurf of yellow electric light drifts among the newstands and plaintive groups of benches, Dee Dee clutched her ticket and inspected rows of shiny candy bars and magazines. In the distance the station dissolves into a watery daylight where points of darkness appear, and swell, hissing, into trains.
Dee Dee reached, then hesitated, as though she were choosing cards from a gypsy’s pack. “Pardon,” a man said shortly, jostling her as he plucked a newspaper from in front of her. The train, she remembered; the important thing was getting on the train.
But where were Carl and Marta? Just a moment ago they had been walking toward the gate. She looked frantically at the flow of people—the line was already beginning to form: unhealthy-looking English families, ladies in twos, the occasional pampered businessman of the sort Dee Dee had seen in the restaurants, and, because it was summer, throngs of students, Americans especially, talking and lounging theatrically. Everyone wore the resolute, slightly exaggerated expressions of people beginning a journey, as though fearing irremediable dislocation, they were determined to stamp themselves upon their own futures.
The line collected, and swayed with an absent fretfulness as Dee Dee searched it for Carl and Marta. Ah—there they were, standing a little off to one side. And something was wrong: Marta shook her short, dark hair; her hands flew up. Carl shied as if she were bombarding him, in her pretty accent, with little pellets.
Dee Dee started forward, then stopped. As though signalled by her panic, Carl and Marta turned. Dee Dee smiled uncertainly and waved with her bag of new magazines and candy. For a moment they simply looked at her.
She went light with dread—she was a scrap of something blowing away from them, tumbling away in Marta’s sombre, lashy gaze. Carl’s hair gleamed like stiff filaments of silk. Then he raised his hand in a false little wave of reassurance, and Dee Dee was standing in place again.
Carl and Marta turned back to each other. “Carl,” Marta said, and Carl looked at her with terror, as though, Marta thought, she were some beast poised to destroy him.
How enraging. How enraging. Was he trying to make her say something terrible to him? Well, she just might; if Dee Dee didn’t show up soon to stop her, heaven only knew what she might say.
Marta had been in a vicious mood since waking. She’d opened her eyes onto the freezing damp the English affected to consider summer, only to discover that her flatmate, Judit, had drunk the last of the coffee. “No more at all?” Marta demanded, ransacking the cupboard.
“Not unless you remembered to pick some up,” Judit said, unmoved. “It was on your list. Oh, by the way, Istvan called this morning.”
Marta shut the cupboard doors with wonderful composure. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she said.
“You were asleep,” Judit said. “Remember?”
Marta sat. She ran her hands through her hair and listened to Judit’s spoon tinkle in her coffee cup. What a day for Istvan to call. “What did he want?” she asked.
“Istvan?” Judit shrugged. “I could hardly interrogate him, could I?”
The instant Judit disappeared into the bathroom to deplete the hot water supply Marta dialed Istvan. A courtesy. Just to tell him she would be away for several weeks. With Carl. But Istvan was out, of course. Or in—behind the sunny, mendacious message on his machine. Marta’s heart blackened; in with some girl, doubtless. Marta hung up without leaving a message.
She’d hurried to the station, but Carl and Dee Dee had not arrived yet. How grim it was, dirty and glum—and, with all the rushing strangers, treacherously neutralizing; she could hardly remember who she herself was. So Istvan had decided he wanted to see her again. Too late; too bad, for him.
The air around her was stale with discarded hopes, angers, attitudes no longer useful to those who were traveling. She huddled on a bench to wait, beset by tales, half-heard in her childhood, of cold, of deportations, of police—events that filtered down like ineradicable pollutants from filthy times.
When she saw Carl and Dee Dee coming towards her she merely looked at them, her chin lifted. While Dee Dee hung back, goggling and dawdling like a child, Carl greeted Marta with a crisp little kiss on each cheek. She was not charmed. Did he not see how she felt? Did he not care?
She watched him as they waited in line for tickets. That limpid, meditative look of his! It was like a steel door, behind which he crouched, hiding.
He handed Dee Dee her ticket. “Is there anything you want before we get on the train?” he said. “It won’t be so easy to find, things in English, remember.”
Dee Dee looked at him and put her hand over her mouth, then shambled off to a newsstand, leaving Marta to go to the train with Carl.
Something was bothering Carl. That, at least, was obvious. Marta looked at him, but his studied air of reverie enforced her silence. Still, the trip had been his idea; he had wanted her to come along. At least, he had pretended to. “Carl,” she said.
“Yes!” He turned to her with the transparently fraudulent expansiveness of someone forced to replace a tempting book on a shelf. “What is it?”
She stared at him, searching his face. He didn’t want to go. Carl did not want to take this trip. It was true; Marta was certain—she had the curse of being right. “Tell me, Carl, please,” she said, “why we are doing this.”
He flinched. “What do you mean?” he said, and then they both turned as though they’d been prodded from behind. Far down the station, Dee Dee stood in her bulky yellow slicker, a lost little lump, looking at them.
Marta had met Carl some weeks earlier at a party she’d attended with Istvan. Istvan was being suspiciously attentive and delightful; many attractive women were present. Istvan loved parties. He rose to the occasion of being admired, and his paintings were beginning to sell.
Marta had been talking to Istvan when a woman of fifty or so approached. She wore large pieces of ochre-smeared abalone on a thong around her neck and was known to collect paintings. “I don’t believe we’ve met,” she said to Marta in a voice like an electric drill, and turned her back.
Her adornments, she was explaining to Istvan, had once served as the currency of some now-impoverished coastal tribe. Marta began to drift away. Istvan plucked at her sleeve, smiling merrily. She looked at him. He shrugged, and turned back to the woman.
In the hot, lively room, Carl was conspicuous for his satiny blond melancholy. Marta placed herself on the arm of a sofa not far from him and gazed out the window at the brooding houses across the street.
Carl drifted next to her and spoke easily, as though they shared some delicate and slightly sorrowful information. Was Istvan watching? If so, certainly he would be jealous. Marta concentrated on sparkling empathetically up at Carl, but then understood that Carl was expecting her to respond to something. To what? she wondered. She made a modestly self-disparaging gesture. It served; Carl began to talk again.
He was truly handsome, she realized. Her sparkle lapsed as she stared. Carl lowered his eyes—his smile was clearly involuntary.
“Do you know many people here?” Marta asked stubbornly through her blush. Over Carl’s shoulder, she saw Istvan talking to a girl. The girl was as fragile and responsive-looking as a fawn. She had lovely, trustful eyes, and Istvan was talking to her with the earnest concern that Marta recognized as the hallmark of his most gluttonous moments. Poison squirted into her veins. “Excuse me,” she said to Carl. “I have a simply splitting migraine.”
Carl brought her to her flat. She was pale and silent. She had let Istvan treat her too badly for too long; he expected her to put up with anything. And tonight, as she had peeked back into the party on her way out with Carl, Istvan had glanced at her with freezing dismissal.
Carl settled her on the sofa. He wrapped a blanket around her feet, found aspirin and a glass of water, and stood back uncomfortably. How cramped and shabby the flat looked! In Carl’s impeccable occidental presence Marta saw it clearly. When she looked up at Carl he brushed away the tiny tears that hung ornamentally from her lashes. “You must rest,” he said.
Could she have bored him? “No, no,” she complained. “Sit and talk to me.” And he settled gingerly in a straight-backed chair. She hoped Judit would come in.
But by the time Judit returned, Marta was alone, still curled up on the sofa with the blanket around her feet, reading a novel to nurse a frail feeling of well-being.
Judit glowered. Judit and Istvan had known each other from childhood in Budapest, and Judit took Istvan’s side in everything. Marta had heard, from others of course, how for years Judit had tagged along after Istvan, defended him, run errands for him; how she’d been ignored by him, except when he was sick or bored or wanted to meet one of her friends. “He isn’t going to call you again,” Judit said.
Marta looked up from her book, raising her eyebrows in pleasant inquiry. “Istvan?” she said.
Poor Judit. All those girls, and never Judit. And it never would be Judit.
But despite Judit’s pronouncement, Istvan did call. He called the very next day. Judit handed the phone silently over to Marta and left the room with a look of gratified persecution.
“Did you get home all right last night?” Istvan said. His voice was silvery with sarcasm.
“Yes, thank you,” Marta said. “I was accompanied.”
“I am aware of that,” Istvan said.
“I felt ill,” Marta said. “When I got home I had to lie down.”
In the silence she felt a little giddy—Istvan was supposed to have been apologizing by now. “I didn’t like to interrupt you,” she said. “You were having such a good time.”
“I know what this is about,” he said. “This is about nothing. I don’t even know that girl. I only wanted her to meet you—that’s why I was talking to her.”
“What girl?” Marta said.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Istvan said. “She’s only just arrived. You would be able to help her so much if you would only think of someone beside yourself for a change.”
“How can you even—” Marta began.
“If only you would dare to be a little kind to someone. A little friendly. Eva has no job yet, she has no friends here—”
Marta stared at the phone in incredulity. What about her? She had arrived alone and almost penniless only eight months before. The only reason she had survived was because she had taken the trouble to plan, painstakingly, from Budapest, so that she would not have to exploit other women’s escorts at parties. And for all her trouble, what did she have? What she had was, yes—a jealous flatmate, a shiftless roué of a lover, and a dull job in the store of a Hungarian goldsmith. Hardly enough to be tossed out in handfuls to passing girls. She hung up loudly and waited, but the phone was silent.
No matter, she thought, her eyes stinging.
But the days went by and Istvan still didn’t call. So then, when Carl did, relief transformed her terror into a tremulous elation.
Carl took Marta to dinner in a pretty French restaurant. The china was thin, milkily luminous in the candlelight, gold-rimmed. On their table were a few flowers so exquisite they seemed about to perish with a little cry. And all around them from the other tables was a soothing rustle, like that of foliage, or money.
Outside, too, was the London Marta had come to, but had never before entered. The great, green floating parks, the panther-like cars, the lofty ivory-colored crescents and terraces, the darkly shining shop windows, behind which salesgirls who looked like whippets showed one jewel-like dress, then another, to customers with excellent handbags, excellent shoes.
Marta had begun to think that London might close her inescapably into the brittle emigré life she dreaded, some contemporary version of the lives of relatives she’d heard about in Paris and New York, great aunts and distant elderly cousins whose apartments were like satellites crammed with dried old bits of uprooted finery. They drank streams of tarry coffee in tiny cups, they ate those few local pastries to which they could resign themselves, as they waited to be orbited back to pre-war Budapest.
But, no—Deliverance was everywhere. Marta closed her eyes in thanks, then directed at Carl a smile of gratitude so forceful it almost knocked over a passing waiter.
The smile Carl returned was somewhat puzzled. Indeed, he seemed not to be saying anything much of interest. His firm, he was telling Marta, manufactured machine tools. It was based in Stuttgart, but exported goods all over Europe, the United States, and Canada. He would prefer to be on the theoretical rather than the applied end of things, but—he shrugged—this was not bad for now. He enjoyed the irregular schedule, the travel, the flexibility… . He picked up the saltcellar and examined it, frowning.
“And how is it that you’re working for a German company?” Marta asked.
“Why not?” He glanced at her. “After all, I am German… . Of course it’s rather … That is, technically I did grow up there—” He hesitated, “as I think I was saying to you the other evening… . “
The other evening! At the party? At her flat? She’d had so much on her mind! “My father and stepmother … ” Carl coughed. “But I spent all that time here, of course—school, university. Those holidays at Andrew’s … Actually, people do tend to take me for English.”
“How wonderful it must be,” Marta said, throwing a hasty cover over her confusion, “to be as much at home one place as the other.”
Carl laughed sadly. “ ‘As much at home.’ Indeed … “
“But to travel, as well,” she added encouragingly. Perhaps he didn’t appreciate his own good fortune. She herself would love to travel, to be able to travel, to be able just to delve into this new, this real, London. Not to have to worry, always, about money.
“Yes,” Carl was saying. “It’s good, isn’t it, travelling. Sometimes you get a feeling that things could change. Or open up. You thought it was an endless dark tunnel, but then … ” He picked up the saltcellar again.
“But yes,” Marta said. “Oh, I would like so much to see things the way you have seen them. Places that you can see so easily. France, Italy—Perhaps even this summer I will take a little time from my job … “
“Yes?” Carl said quietly.
A couple brushed by on their way to a table, glancing at Marta and Carl with interest, admiration. Marta smiled at Carl, and his eyes, as he smiled back were moist. Oh, how could she have expended so much longing on someone like Istvan, who had such a low opinion of her?
In the morning the London she opened her eyes onto was Carl’s—the blue sky, the serene green and ivory city. But all that week Carl didn’t call. That week and the next and the next. What on earth could have happened? Dinner had seemed so … special. A special, private atmosphere had embraced them. But perhaps, she thought, it embraced Carl and everyone—the person from whom he bought his toothpaste, the parking lot attendant … Still, when he’d put her in a taxi to go home and kissed her caressingly on the cheek, she had the sensation of dissolving beautifully, like some sugary confection.
Perhaps he was working—he could have been called away unexpectedly.
Or perhaps he’d spent that evening with her out of pity. For the hideous foreigner.
The mirror told her one story, then another, while from one day to the next, the lovely facade of Carl’s London wore slowly away. Behind it, the dirty brick industrial city squatted, waiting to claim Marta.
“By the way,” Judit said one evening. “I happened to see Istvan today.”
“Yes?” Marta said, turning away to steady herself.
“He was with that girl from the party,” Judit said. “They were talking together so seriously.”
At work, Marta flirted recklessly with the men who came in to buy necklaces or rings for women. The men were sickeningly receptive. She smiled as she put their jewels into boxes, and amused herself by seeing them stuffed into hateful pink hunting coats, sailing off big nervous horses, and hurtling ungracefully through the air.
At the end of the third week Carl did call. And Marta was astonished to find, at that moment, that she wasn’t angry. On the contrary, she experienced, as she held the phone, a bridal gravity, as though the entire period of Carl’s silence had been a preparation of some kind.
When Carl came to pick her up, he, too, was subdued, almost quizzical. He stood in the doorway, his hands in his pockets, looking at her. New calm began to emanate from her like light; Ah, yes. Clearly something had altered and intensified between them since they’d seen one another.
That evening’s restaurant was sleek and Italian. Marta sipped her wine with contentment, beautiful again, safe again in London. Carl leaned back languidly while she talked—he seemed to take in what she was saying through his eyes, rather than his ears. Freed by his attention she talked easily. Her life seemed to her to be pleasurable, and of interest. “Will you stop back for a drink?” she asked, and blushed.
Judit was in the sitting room when they came in. As Carl took her hand Judit’s sullen expression transmuted into one of canine grief. “Please excuse me,” she said, standing. “I must sleep.”
Carl had gone to the window, where he stood looking out. “Yes,” he said after Judit’s door closed behind her. “Well.” He glanced delicately in the direction of Judit’s room. “Am I staying?” he asked.
He was sculptural, fastidious, ritualistic, consecratory. His silky hair slid through Marta’s fingers. Oh, those blind combustions with Istvan! Marta cried out briefly in regret and then forgot Istvan altogether. In the morning when she woke, Carl’s eyes were already open. He lay on his back with his hands behind his head. “Birds,” he observed and ran his thumb lightly along her collarbone. She listened: Yes, birds! How marvelous.
She lay wrapped in the sheet, watching as Carl dressed. Already he seemed far away. “My sister will be arriving on Thursday,” he said, adjusting his shirt, “It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen her. Would you come meet her? I’d like that so much.”
Carl’s sister. Marta saw her perfectly. A tall girl in a fluid dress, pale blond and lovely. She and Carl strolled together, reunited, through sun-splashed green. A flock of pigeons lofted before them.
Marta shivered—a little familiar chill of exclusion. “How splendid,” she said. “I long to meet your sister.”
A few evenings later Marta found her way to the address Carl had given her on the phone. It was a large, white house that faced a silent square. Not a breath of air disturbed the shrubbery. Behind the door maple and silver glimmered. The walls were covered with something dark and precious. Carl led Marta up a light of stairs and into the recesses of the house, where there was a smallish kitchen. A tall girl with long, lion-colored hair turned to Marta, resting a red nail against her mouth.
Marta stepped forward as though magnetized, her legs trembling slightly. She felt terribly unhappy. “You’re very pretty,” she was dismayed to hear herself saying reproachfully.
The girl swept her hair back as though it were a burden. “You are, too,” she said in a swooping English drawl. Her eyes narrowed and gleamed as she smiled. “Very pretty … ”
“Marta,” Carl said, “Jane. And this is my sister Dee Dee.” Marta swivelled in the direction Carl indicated: a girl of indeterminate age—14 or 15 possibly, Marta guessed—sat at the table, scowling through a fringe of preposterously black hair. Marta started to speak, and stopped. No one could say this girl was pretty.
“The poor child’s been sleeping,” Jane said. “She just got in this morning, and she’s disorientated.”
“I’m tired,” Dee Dee corrected inattentively. “Sort of. Not every minute.” The flat American assertions were like a series of little shoves. “Where are you from?” she said to Marta, “You have an accent.”
“An accent,” Marta said faintly. How could this girl be Carl’s sister? “Really.”
“Oh, yeah,” Dee Dee said. “I get it. Well, I’m from Long Island.”
“’Long Island.’” Marta inclined her head. Whatever that might be.
“Would you like some tea?” Carl asked.
“No,” Dee Dee said. “Yes. But I want some food.”
“Thank you,” Marta said. Where was she? She sat down across from Dee Dee and rubbed her forehead.
Jane reached into the refrigerator and held out at arms’ length a white cardboard carton. “Disgusting,” she said, and tossed it into the garbage. “Poor pet. Oh, why is there never anything to eat around here?”
“I’m starving,” Dee Dee said. She sighed noisily and put her head down on the table in an apparent access of self-consciousness.
“Andrew will be here soon,” Carl said. He spoke gently. “And then we’ll go.”
“Someplace fun, I hope,” Jane said. “I’m going up to change.”
“Jane—” Dee Dee said.
“Yes, sweet,” Jane said vaguely. “I’ll be down soon.”
Out the window a rain began to fall, as fine as dust. In the silence, Dee Dee slurped her tea.
“Hello,” a man said from the doorway of the kitchen. He directed an odd little smile at Carl. “Hello, love,” he said to Dee Dee. His handsomeness was like a thrown gauntlet. “You’ve had some sleep, I trust.”
“Uh huh,” Dee Dee said. She smiled, then frowned. Her glance swept the sink, the man’s face, the ceiling. She opened her mouth and pretended to yawn.
“Andrew,” Carl said. “I’d like you to meet Marta.“
“Ah, yes.” Andrew turned to Marta as though he hadn’t seen her before. “So very pleased to meet you.” Irony, conspicuously absent from his greeting to Dee Dee, leaked now into his smile.
“Hello,” Marta said. They looked at one another for a minute before Andrew turned away. “Good,” he said. “Well, is everybody ready? Where’s Jane? Jane the drain?”
The restaurant was a solid block of noise, around which chrome and glass flashed harshly. At the bar, women pulsating with jewelry and men in suits as voluptuous and dark as stormclouds snagged one another on heated, gloating, scornful glances. Several turned to look, Marta noted by means of the mirror, as she passed by. No, to look, more likely, at Jane—Jane in her bare green reptilian dress. Marta smoothed down her little skirt and sniffed.
At the table Andrew handed Dee Dee the wine list. “Preferences?” he asked.
Dee Dee looked at him dubiously.
“I forgot,” he said. “Americans only drink champagne. Champagne it is, then.”
How long was it exactly, Marta wondered as she sipped at her champagne, since Carl had seen this sister of his? She looked at the two of them. There was no resemblance. Well, actually, though, there was the faintest resemblance—subterranean, impossible to pinpoint. And at the moment in fact, Carl looked just Dee Dee’s age. No, younger than Dee Dee. Lost. His elegance had reduced into the elegance of a privileged and neglected child. “Are you here on holiday?” Marta leaned over to shout at Dee Dee.
“Holiday?” Dee Dee shouted back. “Oh, vacation. Well, that’s one way to look at it, I suppose. I mean I don’t have to be back at School until September, but basically Mother’s just dumped me on Carl.” Carl raised a languid hand in demurral, but Dee Dee was in full swing. “She wants to romp around with her new boyfriend in private. Actually, she just got furious because I pointed out a few facts. Like the fact that she’s old enough to be Kevin’s—well, I don’t know how old he is exactly, but probably about a quarter of her age. And the fact that she kicked my father out of the house, but I mean who actually paid for it, if you see what I mean. Not that my father’s the most—but on the other hand, she married him, I didn’t. And he does have his good points. Like, for example, he’s not a gigolo.”
Carl was gazing dreamily toward the larval roiling at the bar.
“Strange,” he said. “I always think of her as very young. Of course, I can’t picture her with any precision—to me she’s just a sort of princess with the face smudged out.”
“You don’t—” Marta began, not loudly enough. Talking here was like pitching something over a fence. “You don’t remember your mother?”
“Well, she wasn’t my mother for very long,” Carl said absently.
“Yeah, but that’s exactly what she looks like anyhow,” Dee Dee said. “A princess with the face smudged out. ‘Nightmare on Elm Street Part 70.’ When she and her friends are sitting around there are so many face lifts that if someone tells a joke there’s this tearing sound. Her hair still looks exactly like yours, Carl. Isn’t that amazing, har har? And you should see the house. Thank God I’ve only got one more year before college. Brass everywhere. Little marble stuff. Chandeliers. It looks like a whorehouse.”
The waiter loomed over them threateningly. “Partridge for me,” Jane said.
“Yes, yes,” Marta said hurriedly. “For me, too.” If Jane were just to reach out and swat her, Marta thought as Carl and Andrew conferred over Dee Dee’s order, she would be sent sprawling.
A silence rocked unsteadily in the wake of the departing waiter. Everyone frowned, except Dee Dee, who smiled. Smirked, Marta thought. And why not? She had succeeded in stupefying all of them.
Americans seemed to feel the need to talk, Marta had observed before. And yet, theirs was a country into which the concept of conversation seemed never to have penetrated. Dee Dee! So charmless, so graceless, yet she evidently considered it perfectly appropriate to crawl out to the center of the stage and wave her rattle, as though she were of special interest simply by virtue of her parents’ shortcomings; astounding to think that she actually must be near 17! She spoke of the ordinary confusion of her private life with respect, even awe, as though she were describing the play of monumental cosmic forces. But obviously life was grotesque—there was no personal credit to be extracted from that, Marta thought: if life progressed in a natural fashion, she herself would be alone somewhere now with Carl.
The waiter refilled Dee Dee’s glass for the third—Marta counted—time. Madman. Soon he would be hauled off in chains, to prison, where he belonged.
Jane was delicately picking her partridge to pieces with her fingers, working away at the little bones with her teeth. On Marta’s own plate a carcass lay horrifyingly mauled. Besides, so what if Dee Dee’s mother had had a little tuck here or there—obviously she could afford it! Did Dee Dee consider herself entitled to some shrunken old saint in a babushka? Surely no one was supposed to believe Dee Dee’s hair had come into the world black like a telephone.
The swelling foreignness of the evening, the noise—Marta was shrinking into a darkness from which she could only peer out at the giant shining creatures who sat so distantly around the table. The huge see-saw sounds they made could not be folded into her tiny ears. She saw Andrew lean over to Jane and say something. She saw Dee Dee watch with adoring round-eyed humility as Andrew and Jane looked at each other and laughed. Far away next to her Carl nodded pleasantly. Why didn’t he help her?
“Carl, Carl!” Dee Dee caned, and Marta could hear again. Dee Dee was pointing at a plate passing overhead, on which a squat glossy hummock lolled under a quivering sauce. “Can I have that for dessert?”
“Of course,” Carl said. “Whatever you like.” He and Jane and Andrew gazed at Dee Dee with a tender, elegiac indulgence, as though she were an event that had taken place on earth many years earlier, before some great catastrophe. “You know what?” Dee said happily.
Recalled, the others looked at her with a false brightness.
Evidently she had nothing to say.
“You know what?” she began again, and achieved traction. “Carl, do you know how Mother met Kevin? He works at an auction house, and she went to cruise an escritoire, but she came home with him.”
Jane tipped a little bird bone in tribute. “Good for her.”
“Yeah,” Dee Dee said. “That’s true, but—” She stopped, and turned the dark color that precedes tears. “But what if he doesn’t … I mean, what if he only … ”
“How well I know the type,” Andrew said as Dee Dee fell into a despondent silence. “Jane, isn’t that your friend Blaisdell over there?”
“Where?” Jane said. “My God.”
In the far reaches of the room, a party of red-faced young men—rich simpletons, Marta calculated, barely out of public school—looked up as a woman announced herself with the aid of a toy trumpet. One of the men was wearing a paper hat. They all pounded on the table as the woman, singing Happy Birthday, proceeded to take off her drum majorette’s outfit.
It was all just barely audible. Carl appeared to be paying no attention, though Dee Dee watched with interest, and Jane was regarding the spectacle with sparkling, narrowed eyes. “Excuse me,” she said.
Jane reached the table just as the woman with the toy trumpet refastened a final button and hurried off. Jane sat down and draped an arm around the man in the paper hat. He, and the others too, stared at her with the joyful, wondering incomprehension of men who are about to pass out.
Andrew leaned across Dee Dee to Carl. “See the one in the hat? Guess who took Jane to Paris a couple of weeks ago when you and I were in the South of France.”
“Really,” Carl said.
“You were just in the South of France,” Marta observed.
For an instant the room was a tableau. Every face, every object frozen, haloed with a warning brightness.
“Just for old times’ sake, really,” Andrew said. “We only stayed a few days because Carl became incredibly shirty over something.”
Carl pushed his plate away. “Not at all,” he said.
“No?” Andrew said. “Well, good. I can’t think why you would have done.” He turned to Marta. “Has Carl told you about Cubby and Kaye?”
Marta looked at Andrew. The South of France. During the whole time Carl hadn’t called, when she might reasonably have assumed he was working, he had been in the South of France.
“Well, but after all,” Andrew said, “there’s nothing to tell. Evidently they were friends of my father’s—from Kenya, possibly, but no one really remembers. It’s all lost in the mists of time and brain damage. They’re English classics, Kaye and Cubby. Titled, demented—generations of primordial aristocratic inbreeding.”
Dee Dee listed suddenly against Andrew’s arm. He brushed her hair away from her forehead. “We used to go to their place from time to time on holiday. Carl and I. Especially if my mother was off someplace. The idea was we’d be getting looked after.” He looked at Carl. “Which was indeed the case—we long ago came to the conclusion that the servants were wardens in disguise.”
Carl raised his eyes to Andrew, then looked down with a faint, self-mocking smile.
“Dee Dee—” Marta said. Dee Dee’s head was sliding along Andrew’s arm. “Dee Dee, do you want to go?”
“No,” Dee Dee said.
Andrew resettled her against his shoulder. “But Carl hadn’t been for years and years,” he said. “And Cubby was forever saying, ’Wasn’t there some other little chap?’ or ’Where’s dear, dear Carl?’ or however it all happened to come up in his mind that particular moment. So he and Kaye were simply over the moon when I told them Carl had gotten in touch with me and was going to be staying at my place for the summer.”
“Did I get in touch with you?” Carl said mildly.
“Oh,” Andrew said. “That’s right. You ran into me. By chance. And then you got in touch with me.”
Into the sudden hollow of silence at the table, Dee Dee inserted a little hiccup.
“I think, ” Marta addressed Carl, “that it’s time to take your sister home.”
“Jane?” Dee Dee sat up. “Where’s Jane?”
“It’s all right, Ducks, ” Andrew said. “Jane’s found a friend.”
Outside it was still drizzling. “Will you come with us?” Carl said to Marta as he opened the taxi door for Dee Dee.
“No,” Marta said. “Thank you.”
By the time she reached her flat she had to fight the clamor pressing in on her just to get the key into the lock. Carl had looked at her as he said goodnight with a trace of surprise. Oh, that innocent face! In fact, he was so slippery that he had made her not be able to understand why she was angry herself. Which was worse behavior in its way than Istvan’s.
Judit sat at the kitchen table eating, directly from its deli wrapping, a cheese and pickle sandwich on limp English bread. “Up so late?” Marta spoke insouciantly in English.
Judit sighed. “I was just getting some work done. Have a nice evening?”
“Lovely,” Marta said. “Carl took me to the most marvelous place. Do you ever wonder why London is such a quiet city? It is because everyone who lives here is inside this restaurant. On the street, it is all chauffeurs waiting.”
“How pleasant,” Judit said.
“Very,” Marta said. “We had a great deal of champagne because Carl’s baby sister has come to stay with him. And Carl’s friend Andrew brought with him the most beautiful girl, Jane.”
“So,” Judit said. “Your life is glamour and more glamour.” She wadded up the deli wrappings; they landed in the garbage with a deadly little plop.
In the morning when Marta awoke, anger lay next to her like a cover that had slipped off during the night. She felt around for it and readjusted it over herself.
What a hateful evening. How remote Carl had been, how abstracted. But how handsome! Oh, the world of difference between the banquet he seemed to offer and the crumbs that fell her way. Why, with all their talk of traveling that evening in the French restaurant had Carl not even mentioned that he was going to the South of France? What a shrew he made her feel.
Poor Dee Dee. That poor little pit pony! Alone, a foreigner—all she had was Carl! Marta imagined herself—in a little suit, perhaps—showing Dee Dee around London; really, Dee Dee was rather cute, if you managed to think about her in the right way. Marta eyed the phone. There were swans in a park somewhere, Marta understood—she could show them to Dee Dee. Take her shopping. Explain to her peculiar English customs, like tea … How well, she wondered, did Dee Dee actually know Carl?
Dee Dee was late, of course, and the restaurant Marta had designated—one whose name had echoed, potently English, all the way to Marta in Budapest—was crowded with Saturday shoppers. Their faces looked ashen and fatigued against the pretty colors of the walls and carpets, and the uniformed hostess eyed Marta with suspicion. Marta cleared her throat. “Yes, I’m waiting for my—” Her what?
“Excuse me?” the hostess said. “Of course. Well, there aren’t any tables at the moment anyhow. You can see for yourself. More and more crowded all the time now. Where do they all come from? Days when you hardly hear a word of English spoken.” She lifted one foot then the other, as though she were accustomed to perpetual pain. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed the change. Perhaps you don’t remember. It’s only in the last few years that London has become so—” she cocked her head conspiratorily to indicate the roomful of tea-drinkers “—_cosmopolitan_.”
“Hi,” Dee Dee said from near Marta’s shoulder. In her yellow slicker she looked like a huge bathtub toy.
“You’ll have to keep your coats,” the hostess observed morosely. “The cloakroom’s closed for renovations.”
“That’s okay,” Dee Dee said. She rubbed at her nose with her wrist.
“Well, management doesn’t care for it,” the hostess said. “It lowers the tone.”
Marta burned with self-consciousness as she poured out the tea. It was all so primitive and complicated. At the tables all around them women in tweeds or chadors and men in pin stripes dealt with the fussy pots and tongs and strainers with the ease of tycoons handling tickertape. And what about this pot of plain hot water, Marta wondered. Was she supposed to be doing something with it? No matter. Dee Dee appeared not to notice her awkwardness. In fact, for all Dee Dee appeared to be noticing, Marta could have taken her to the filthy corner caff. There was no sign of life from Dee Dee at all. Not even self-pitying monologues, let alone meaningful discourse about Carl. No, Dee Dee was quietly absorbed in stacking up the expensive little cakes that tasted like kleenex filled with toothpaste, and eating them mechanically, one after the other.
Dee Dee’s eyes were fixed on Marta’s plate where a little cake sat inscrutably, bitten. She was trying to think of something to say. It was difficult, though—especially since Marta had been frowning since they’d sat down. Dee Dee felt cold and rubbery. What if Marta hated her? What would happen then?
After her mother had announced to her that she was to be sent to Carl for the summer, Dee Dee had been wracked by rapid alternations between joy and misery, hope and panic. She had seen Carl only once. When she was a child, probably around four. Where had they been? She, Carl, their mother, of course … it was a big house. The floor shone, there were flowers in huge vases, several women—tallbroad-shouldered, with long, whooshing skirts; a fat man with dark hair. Someone said, would the baby like to see the pony? Carl took her hand. She was the baby. Carl led her outside, the house darkened behind them. In a grassy little enclosure a white creature pranced and curveted. Dee Dee stared straight ahead. Was she feeling her own hand holding Carl’s, or was she feeling Carl’s hand holding hers?
Dee Dee carried the memory privately, a picture in a locket. She never asked her mother about it. At the worst times, she allowed herself to take it out and contemplate it. The angelically serious boy stayed older than she was; he was ahead of her, drawing her along as though she were secured by him to some unseverable attachment. As indeed she was.
When Dee Dee descended the stairs the morning of her departure for London, her mother had looked at her narrowly. “You’ve simply got to lose five pounds,” she said. “Ten would better. You can get away with things as a child that you can’t at your age, you know.”
All right. All right. If Carl was ashamed of her, if he didn’t want her around, Dee Dee would take off on her own somehow. She had with her a reasonable amount of money—her mother and her father had been separately, guiltily, open-handed, and at an early age she had cultivated the prudent habit of skimming small amounts from her mother’s unguarded cash against unforseeable eventualities. There were times, during the savage quarrels between her parents, between herself and her mother, when, her face stiff from the strain of shame or tears or fury, she imagined herself liberated—cast out, fugitive, all the trashy screen of words left behind; words and the trashy names of things and accusations and expectations. The rocking of the darkened carriage, the purifying monotony of hooves, of tracks. Looking out at the flowing night, clean, unknown, dignified, new. Dependent on no one, loved by no one …
But when Carl greeted her at Heathrow there was no sign of recoil. He kissed her on both cheeks and picked up her bag. She had recognized him immediately; he was just as he ought to have been.
Early in the evening Dee Dee had awakened in her new room. The walls were covered with something green, like ribbon. Silver-framed photographs were scattered on a polished dressing table. Standing in the doorway was a woman with long blondish hair.
“Hello,” Dee Dee said.
“Hello,” the woman said.
Where was Carl? Where was Andrew? “I’m Carl’s sister,” Dee Dee said.
“Right.” The woman shook out her hair. “Carl said.” She sat down on the foot of Dee Dee’s bed and yawned. “I’m Jane,” she said. “Here for long?”
Jane was wearing a kimono and her feet were bare. “I don’t know, “Dee Dee said.
“Mm,” Jane said. She reached for one of the silver-framed photographs. “I suppose not … ”
Dee Dee crawled out from under the covers and peered over Jane’s shoulder. The photographs were all of people from some other time. They looked not real at all—implausbile, approximate, costumed. “Who are they?” Dee Dee said.
“Andrew’s posh relations, I should think,” Jane said. “This must be his mum—looks enough like him, doesn’t it?”
She handed Dee Dee the photograph. It was true; as Dee Dee saw Andrew’s face within the woman’s, the opaque surface of dated style melted. The woman’s skin warmed, her curls had just sprung back from a breeze. A starry, dangerous blur of excitement hung in front of her eyes like a little veil, and her beauty rose from the black and white paper like steam, so evanescent it suggested imminent fatality—a car, a boat, a wild animal … Dee Dee handed the photograph back to Jane.
“What?” Jane said, glancing at her.
“I don’t know,” Dee Dee said. London. Only a few days earlier she had been talking to her mother, and they had started to quarrel, and her mother had said, “All right, I’ve had it. I’m sending you to Carl.” Dee Dee looked at Jane in amazement. “I was just there,” she said, “and now I’m here. Mother and I were just talking, and now I’m here … “
Jane stood up, “Well,” she said. “That’s the way it works, isn’t it. Anyway—” she smiled kindly from the doorway as Dee Dee pulled on her jeans, “Carl’s pleased.”
Dee Dee stared soberly into the silver-framed mirror and carefully combed her hair.
That’s the way it works. She wandered out to the stairway. Carl’s pleased.
It was pitch dark when Dee Dee next woke up. What had awakened her? There was the familiar unevenness in the air of recent disturbance.
But where was she? She felt around for a light—oh, yes. Andrew’s house. She felt a bit strange. From dinner maybe. She remembered: she’d drunk a lot of wine. It had been very noisy. Jane had been there, and Carl, and Carl’s friend Marta, and Andrew. How nervous she’d been! She’d talked a lot. But what had she said? And how had she gotten upstairs?
She listened carefully into the lush undergrowth of silence. At first she could make no sense of it, but then she heard something from downstairs. She got up, as she had so often at home, and crept out to the landing. All the closed doors around her! More frightening than the faint light from below.
Dee Dee edged herself down the stairs, halfway to the next landing. Legs extended on the sofa into her view. Andrew’s—those were his socks. “I’m sorry,” someone said quietly. Carl. He sounded far away. “Really,” he said. “I really am.”
“Must we discuss it?” Andrew said.
Dee Dee strained into the silence.
“What?” Andrew said. “Did you say something?”
Dee Dee could feel Carl sigh. “No,” he said.
“But I said, must we discuss it?” Andrew said.
Carl cleared his throat. “No,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“What?” Andrew said. “You’re what?”
“Don’t,” Carl said. “Please.”
“Don’t what,” Andrew said. “Please what. Oh, God. Why are you here?”
“I don’t know,” Carl said. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Andrew said. “Just tell me why you’re here.”
“I thought it would be—” Carl said. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know,” Andrew said. “Of course you know.”
“I wanted to be—I thought we’d be able—”
“You see,” Andrew said. “Oh, how idiotic. You see, this is what you say now. This is what you always say. But then it’s you, who always—”
“I know,” Carl said. “I’m sorry. But not any more.”
Darkness boiled up around Dee Dee. After a minute Andrew spoke again. “Then why are you here?” he said. His voice twisted like a wilting flower. “Why are you here?”
The next evening Dee Dee was waiting on the sofa when Carl returned.
“Where is everyone?” Carl said.
“Jane never came back,” Dee Dee said. “I guess. And Andrew wanted me to tell you he was going somewhere with Timothy.”
“Ah,” Carl said. “Hm. Well, in that case,” He looked around at the walls as though he were trying to remember something. “Takeaway all right?”
Dee Dee stretched out on the sofa, her empty plate balanced on her stomach. Carl sat in a high, straight-backed armchair; he appeared to be sitting in a bell-jar of light. The boy who had hovered by her, always available in moments of extreme need, who had led her from one year to the next—had that boy become this man? “Carl—” Dee Dee said.
“I was thinking,” he said. “You know, it’s idiotic, your being here in Europe and just lying around the house.”
“It’s only Friday,” Dee Dee said. Where was Carl? “I only just got here yesterday.”
“I ought to take some time off,” Carl said. “Or arrange with my firm to go someplace.”
“Go someplace?” Dee Dee sat up. “I mean—”
“Someplace else,” Carl said. “After all, why should you stay in London? It’s so—Well, and also it’s … “
Dee Dee ran her hand over the velvety covering of the sofa. It was only last night that Andrew had lain in this very spot.
“And you know,” Carl said. “It occurs to me. What did you think of Marta?”
Carefully, Dee Dee felt her way toward the answer. “I liked Marta,” she said. She looked at Carl gravely. “I felt very comfortable with her.”
“Because I was thinking,” Carl said. “Maybe Marta should come with us.”
The restaurant was emptying out. There were only a few remaining parties of ladies, and, at the next table, a hunted-looking man whose pin-striped shoulders carried a dusting of white. Malta’s little frown intensified, and Dee Dee’s heart began to beat rapidly; what had she done now? Oh, no—and what had happened to that bitten little cake on Malta’s plate? She had some impression that she herself had …
“So you say Carl is planning some sort of trip.” Marta said, “I mean … ”
“Well, ” Dee Dee said. Had Carl expected her to ask Marta? “I mean … ”
“He really ought to let us know, don’t you think?” Marta said crossly. “That brother of yours really ought to let us know when he is sending us on trips.”
“Didn’t he call you today?” Dee Dee said timidly. Im sure he tried to call you today.”
Marta looked at her blankly for a moment, before a look of distant concentration came over her, as though she were identifying some faint piece of music.
“Marta?” Dee Dee said.
“Shh,” Marta said. She leaned towards Dee Dee, lowering her eyes. “Do you think that man is attractive?”
“What man?” Dee Dee said. The only man she could see was the one at the next table.
“Don’t look, ” Marta said. “He is very aware of us.” Marta gazed in unearthly majesty at her teacup, and a hush consumed the room as a marmorial glow lit her face, her arms, her throat. But then she burst out laughing, causing a renewed murmur of conversations and teacups. “Oh, what a ridiculous country this is!” she said. “’The cloakroom is closed for renovations—’” She imitated the hostess’s pruney expression. “The cloakroom! Closed for renovations!” She burst out laughing again and smiled over at Dee Dee with a merriment that seemed entirely unwarranted.
“I had a nice time today,” Dee Dee said that night to Carl. They were in a room on the second floor that held a great number of books. “With Marta.”
“Good,” Carl said. He peered at a horse print on the wall in front of him.
“Have you had a chance to—I mean, I’m glad you’re going to ask her to come on our trip, ” Dee Dee said.
“You know,” Carl said, “I spent a lot of time in this room when I was your age.”
“Excuse me—” A boy a few years younger than Carl leaned around the door. “I can’t find a corkscrew.”
“There’s one in the drawer to the right of the sink,” Carl said.
“Oh,” the boy said. “Well, I couldn’t find it.”
Carl shrugged. “Sorry.”
“The thing is,” the boy said, “I can’t find Andrew, either.”
Carl sighed and pushed back his hair. “Andrew went out,” he said.
“Oh,” the boy said. “Well, when you see him, tell him Christopher and Angelica and I waited.”
“Thanks,” the boy said. He looked at Carl uncertainly and then withdrew. Carl put his head in his hands.
That miraculous hair of his … so like their mother’s. “Carl?” Dee Dee said after a moment. “Could we take a train?”
“A train?” Carl lifted his head. “If you like.” He sighed. “Well, I suppose I’d better call Marta, hadn’t I, before it’s too late.”
“Carl?” Dee Dee said. “It isn’t too late … “
“Yes,” Carl said. “I mean, it’s already after ten.”
From high under the grimy glass, two pigeons swooped over Dee Dee as she hurried along. On their way—who could guess—from where to where?
The line where Carl and Marta stood arguing tensed and rippled as Dee Dee approached, like the tail of a nervous animal; the train would be boarding any minute.
“What is the matter?” Dee Dee heard Carl say. “Why are you angry?”
“Why ask me?” Marta said. “When you know very well.”
“Know what?” Carl said. “I don’t know. What have I done?”
“Done,” Marta said. “You haven’t ‘done’ anything.”
“It’s what you think.”
“I see,” Carl said. “And now you know what I’m thinking.”
“I happen to,” Marta said.
“Very good,” Carl said. “But you might be wrong.”
“I happen to know,” Marta said. “And I happen also to be right.”
“Yes?” Carl said. “Good. So what is it that I’m thinking?”
“You know what you’re thinking,” Marta said. “Why should I tell you? You’re thinking that you don’t want to go.”
“I’m thinking that I don’t want to go!” Carl said. “On this trip? Of course I want to go. This trip was my idea—why wouldn’t I want to go?”
“I don’t know—” Marta said. “I don’t know why not. You tell me why not.”
For a moment the line paused in its progress, then continued around Carl and Marta into the open doors of the train. “Marta,” Carl said, “We have to get on the train now. Where’s Dee Dee? Oh, there you are.”
“You get on the train,” Marta said. “You get on the train since that’s what you want. But what am I going to do?” her eyes shone, furious and teary, and a freezing little laugh hung in the air. “Now I’ve taken time off from my job. I have no money. You don’t care whether I live or die—”
“Oh, please,” Carl said. “Marta—Marta, please. We have to go now.”
“We?” Marta said. “Yes? Why should I go somewhere with you when you don’t know the difference between me and a … suitcase. I will stay here, where at least there are certain people who do want to see me.”
Carl looked at her. His face closed over. “Oh, what is the point?” he said. “Why should I say anything? No one ever believes me. I’m sorry, Dee Dee—” He put his hand on Dee Dee’s shoulder “—we’ll have to work this out before we—”
But Dee Dee slipped out from under his hand. Hugging her bag of magazines and candy bars against her chest, she mounted the steps of the train.
Carl and Marta’s shocked faces glowed as she fled along a corridor. The train breathed and shuddered. From the other side of its metal membrane DeeDee could feel all the last sad leavetakings, torn away, fluttering idly upwards in the station like slips of burning paper, floating as the dead words curled into the faint edge of flame, darkening into ash …
She opened the heavy door onto one of the compartments. She felt in her pocket for her ticket, and took a seat. She was alone. Would Carl and Marta be looking for her, pacing up and down beside the train? Or would they still be arguing, each trying to get the other to say what they needed to hear? But perhaps, in fact, Carl had already capitulated, and Marta, victorious, was already abandoned. In which case Carl—well, Carl could go on his way back to Andrew’s house.
The door of Dee Dee’s compartment opened; the train slid into motion. A stooped, elderly man appeared. He stood briefly, balancing, then took a seat across from her. In the gauzy dimness he looked to her impersonal, unformed—like a mound of clay on a sculptor’s table. Yes, she thought; that’s how she would look to him.
The carriage swayed and the train plunged roaring into a tunnel. How was she going to take care of herself? Dee Dee wondered. Still, how did anyone? From far away Carl had accompanied her. In darkness Dee Dee gazed out the dark window—faint lights flickered in the silver frame. Any moment, she knew, day would pour in, erasing the lights, molding onto her face and the face of her travelling companion the masks of themselves. They’d look at each other and see: His life is a story of weakness and lies; she is a girl who will not engage our sympathy or hopes. But just for the moment, weren’t they free? What rare, dear beings were hidden here now, by these shadows?
Deborah Eisenberg is a writer living in New York. Her book, Transactions in A Foreign Currency (1987) is published by Viking Penguin. This story is part of collection called Under the 82nd Airborne which will be published in January 1992 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.